Beth Anderson is no stranger to the Grog Blog. She offers wonderful picture book biography wisdom. Her new book, "Smelly" Kelly and His Super Senses: How James Kelly's Nose Saved the New York City Subway debuts October 13th from Calkins Creek, & it is fabulous! Today Beth shares about setting in picture book biographies.
Setting is one of the basic elements of story, and when a story is set in a different time or place than our own, it calls for research. Searching out clothing, technology, buildings, transportation, and more, we aim to avoid anachronisms and make our characters’ world come to life. But setting is more than a “costume” or façade to make a story look right. Setting creates conflict, brings meaning, and is a vital part of point of view. So how can you “be there” as a character when you can’t travel to a place or time?
When I researched Elizabeth Jennings for Lizzie Demands a Seat, I pored over maps to get the lay of the land and locate her home, streetcar route, church, and courthouse. Putting myself in 1854 New York City, I imagined her footsteps clicking…wait…was there pavement? Basic questions like this lead us to seek out and examine images. Details on daily life, clothing, and weather help enhance scenes.
But as I got to the heart of Lizzie’s story, I needed information on social aspects of life like class, gender, race, traditions, “unspoken rules,” and attitudes. How did she fit in her time and place? How did setting clash with her character? We can understand segregation on transportation being unjust, but how did it impact black lives? And Lizzie as a teacher—an educated, African American female who likely loved children—isn’t unusual today. But when we embed that fact in setting, we see her as exceptional. And when we look deeper, Lizzie as educator indicates she’s part of the abolitionist movement to secure equal rights and end slavery. Looking at her world through her eyes intensifies the emotions and adds meaning. Learning about the social fabric came from reading widely beyond her immediate surroundings, and about what happened before and after her actions.
“Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses called for setting research with a different focus. James Kelly’s story was more dependent on understanding the physical setting. I studied photographs of New York City from the 1930s to 1950s. I pored over subway maps to find locations of various incidents. And to “be there” as a character with super senses, I had to perceive his world as he did—through his senses. What would he have smelled with his super sniffer? What sounds would’ve bombarded his ears? I found some amazing historical maps— stench, sound, and industry maps! The sound map linked to newsreel clips! Though I didn’t use much of what I discovered, I could immerse myself in his sensory world.
Skyscrapers went up…their foundations went down. The city grew. How did that impact Kelly? Broken lines and mains, more miles of track to inspect [museum records]. Drips and leaks threatened cave-ins and explosions. Kelly could be electrocuted by the third rail. Inherent dangers inspire fear, tension, action.
Different stories and characters require you to dig into different aspects of setting. In An Inconvenient Alphabet, I needed to delve into education, reading, writing, and language of the Revolutionary War period. Primary sources revealed traditions, attitudes, implications, and plenty of odd spellings which provided conflict and helped me take readers into the mix.
It’s important to get the details of setting right and present your character’s world accurately. Even if you’re writing fiction, setting details make your world real and enhance the telling. There are plenty of online tools to gain access to a character’s world: maps of all kinds, Google Earth, You Tube, photographs, images, personal narratives, first-hand accounts, town records, digitized archive materials, varied media of the time, and EXPERTS! But to get past merely “dressing” your story in setting, consider the impact of all you’ve learned about the time and place on your character and the deeper meanings that emerge. Setting isn’t a backdrop and props, it’s sort of a living entity that affects character decisions, actions, and emotions. Some of the most important parts of setting involve aspects you can’t see.
Thank you, Beth! To win a copy of "Smelly" Kelly & His Super Senses, please leave a comment for Beth by October 31. (U.S. addresses only)Beth Anderson, a former English as a Second Language teacher, has always marveled at the power of books. Armed with linguistics and reading degrees, a fascination with language, and penchant for untold tales, she strives for accidental learning in the midst of a great story. Beth lives in Loveland, Colorado where she laughs, wonders, thinks, and questions; and hopes to inspire kids to do the same. Author of AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET (S&S 2018), LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT! (Calkins Creek, 2020), and “SMELLY” KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES (Calkins Creek, Oct. 2020), Beth has more historical gems on the way.
Book Trailer for Smelly Kelly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfUyhYJbJBk
Tina this is a fascinating subject and Beth has such great tips on how to make setting more than a backdrop! Smelly Kelly sounds so interesting. Ty and Beth for this great post.ReplyDelete
Wow talk about bringing a setting and person to life! And what a cover! Congratulations to Beth and Jenn. Also thanks for a fun blog and the fabulous tips!ReplyDelete
I'm so grateful for Jenn's amazing art!Delete
I have such a difficult time with setting sometimes, but reading this article really put it into a new perspective. Thank you for a fun post and for sharing tips of how much character a setting can really have. And the illustrations are gorgeous!ReplyDelete
I've been learning so much about how setting affects a story - it's like putting on different glasses so you see the character and their actions differently because they're occurring in a different environment. Exciting to see how it can all shift.Delete
Fascinating! I tend to overlook setting, but I shouldn't. This sounds like a superfun story and the illustrations are great too! Can't wait to read this!ReplyDelete
Thanks so much!Delete
I'm fascinated with a story based on a man's ability to smell, and that you even discovered this real person's story existed, and then taking on the inherent challenges yo describe here to research so thoroughly! You've got me intrigued. I am ready to read this book.ReplyDelete
The sensory environment was so fun to explore! I hope you enjoy it!Delete
Wow! I never knew how much research was involved in including accurate settings. Fascinating! Very cool that these details make a story much more real. Thanks for sharing this with us, Beth! Congrats! I can't wait to read your books! Thanks, Tina, for posting this one. :)ReplyDelete
Thank you, Angie!Delete
Smelly Kelly has been on my list for a while! I'd love a chance to win! annettemwhipple at gmail dot comReplyDelete
It could happen......Delete
Well said. And I found this so fascinating when I too went back in time for my latest book, Emeline - A Journey. I had to stop myself frequently and ask, "Was that there then? Did they use that word then?" I too used YouTube and online resources and had a great time learning & immersing myself in the year 1890. Thank you for the post. Your books look wonderful and I'm going to check them out. :)ReplyDelete
Thanks so much, Kathy!ReplyDelete
Thank you, Tina and Beth, for this outstanding post about the importance of setting.ReplyDelete
Great advice, Beth! Thanks for giving us a tour (and a kind of checklist) of your research elements!ReplyDelete
I learn more with every manuscript! 😍Delete
Enjoyed the post. Such great books and great advice for writers. I've written a couple of stories that took place in a different time period and I've had to change a few things after investigating and digging deeper and researching the time period more. I love the covers on your books.ReplyDelete
Thank you, Janet!Delete
Thanks so much, Janet! I'm so grateful for phenomenal illustrators that are perfect matches for the stories!ReplyDelete
I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the research that went in to creating the settings of Beth's books. This will be wonderful information to share with my students. I look forward to reading and learning about James Kelly and introducing him to my readers.ReplyDelete
I'd love to talk to your kids about it all! Just drop me a note :)Delete
Thanks so much for this reminder. I know from other work I have done with ancestors and animals we talked about researching where you even live because there is a lot of history in that area and land which you may be on and not have lived there before or born there. It is always interesting to do the research and I love learning the new information that comes up that you don't realize. It is great to make this part of the book.ReplyDelete
Those rabbit holes can lead to all sorts of things!Delete