Stonecoast: The Hobbit

*This post was originally published on Theodora’s website. 

By Theodora Goss

hobbitI want to write a couple more posts about my experience at the Stonecoast residency this winter. As you know if you read my last post, Stonecoast is a low-residency MFA Program in which I teach, which means that I go up to Maine for residencies in the winter and summer, and then mentor students during the spring and fall semesters. This past residency, I led an elective workshop on writing fantasy. Most of the workshop was spent critiquing the stories students had submitted. But we also talked about the particular challenges of writing fantasy. The first day we talked about setting, then characters, then plot, then style. I thought I would talk for a bit here about creating setting in fantasy fiction, because it presents problems that realistic writers don’t have to deal with.

Basically, when you’re writing fantasy, you may be setting your story in a world that doesn’t exist. It can be much easier for a realistic writer, because he or she will have points of reference for the reader. “I walked through Central Park” immediately conveys an image to most readers (who have been in Central Park, or more likely seen it in movies or on television). “I walked through the gardens of the temple of Ashera” tells the reader exactly nothing. It conveys absolutely no visual image, except perhaps a green horizontal thing beside a gray vertical thing. So as a fantasy writer, you often have to work harder.

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From Seed to Sprout

By Aaron Hamburger

In January 2010, I was lucky enough to serve as a faculty member at our Stonecoast in Ireland residency, in the atmospheric fishing village of Howth.

Given our spectacular setting, I decided our workshop should begin by exploring the use of place in fiction.  On our first day, we wrote down “see, smell, taste, hear, touch” in the margins of a notebook, then went for a walk to collect as many details as we could for each category.  There was one caveat: We could not talk.

Upon our return, we pooled the results of our walk: green lichen growing on damp stone, the complaining cries of sea gulls swooping over a ruined church, the sizzle and smell of cod frying in a fish and chips shop.  I then invited the students to take that same slow, thoughtful stroll through the worlds of the stories they’d submitted and see if they could come up with details of similar depth and poetry. Continue reading