Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Melanie Crowder on Setting in A NEARER MOON

When I saw the cover for Melanie Crowder's A NEARER MOON, I jumped at the chance to read and share it with Project Mayhem. In person, the book is even more beautiful than the image appears on your screen - there's a shimmer to the gorgeous illustration, which wraps around the entire cover. Inside, the book is every bit as lush and gorgeous as it is on the outside. I found such a deliciously realized setting (along with a heartfelt story and memorably characters) that I had to bring Melanie Crowder in to answer some questions about crafting setting in MG.

The setting in A NEARER MOON is essentially a character in the book, and an extremely important one at that. The plot and the central conflict are inextricably tied into the setting. At what stage in your development of this book's idea did the setting start forming?

At the very start!

I’m a really visual person, so my stories almost always begin with an image. This time, I could see a thin girl on a shallow boat, poling through still water. All around her was a jungle, and a mist of sorts that told me there was magic in that swamp.

That’s it—that’s all I had! No plot. No character motivation. No idea why she was there, or where she was going. But the setting I knew, and the rest fell into place as I began writing.

Does the setting develop as you create the plot and characters, or do you brainstorm specifically on setting?  Does that development happen in your head, or do you make a map or a Pinterest board or some other visual reference?

What I do is research. I seek out travel photographs and indexes of flora and fauna from the ecosystem I’m inspired by. Even though my setting is made up, I am pulling details from our world. I think that serves to ground the story so that when I add in the culture I created in my mind and the magic I imagined, they feel believable.

The coolest part was researching homes around the world that float or are held up on stilts above the water. Try it—search online for images of houses on stilts. Fascinating, isn’t it? How could I not be inspired?

A NEARER MOON is your first fantasy. How did the process of crafting a setting differ when writing a fantasy, versus a contemporary or historical? 

It’s so fun!

The great thing about fantasy is you’re not only inventing the world that exists during the time in which your story is set, but you’re also creating that world’s history and traditions. The world I created had two civilizations living side by side: humans and sprites. So I got to write the setting from two very different perspectives, and I got to layer in the history of both civilizations, and the imprint each had on the land they inhabited. 

With contemporary or historical, you have to be true to history and reality. With fantasy, you have the freedom to make the choices that are true to your story.

You've written for both MG & YA audiences. Do you think there's anything that distinguishes a great MG setting from a setting for any other age level? What do MG readers respond to in a setting?

The thing I love most about middle grade readers is their willingness to believe that magic is real and possible and right there around the corner if you only look hard enough. You know—the Tinkerbell effect!

My readers believe in the creature at the bottom of the swamp, so when I describe the murky layers of silty water below the boat, they shiver with delight because, of course a terrifying swamp creature lives down there!

Your cover is amazing, with a strong focus on the book's all-important setting. Can you tell us a little bit about the cover process? Does it match what you imagined in your head as you were writing?

Yes! The cover is fantastic! I am so grateful to the team at Atheneum for placing this story inside such a lovely package. The cover shimmers when you hold it in your hands—it’s magical!

My editor came to me with two options for cover artists they were considering. It’s so fun—you get to look through their online portfolio and imagine what, with that artist’s style and techniques and tastes, he or she might imagine for your story. It’s so fun!

That said, the covers for my books are never quite what I would have imagined, and that’s a good thing. What I have in my head when the book exists solely in my own mind is different from what the book is to a reader who comes to the story with an open heart and mind. The cover is a reflection of that fresh impression, that first read. It’s something that I, with all my attachments and connections to the story, could never imagine. Bringing a book into the world truly is a team effort, and I am so grateful for my team!

Finally, any tips for other writers as they craft their own settings for MG audiences?

I’ll leave you all with a challenge:

Think about your setting, and how you can infuse those qualities into the very sentences that you write. If your setting is lush, how can you mirror that in your prose? If your setting is harsh, how can you mirror that in your prose?

My first middle grade book was about a dry, barren landscape, so the prose style was sparse to match it. A NEARER MOON is set in a swamp, and explores the interconnectedness of actions and emotions through time, so I used a lot of repetition in my writing; I picture the repetitive prose style as ripples extending out from a pebble dropped into still water.

It’s all connected—setting, plot, character, prose style. The more you can make the setting a part of the other three, the more your setting will feel intentional and essential to your story.

Good luck!

Thanks so much, Melanie! You can find Melanie at her website or on Twitter.

Here's a bit more about A NEARER MOON, which you can find here and here and here:

Along a lively river, in a village raised on stilts, lives a girl named Luna. All her life she has heard tales of the time before the dam appeared, when sprites danced in the currents and no one got the mysterious wasting illness from a mouthful of river water. These are just stories, though—no sensible person would believe in such things.

Beneath the waves is someone who might disagree. Perdita is a young water sprite, delighting in the wet splash and sparkle, and sad about the day her people will finally finish building their door to another world, in search of a place that humans have not yet discovered.

But when Luna’s little sister falls ill with the river sickness, everyone knows she has only three weeks to live. Luna is determined to find a cure for her beloved sister, no matter what it takes. Even if that means believing in magic…


  1. OMG, this cover is breathtaking. So enchanting and magical! There's some wonderful advice in this post about how to enrich your book through imagery, and Melanie is an expert. All of her books are so evocative in their setting and sense of place. Thanks for the lovely post and congrats on A NEARER MOON!

  2. I read and enjoyed Parched, what a setting that was, the hot dry thirsty inducing setting. But, oh wow what a cover, congratulations on the release of A Nearer Moon

  3. Thanks for the great interview, Joy and Melanie. I especially liked Melanie's revelation linking prose style with setting. I will have to investigate that further in my own writing!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!