Establishing time using light

The days are getting longer now as winter is slowly edging away.  But when I head out to work at 7:00, it’s often still dark out.  I can’t wait for the dawn to creep closer.  I’m craving the sunlight.

A horse in the mists of dawn.
Horse on the Move at Dawn in Fog

Photo from iStockPhoto.  Image by David Arment

When I was in the Army, I had to do what was called CQ—charge of quarters.  Once the workday ended, I and a sergeant manned the desk in the commander’s absence.  The duty lasted 24 hours, and it was always hard.  Once night settled in for a stay, my brain wanted to shut off.

Readers need a sense of light to establish time in the story.  Obviously, it has to be in the story right up front, since time is a big part of the setting.

Ways to Establish Light

Sunrises/Sunsets: This is an instant time marker for the time of day.  But the colors themselves can be powerful tools to show emotions and settings.  Blood red sunset (locations known for vivid sunsets; time of year); pink sunrise (romance).

Shadows: This fits in with the time of the year.  I remember walking on Virginia Beach in May in the early morning and watching the waves spill over my long shadows.

Night: Moonlight or stars are a great way to establish night.  When I was riding back to Denver during Superstars, we had the full to our right and it was mesmerizing.  We watched it all the way up to the airport.

Interior Lighting: Don’t forget that a room has light, too. A fluorescent light buzzing too brightly to an oil lamp smoking in a corner.  This one is a lot harder to do in every scene because it’s not as vivid as seeing it outdoors.

What are some other ways of establishing light?

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More Reading

Cover for Monsters, Movies, and Mayhem

The cover is out for the Monsters, Movies, and Mayhem anthology I’m in!

Cover for Monsters, Movies & Mayhem, showing a film strip.  Writers include Jonathan Maberry, Fran Wilde, and David Gerrold

When I saw this, I was like, “Holy Cow! I’m in anthology with David Gerrold and Jonathan Maberry!”

This book will be out in July, 2020.

Time Markers in Fiction

Have you ever run into a book where the time became wonky?  Like the writer forgot that time was actually kind of important to the story?

Melting clock over a stack of hard-backed books.
Time Concept. Distorted soft melting clock on the old books. With dark toned foggy background. Selective focus

Photo from iStock Photo.  Image by Zeferli

My own experience was reading an urban fantasy.  I was reading through and then it suddenly hit me that the characters had a 72 hour day!  The writer had lost track of the timeline entirely.

It’s easy to do.  At a convention I attended, an editor talked about continuity for middle-grade books.  He reported that it was very common for characters to get up each day and go to school.  No weekends for the kids!

Establishing Time Markers

Time markers are elements that identify the time frame the scene happens in.  It can include:

  • Seasons: Since it’s winter in Virginia, mentioning that it’s February and maybe a late winter snowfall.  Or the first buds of spring popping on the trees (which I’ll probably see in March).
  • Time of Day:  This can be done in a variety of ways.  Your character’s stomach growls and he realizes he missed lunch.  Or describing the light in some way: The rays from the rising sun painted the horizon pink.  You could even hit the basic version: That night; at nine a.m.; it was nearly dinner by the time…

The markers should happen at the beginning of a scene, like an establishing shot in a movie.  It’d be kind of bad to have the reader think the scene is in the morning and then halfway through, one of the characters starts talking about the stars in the sky.  Just takes them right out of the story, and annoys them besides.

How do you establish time in your scenes?

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More Reading

New Book: Golden Lies

Woman in red 1940s dress stands by window.

Hollywood, 1947: A film star missing…a movie studio executive in trouble…

Private Investigator Al Travers feels the pressure.  Trapped between a politician and a movie executive, he must find the film star and the deadly secret she hides.

But time is running out and his search for the truth may cost him his life.

An exciting and twisted tale of Hollywood and the lies of Tinsel Town.

Available from your favorite bookseller.

Diversity of Opinion

One of the things I find frustrating about the writing world is that certain writing gurus are revered.  You can’t ask questions, or for that matter be different.

Panel of writers from the opening session.
So many writers I couldn’t get them all in one shot.

I’ve always craved learning more about writing.  I grew up reading books on writing and didn’t realize there was much more beyond what they said.  But as I grew as a writer, I realized the books said the same thing.  They were also decidedly lacking because they all said the same thing.

In fact, because of how I grew up, the more someone says, “This is the way to do it,” my reaction is, “What’s the other side?”  It makes me want to explore other areas rather than the bucket the people are trying to drive me to.

This last week, I went to the Superstars Writing Seminar 2020, an annual writing conference focused primarily on the business side of writing.  It’s a lot of writers with different experiences coming together to give everyone what they’ve learned. 

Not all it is the same.  Some of it disagrees with what the others are saying.

I like that.  I can take what works for me, but I can also hear the different opinions without people lecturing me that I’m not following the “program.”

These are some of the panels and workshops I went to:

  • Writing Fight and Action Scenes (from Craft Fest) – from Jonathan Maberry in case you want to study his action scenes.  Action scenes are not just about documenting the action.  There’s a lot more than plays into it, even long after the action scene has ended.
  • Protagonist and Antagonist (from Craft Fest) – From Jim Butcher.  I was writing things to do in the project I’m working on now. Quote from the workshop:  “There are no mistakes when you write—just happy accidents.”
  • Lots of Eggs in Lots of Baskets – from Dan Wells.  This was on income streams, but covered more writing-related streams like plays, creating settings for games, foreign rights.  Takeaway:  Even if it doesn’t pay much, it’s still money I didn’t have before.

Finally, one of the things I walked away with was that I’m going to try writing Middle-Grade books.  So it should be interesting!

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Anatomy of a Book Cover: Golden Lies

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I recently finished my mystery, Golden Lies (Al Travelers’ Mystery Book #1).  The book presented special challenges for building a cover:

  • It’s set in the 1940s
  • It’s not noir

I wanted to make sure that the cover itself conveyed the historical aspect of the story.  That way, readers who wanted historical would be able to tell that from the cover.

The typical image is a man in a fedora.  That type of hat is a tag for the 1940s. Historical trivia: By the late 1940s, younger men were starting to ask why they should cover up their hair.  Some started to go hatless.

So I ended up making this cover several months ago:

Cover for Golden Lies...Man racing up stairs in shadows.
Golden LIes Cover 1

At the time, I was fussing because it was hard finding contrasting colors in the image to sample.  The blue came from a spot on the wall by his leg.  I accidentally rotated the image, liked the effect, and that’s what’s in the cover.

When I was doing my final cycling pass on the story, I revisited the color…and went “Ack!”

It had looked fine when I created it.  Now it looked really wrong for the book.

So I went hunting for images again.  I searched “1940s” only again.  Most of the images were:

  • Black and white
  • Gangsters
  • Noir

But I found one of a woman that satisfied what I was looking for.  The yellow text is from the wall, and the red text is from the dress.  I had to play around with the eyedropper tool to get different variations of the same shade. 

Golden Lies Cover: Woman in red standing next to window.
Golden Lies Cover 2

The cover is made using Adobe Photoshop elements (a pared-down version of PhotoShop) that works nicely for creating eBook covers.

Meanwhile, I expect to change the cover and the title for Giant Robots.

Intrusion of the Real World

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I finished my mystery last Saturday.  It’s a mystery set in Hollywood in the 1940s.  It was surprisingly hard for me to do because I had to think about what I wanted to show in terms of the crime itself. 

I’ve been reading mysteries since I was a kid, starting with Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and Kim Aldrich.  A favorite writer I always went back for also was Phyllis A. Whitney.  She wrote gothic mysteries. 

In those stories, there were a few moderately scary scenes where the culprit tried to stop the heroine.  Pushed down the stairs, chased into the sea, knocked out by the villain.  Just enough to say that this character was taking more risks than the rest of us.

I also read action-adventure thrillers. 

Not crime thrillers.

Crime thrillers tend to be a lot more violent. 

I also can’t always trust the writer not to go overboard.  Those are the books where the criminal (not the culprit) kills the pet to be evil.  Or he kills a character I’ve gotten attached to, on the page, the violent act described in detail.  Or the violence gets worse as the book progresses.

(Writing Nerd still remembers a book that did a particularly violent and lethal act to a character I liked.  Done with that book.  Done with that writer.)

The difference?  It lets the real world intrude in a place where I’m trying to escape from it.  It’s not hard for me to read a newspaper and find a violent crime.  Or surf Facebook and find someone posting a story with a horrific image.

Everyone’s so mired in the horror that they can’t escape from it into fiction or film.  Yet, they think they’re being trendy by being “gritty.”

Perhaps it’s like always finding fault with what we read, until all we see is what’s wrong.  A terribly negative way to think.


Carolyn Stein on “A Matter of Taste.”  This sparked a discussion on Star Trek on Facebook, which lead to a discussion on types of violence in stories.