Welcome Guest Blogger Cheryl O’Donovan

09 Jul
Welcome Guest Blogger Cheryl O’Donovan

Please welcome guest blogger Cheryl O’Donovan. Cheryl is is a weekly humor columnist for the Pioneer Press and Chicago Sun-Times and also writes fiction.

Thank you, Clarissa, for your gracious invitation to blog here. I’m happy to be an honorary Gem for a day.

Sights, Sensation, Action!


So you’re sitting at your laptop and reading. Do me a favor. Pull up your WIP in another window. Close your eyes. Let your novel’s setting swallow you whole.  What do you see, hear, sense, taste, feel?

Give me a sense of the climate. Hot and muggy, or shivery cold? Imagine your world’s infrastructure and the characters inhabiting it. Is it sophisticated or crude? Is it a vast intergalactic world of aliens more advanced than humans? Or is it a couple stranded on an island with mud huts covered with foliage?

A sensory-rich setting lifts a novel from the mediocre. If executed masterfully, a setting grabs the reader by the shirt-collar and won’t let go.

Offer startling contrasts in your novel’s world. Take as an example the homespun horror of AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”  Scenes juxtaposition green lush hills of a farmhouse with rotted creatures staggering forward, zombies seeking new flesh to chomp and pillage. In the grisly series, the leads face a litany of moral decisions on a constant, numbing basis.  Watching an episode of “Dead” makes for tense, breath-holding moments. That’s setting pressing down on the characters – and on you as the viewer.

Today, TV dramas are where it’s at, surpassing much of the film industry’s sequels and comic book adaptations.  Three exceptional dramas: “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones” and “Justified” reassure us that good scripts and characterization still matter. What also elevates these shows to greatness are their settings.

”Mad Men” is a visual feast of ‘cool,’ with interiors of horizontal lines and zero clutter. This 1960’s advertising agency is a paintbrush Warhol dips into his Pop Art palette. Men stride around their offices in stark white business shirts set off by Rat Pack ties. Women flaunt pointy heels and defined silhouettes, figure-conforming dresses and suits. While decorum and sleekness is at the surface, emotions boil below, deceit, despair, desire. The characters are a book of glamorous paper-dolls.  They’re all a little remote, a little cold, yet they’re hypnotic. Like their advertising campaigns, the characters seem accessible but they’re really not… and like a catchy ad, the show makes you yearn for more.


My sister describes “Game of Thrones” as “’Lord of the Rings’ meets ‘Rome.’” It provides a backdrop of brutal warfare, hacking, disembowelments and torching innocents. This setting demands steel from its characters. The sea coast is drizzly and clammy, the North a mountainous terrain of icy white hopelessness. It’s a Medieval fantasy with dragons, witches and shape-shifting faces, and sucker-punches of Shakespearean tragedy. In this landscape of castles, overcast skies and ravens delivering dire messages, ruling families fight to occupy the Iron Throne. Patriarch Ned Stark infuses his children with a moral code, values they cling to as they encounter each grim circumstance.

Surprises also come from characters like Tyrion Lannister. Having helped save King’s Landing, his family’s territory and home, Tyrion is cast aside and sequestered in a hovel. Post-battle, his face torn apart, he is reunited with his love, Shae, a prostitute. In an understated, powerful moment, Shae reassures him by repeating something she said earlier, before events turned tragic. “I am yours and you are mine.”  Two underestimated characters bond under desperate circumstances, their emotions deepened by the setting of Tyrion’s bleak new quarters.

Any show with roots in Elmore Leonard’s imagination has a booted leg up on the competition. This show isn’t “Dukes of Hazzard,” more a stylish “Deliverance” with women – with a liberal heaping of “Tombstone” thrown in. Lanky U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens is a sharpshooter with an emotional chip on his shoulder.  Raylan shrugs off setbacks with wry humor. Below the surface, however, he wrestles with a simmering temper. Raylan occupies two worlds in Kentucky, his office space in Lexington and the backwoods of Harlan County, where he was raised. On his various assignments, many involving homemade meth labs, Raylan bumps into his old friend and part-time nemesis, Boyd Crowder, who is a mix of soft-voiced menace and crafty intelligence. What can seem innocuous, a flinty barn, a beat-up trailer, a thatch of overgrown weeds – can be a trap, a hiding place for money, a storage unit for drugs. Crickets hum over junkyards of old washing machines, rust-eaten cars and God help us, decaying bodies. Violence is a sickening eruption of grudges and fumbles. Dialogue is peppered with jaw-dropping wit. Can’t you feel the whisky burn inside Raylan’s throat as he tosses it back clean?

When you write, poke each of your five senses.  Wake ‘em up!  Be inspired by these terrific shows or your own favorites.

Press the setting up against your character’s nose and start writing.

 Visit Cheryl’s Website at



Posted by on July 9, 2012 in Guest Blog, writing, writing craft


Tags: ,

10 responses to “Welcome Guest Blogger Cheryl O’Donovan

  1. Janis McCurry

    July 9, 2012 at 7:16 AM

    Cheryl, your painting of setting is masterful. One of the first TV shows that brought home setting as character to me was the old series Miami Vice. From the opening setting panorama of beaches, bodies, and pastel buildings to Sonny Crockett’s jacket and shoes without socks, it instantly took you to Miami in the 80’s.

    Thanks for guest blogging on Gem State Writers.

  2. Lynn Mapp

    July 9, 2012 at 12:50 PM

    Cheryl, thank you for this powerful reminder. I need to work on this element of my writing. Thank you for that nudge.

  3. cherylod

    July 10, 2012 at 2:30 PM

    Janis: Yes! Sonny wearing shoes without socks, the pushed up sleeves, the pinks and turquoises. It’s great to be here, thanks for the welcome. Lynn, I’m always learning, too, sort of took setting for granted. Thank you for commenting! Cheryl

  4. Clarissa Southwick

    July 11, 2012 at 8:20 AM

    We learn so much about storytelling from our favorite TV shows. Thanks for some great examples and for guest blogging for us, Cheryl!

  5. cherylod

    July 12, 2012 at 3:33 PM

    Clarissa: thanks for inviting me. Enjoyed the visit!

  6. maryvine

    July 14, 2012 at 4:44 PM

    Thanks for your description of the four or is it five senses used in the TV shows. I need to constantly remind myself to be aware of adding these when I write.

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