Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Importance of Setting & Imagery for Stone Angels

The setting of IN THE ARMS OF STONE ANGELS is a fictitious town in Oklahoma. I picked the name Shawano after I saw that the word in Euchee meant snake or snake pit, which seemed fitting symbolism for this book. There is a Shawano, WI and Shawnee, OK, but this place was made up by me because I wanted the freedom to fictionally portray the undercurrent of bigotry that I needed to tell this story.

I lived in the Oklahoma City area and LOVED it. The people there are very warm and friendly, which is another reason why I had to make up a fantasy small town. If I had written this about a real town in OK, I would never have written this story so dark.

But I did have a specific town in mind when I pictured Shawano and took photos of this place to have in my mind while I wrote the book. I wanted to share some of these images with you and include writing excerpts for those locales.

The real town I had in mind was a charming beautiful & very real place of Guthrie, OK. I LOVE this town. The downtown square is small town Americana at its best and it's even more spectacular at Christmas time when the whole place lights up and people dress up like a Dickens novel.

But there were images not so great either. Rundown businesses, graphiti and sad houses are also there. I took these shots (& more) of Guthrie on a research trip.

On this street is the Pollard theatre that is rumored to be haunted. I really wanted to ghost hunt there one night, but never got the chance. I love this old theatre and watched great Christmas plays there.

These types of houses are in Guthrie, a very quaint place indeed. I imagined Brenna's grandmother living here in a house just like these charmers.

Excerpt from In the Arms of Stone Angels

By the time Mom and I got to Grams’s it was almost too dark to see, but the old Victorian home was easy to spot at the end of the street. It was the biggest house on the block and not quite how I remembered it. In the past few years, Grams had let the place go. The yard and flower beds were overgrown with weeds and the house needed painting. Brick steps that led to the front door needed repair, the wraparound porch railing could use paint, and the bay windows and gabled roof looked scary at night without lights on. The place was real creepy and reminded me of a slasher movie.

Very cool. I could totally shoot a video here.
“If it’s bad, we’ll find a motel until we can do a little cleaning.” She pretended to be cheery. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

“In North Carolina. I forgot to pack it.” I crossed my arms and slumped against the car.

“Stay put. I’ll need your help with the groceries if we stay tonight,” Mom yelled over her shoulder as she headed toward the front door.

I heaved a sigh and stared up at the old Victorian after my mom left me alone on the driveway. I wasn’t afraid of the dark since cemeteries were my thing, but living in small town suburbia scared the crap out of me.

Maybe the stone angel near Heather's grave looked like this, with its chipped nose, almost looking scary.

Excerpt from In the Arms of Stone Angels
I put my ear to the ground and listened to the sounds of the cemetery in the dark. I heard the crickets in the grass and the breeze through the pine trees as I stared up at the stone angel on the next grave. Heather didn’t have her own guardian angel, but she was in good company. She had one close by.

And in the bluish haze of the moonlight, I saw that the angel’s nose was chipped and dark streaks lined her face like tears. But the angel’s eyes looked so real, I could imagine them opening and seeing me. And her spread arms and faint smile made me feel safe as the graveyard stillness closed in.

Until the night air sent me a message that I wasn't alone.

A wave of electricity swept over me, causing the hair on my arms and the back of my neck to stand on end. And static pops swirled around and through me. I knew what it meant and I turned, peering through the dark.

A door had opened to the other side. I’d felt it before.

And a gust of cold blew through my hair and made me squint. Movement near the stone angel grabbed my attention. Fingers crept out from behind the angel’s shoulder—a slow and deliberate move like the silent stealth of a tarantula—and a small hand slid down the stone arm.

Sometimes the dead had a weird sense of what was funny.

Heather Madsen peered out from behind the statue—more timid and frail than I remembered her—and dressed in the clothes she had been buried in. Her mother’s choice. Heather wouldn’t have been caught dead in that dress. So I knew her coming had to be important. In life Heather had never smiled at me, but tonight she did for the first time. And it made her look sad.

The dead never speak. I don’t know why. So I didn’t expect that to change with Heather. For whatever reason the drop-dead gorgeous brunette with fierce green eyes had come, she’d let me know in her own sweet time. Without a word, I waved a hand to say “Hi” and stretched out on the grass over her grave.

I knew I wouldn’t sleep, but I hoped that Heather would rest easier knowing she wasn’t alone…even if she only had me.

And the image below is of Libby, the girl who inspired my character. I found her on ModelMayhem, but when I went back to contact her, to see if my publisher could use her for the cover, she was no longer listed. The way she dressed in this photo inspired everything about Brenna, right down to her spirit to be different. I loved the vulnerability behind those big sunglasses too. Libby, where are you? I miss you.

Excerpt from In the Arms of Stone Angels

I wasn’t your average Abercrombie girl. I didn’t wear advertising brand names on my body.

It was a life choice. A religion.

I got my clothes from Dumpster diving and Goodwill, anything I could stitch together that would make my own statement. Today I wore a torn jean jacket over a sundress with leggings that I’d cut holes into. I had a plaid scarf draped around my neck with a cap pulled down on my head. My “screw you” toes were socked away in unlaced army boots and I hid behind a huge pair of dark aviator sunglasses, a signature accessory and only one in a weird collection I carried with me. I liked the anonymity of me seeing out when no one saw in.

The overall impact was that I looked like an aspiring bag lady. A girl’s got to have goals.

In short, I didn’t give a shit about fitting in with the masses and it showed. I’d given up the idea of fitting in long ago. The herd mentality wasn’t for me and since I made things up as I went, people staring came with the territory.

Below is the REAL Cry Baby Creek Truss. It's rumored to be haunted. I used my research as a backdrop to create a story around this creepy setting, the perfect place for a murder.

Excerpt from In the Arms of Stone Angels

I wish I had remembered the part about not telling secrets when I came across my friend White Bird under the bridge at Cry Baby Creek. A woman’s spirit cries for her dead baby and haunts that old rusted steel and wood plank footbridge. I’d seen her plenty of times, I swear to God. She never talked to me. The dead never do. She only cried and clutched the limp body of her baby to her chest.

Back then I didn’t fully understand how fragile the barrier was between my world and another existence where the dead grieved over their babies forever. I had no idea that a change was coming. Someone would alter how I saw the thin veil between my reality and the vast world beyond it.

That someone was my friend, White Bird.

When I saw him crying in the shadows of that dry creek bed, like the ghost of that woman, the sight of him sent chills over my skin. I should have paid attention to what my body was telling me back then—to stay away and leave him alone—but I didn’t.

I hope you enjoyed the extras and my trip down memory lane. Brenna & White Bird will always be in my mind and hold a special place in my heart. No one forgets writing their first YA.


  1. Thanks for these extras. I love being able to see an image connected to what you wrote. I haven't read In the Arms of Stone Angels yet, but hopefully very soon.

    Have a great sunday :-)

  2. Thanks for stopping by, SP. You have a great Sunday, too.

  3. :D Thanks so much for sharing Jordan! When I was reading ItAoSA I was curious if Shawano was a real place but didn't want to look it up because it felt real.

    I live in a smallish town and have often thought of ways to try and write a paranormal story set here but find that since I wasn't raised here I'd need to do extensive research. I like how you took a real place and let it inspire your fictional one.

    Your model looks so much how I pictured Brenna too! My only real difference was seeing her hair as a bit less monotone and her clothes as being brighter colored, slightly less matchy.

    Thanks again for sharing this stuff I always love seeing what a handful of simple things can inspire. :)

  4. Hey Rhianna--Thanks for your comment and for trying a new author. yay!

    In my adult debut book--NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM--I never thought about setting a book in my old hometown of San Antonio until I went home and saw it through different eyes, in terms of making the setting like a character in that book. I drove and took pics of several locations and that changed my mind...or maybe it was the margaritas as MiTierra's downtown. I did the usual touristy spots that people would expect, but then I took readers to MY old haunts. That's when readers wrote to tell me that they knew I was a native. (I also did a Story Behind the Story for that book and EVIL WITHOUT A FACE to show how settings are important and posted pics and excerpts like I did here. It's a fun way to share writer craft and give the reader insight into your thought process.)

    Every town has a creep factor that can work for your paranormal, but you can make the town fictitious OR add elements of another place to what you already know. What is cool about locations is that regardless where you place your story, filter your scenes through your own experiences to add authenticity and maybe a layer of emotion. Pick things that trigger fear or love or hate that you've experienced or can imagine. That makes the story real too.

    Your book is ANYTHING you want to portray, but what is key to me is the emotion that can trigger something in your reader. You can start with your smallish town and have certain locations in your story, but the emo can come from the places you were raised or have more triggers for you. Does that make sense?

    And as for Brenna & Libby, I started with this model, but I had several images of the clothing I imagined. Kiera Knightly, when she dresses in her own style, was a key figure for me, even though she was too matchy. But you get the idea. Start with a montage that can inspire you, but in the end, your character will take over and "tell you" what's in her closet or purse. LOL

    Jordan Dane

    PS - Google is acting up so I'm anonymous today.

  5. I love these pics. It just captures what I saw so clearly as I read the story. An oh, I love Brenna's style! Very cool. thanks for this awesome post!

  6. Hey Trisha--Great to see you here. I love taking pics locations or having images of the characters to visualize things. Then I can post them in a blog like this. :)

    Hope the writing is going well for you and that you are having a fab Sunday. Take care, dahling.