Once Upon an Autumn Eve: How to Read Like a Writer
Have you ever read a novel with such a vivid setting, you wanted to visit that place or use it to inspire your own stories? Dennis L. McKiernan’s Faery in Once Upon an Autumn Eve is such a place. McKiernan describes a world so alive, his readers find themselves searching for it at dawn and dusk. The setting works because it impacts the plot and is populated with strong characters.
Create a Setting Readers Hate to Leave
The Magic of Faery
The magical world of Once Upon an Autumn Eve is one of the best parts of the novel. The setting is beautiful, terrifying, and awe-inspiring all at once. It directly influences the story, driving the plot and characters. McKiernan describes the world on the first page with the lines:
Separated from the mortal world by looming walls of twilight is a wondrous place called Faery . . . composed of many mystical realms, rather like an enormous and strange jigsaw puzzle, the individual domains are all separated from one another by great tenebrous walls of twilight. Caution must be taken when stepping through these dusky walls in going from one place to another, else one might end up somewhere altogether different than one intended (1-2).
Immediately readers are grounded in the magic and rules of this land and given the opportunity to imagine what it might contain. The twilight barriers are both hard lines defining the realms and permeable. They are somewhat unpredictable too.
McKiernan describes in detail the domains the characters encounter and the twilight borders, but only hints at the other places. He spends his words on the settings that directly impact the story, resisting the urge to go off on a tangent about another part of Faery, yet he still hints at the other domains. By striking this balance, he is able to impress upon his readers the vastness of his world without info dumping unnecessary information.
If you’re writing about a place your readers are unfamiliar with, whether it’s real or fictional, look for this balance. Describe in detail the aspects of your setting your characters and plot interact with and briefly mention there is more to that place. Don’t describe every nuance of your setting. Today’s readers have too short of attention spans for that, and if you write a sequel, you don’t want to box yourself in. Leave some details for later books. That way you have new information to give your reader and can make adjustments as your plot needs.
A Mountain or a Man
One of the first new domains the main character encounters in Once Upon an Autumn Eve is a land cursed with a relentless wind and containing two mountain peaks. In this place, the setting is both an obstacle and a character. The wind is described as:
And the chill wind blew, buffeting Liaze and the horses, agitating them all. . . She came to hate the ceaseless winds (123-124).
The ever present wind is the kind of mental challenge that erodes a person’s resolve. It is unpleasant and inescapable and something that can only be endured, not overcome.
Eventually Liaze reaches the peaks, but the mountain is not what it seems. At the top:
She gasped in surprise, for these weren’t truly great rough slabs of granite, but had the look of giant hands. And then to the right a huge stony eye opened in the massif . . . (131).
In this moment the setting becomes a character and another obstacle for the main character to overcome. It physically moves and consciously interacts with Liaze. This is how you use your setting to advance your plot and deepen your characters. Make your setting present. Let it irritate your characters or trap them. Give your setting personality.
Strong Female Lead
When it comes to strong female characters, McKiernan understands women don’t have to be strong in the same way men are. The main character Liaze is physically strong and fit – she has to be in order to endure her grueling journey across many terrains – but that physical strength is not what carries her through her obstacles. Liaze is determined, smart, and confident in her abilities. Those are the qualities that make her a strong, successful heroine.
Multiple times Liaze faces obstacles that back her into a corner. She has to choose between brute force or a more calculated approach to her challenge. At one point Liaze must retrieve something from a fortress cursed to repeat the last sound it heard: the horrific scream of a victim. Liaze could have plugged her ears and rushed the retrieval, but instead she soothed the fortress, giving it a new sound to repeat and allowing her to take her time quietly searching the building. She was successful because she thought before acting, using her mind in addition to her physical strength. However, like many heroes and heroines, Liaze’s refusal to given up is her true strength. She pushes forward even when she’s presented with impossible riddles, soul eaters, and glass mountains.
When developing your characters’ strengths, especially if they are women, remember the different kinds of strength. There is strength in screaming a challenge at your opponent and there is strength in remaining calm and in control when your opponent is screaming at you. Does your character have bold, stereotypical, in your face strength? Or do they have resilient, unexpected, quiet strength? Or even a mixture of the two?
Why an Editor Recommends Once Upon an Autumn Eve by Dennis L. McKiernan
I didn’t study writing and editing until after college, so I remember what it was like to be only a reader. Once Upon an Autumn Eve is a novel I’ve read multiple times as a reader and again as a writer, so I’ve studied why it infatuates me. I love the characters because they twist the tropes of fairy tale, romance, and hero stories. I love the world because it is unique, magical, and gives me the opportunity to use my imagination. I love the plot because I’m a sucker for fairy tale retellings done well.
If you have a favorite story from before you started writing or one that you still think about from time to time even though it’s been years since your read it, go back to that book. Take a look at the elements that speak to you and ask yourself how you can use those same techniques or concepts in your writing with your own twist. Learn from your favorite authors and take a look at the impactful setting and strong female lead of Dennis L, McKiernan’s Once Upon an Autumn Eve to Ignite Your Ink.
What is one trope or technique you love reading new takes on? Share your passion in the comments below. For more articles on techniques working in published novels and a free Guide to Building Strong Settings, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.