Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Elizabeth Chayne
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The immediate advantage about drawing a house plan for your characters is that it can give you a fairly concrete idea of what sort of house your hero lives in. Of course, it's never going to be the same as actually standing in a real house, but if you don't have a substantial bank account to buy a real-life model, house plans are the next best option. Even if it doesn't get included in the final book, it's kind of fun to create a house on paper. You can plop sinks, bathrooms, not to mention expensive furniture you'll never be able to afford, anywhere you want to.
It can be pretty difficult to draw a house plan after you've finished the manuscript. (Difficult, but not impossible.) Since you've probably thought out all the scenes scene by scene, adding furnishings wherever it suits the atmosphere, you may find that there's a bookshelf at the top of the stairs in page one, and a grandfather clock in that exact same spot on page three. For that reason, it's better to figure out a layout before you begin, or when you're just beginning, the story, so that the furniture and rooms of your house will stay constant.
If the sound of the word "drawing" calls up torturous memories of high school art classes, you might want to go for the simple sketching method. All you need is a pen, a ruler, and some grid paper, if you can get it. (If not, normal paper will do just fine.) Just draw a few rectangles and figure out symbols for doors and windows, and you'll have a basic plan.
If you know your way round a computer, you'll find house plan drawing comes with a few more options than the DIY method. One site I really recommend is Small Blue Printer (http://www.smallblueprinter.com). It's an online program (read: no tedious downloading time!) that enables you to draw the walls, windows, and doors of your home. The site also gives you an isometric view and a 3D walkthrough of the house. (And if you also want to plan out a garden, you can try out their garden planner.)
Microsoft Word can also be your new best friend in the house plan drawing business. By putting a few rectangles together with the help of the "auto shapes" option, you can create a semi-professional looking sketch.
When planning out your house, keep an eye on room placement. Don't let bathrooms open out on dining rooms, for instance. Also remember to do research on the time period you're working. Kitchens may have had fireplaces before more modern equipment, and toilets may have been outside the house before plumbing came along.
Once you've got the basic plan ready, decide which rooms are which, and make a note, either by writing in the corner of the room or on the back of the paper. If there are multiple floors, check that you've put the stairs in the same place on every floor. Add furniture such as tables, chairs, and beds with the help of simple squares, circles, and rectangles. Smaller accessories like vases, lamps, and the like can be "placed" in the rooms simply by writing their names down wherever you want to put them. But don't think that just because you've got small writing you can put tons and tons of stuff on a table or in a room--readers may be surprised by how many lamps your bedside table has the capacity to hold! When in doubt, use a tape measurer to help you get a feel for sizes and distances.
There are a large number of decorating programs online, but I don't seriously recommend any of them unless you're planning to become a decorator in your spare time. Most of the programs need to be paid for, and it's simply not worth the cash to draw one or two house plans every year or so. (If you like, however, you can take advantage of the free trials some of these programs offer, and see how you feel about decorating programs in general.) Decorating websites, on the other hand, are sometimes worth a look, as their descriptions and product pictures can help you when describing the house in your story.
During the course of your tale, the furniture may be moved around, broken, or stolen. Remember to update your house plan whenever that happens so that you won't have characters absent-mindedly admiring vases that were broken into bits a couple of chapters ago. Just put a little pencil cross or some other mark you'll recognize later over the item in question, and add a few notes such as "stolen", "broken", "given away", so that you won't have to comb through the book afterwards to find out exactly why the furniture is no longer there.
You don't have to get the whole house, down to the food in the fridge, all mapped out at one time. Little details can be added as the story calls for them, and some rooms may never come into the story at all.
Even if your final house isn't as dreamlike as you hoped, as long as it serves its purpose, it'll do. Remember, you're drawing this to help with your writing, to give you an idea of the setting, and to aid you when "blocking" complicated scenes--not to enter in an art contest. It's okay if a few lines are crooked or if you make a spelling mistake. After all, no one but you will be seeing it.
Drawing up a house shouldn't take too long; about a week at the very outside for a novel, a day or two for novelettes or longer short stories. For flash fiction, a five to fifteen minute rough sketch should be all you require. The extra time you spend making sure your house plan is "perfect" should be better used for writing. Again, this is just a writing tool, so it shouldn't take up too much of your actual writing time.
It's not as if you're going to live in the house, is it?
Editor's Note: Several home style magazines, such as Country Living in the US, offer home advertisements with floorplans in the "back of the book." Log cabin home magazines area another good source of floorplans.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Elizabeth Chayne has been a professional translator and interpreter for over seven years, working with a large number of international organizations and language schools. She also enjoys writing fiction in her spare time.