Mark A. Carter

creative juices and photo descriptions

World famous Canadian Science Fiction novelist Mark A. Carter rants about the sensory eye candy that keeps the creative juices flowing.

My background has always been arts and science. I therefore look at writing from the viewpoint of artist and scientist.

As artist, my challenge is to use words to paint pictures that we in real life experience with our five senses. It isn't as easy as it sounds. And as scientist or technologist, I must manipulate the reader of my tales in a reasonable manner with the deus ex machina of my trade to create and to maintain a reasonable or willing suspension of disbelief. If I don't succeed, the bubble pops and it's all over, baby.

Read: Fiction Bubble.

We are all creatures of our time and place in the world. And no matter what kind of story a writer writes, an author's time and place will work itself into his story, if not in the foreground then in the background of his tale, in the language, in the mannerisms of his characters, in the colloquialisms that they use, and in the general way in which the narrative speaks to the reader, because a writer writes for the readers of his own time. Also, the educated writer is influenced by the writers of his own age and by the literary giants who came before him. For how can he not?

John Donne put it succinctly in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and seuerall steps in my sicknes, Meditation XVII, 1624:

No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

You don't have to reinvent the wheel to write a novel. By the way, there is no such thing as a unique work. God, I hate the word unique. It's all variations on a theme, baby. Get your head around that and you will be better off. So, write your fiction, your variation, your interpretation of the world as seen through the filter of your perceptions.

And let the reader enjoy the way you look at things. It is natural to be influenced, as Donne suggests, by the writers of your time and those who came before. Short of plagiarizing, use them where necessary, to help you get your ideas across. Use them too much or too obviously, and people will say your writing is derivative. But really, isn't everything to some extent? That's my point.

"Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it." - C.S. Lewis

We truly live in the information age and are more connected and more influenced by each other than John Donne ever imagined. Some people complain about a lack of privacy. But, as a writer and researcher, all I can do is applaud. Thank God for the likes of Google and Wikipedia and for the easily accessible information they provide. There has never been an easier time for a writer to acquire factual information. There has also never been a time when so much visual information is available, some classical, some questionable, some tasteful, and some tasteless. Nevertheless, any and all information helps me, as a writer. It is better to have too much information than to be information censored or starved. My job, in terms of research, is to filter that information in the mindset of the project I am working on and the characters in that project. And it works. Music, paintings, photographs, maps, science, and the like all provide me with useful information, and helps me fill in details that my stories cry out for, making the writing that much richer.

Visual information helped me write much of my Mythpunk novel Hephzibah of Heaven. It helped me set the stage. It helped me establish mood and held me in the moment. It made me accurate. It kept me honest mostly. And it helped me fill in details that only someone who had been to those locations would know. In the Afterword of Hephzibah I reflect upon a time when I was forced to write descriptions, which I didn't do for decades after, but have come to embrace since as a professional writer.

Writing one page descriptions of photos was a task inflicted upon me in Mr. Lockyer's grade six class at Alexandra Public School in St. Catharines. On one occasion, and much to my chagrin, I recall Mr. Lockyer telling the entire class that my description of three goats standing atop a rock against a blue sky was the worst writing he had ever encountered. It was a damaging moment psychologically. So, it was with a great sense of irony that I found myself describing photos, once again, after all these years.

Yes indeed, I highly recommend it. When doing background research for your forthcoming book, photos of locations, objects, and people should be collected and used for descriptive passages in your book. Those photos will help you flesh out the details. In terms of describing a location, if you cannot go there because of money and time constraints, by all means use pictures to describe the scene in detail to give your readers an enhanced sense of the place.

The only thing you can't describe fully without being there are the smells. But it is not a completely impossible task. That is where you will have to use your imagination and your common sense. Some smells are universal. They are everywhere. Some are specific to a location. See what you can find in photos of the location that will tip you off to the smells. If you see lilacs in a photo, for example, well, they are everywhere and you can describe the smell of lilacs from your home town and place it in your exotic location. Find out which smells are location specific. If a specific flower is in the picture, identify it, go to your local flower shop, and see if they carry it. And if you're lucky enough to acquire it, then it's up to you to describe the smell.

Always, when you write, work in the five senses. In case you forgot, they are auditory, gustatory, olfactory, tactile, and visual. There is no point describing yourself waking up in a back alley without mentioning the sucking noise of your heaving gut, the sour taste in your mouth, the smell of garbage, puke, your own rancid body odor, and, oh yes, that stench of piss quaffing off the bricks where the drunks have all relieved themselves, and the pathetic image of your own stubbled face in the broken shard of mirror before you. Yikes.

"You fail only if you stop writing." - Ray Bradbury

Another thing you can use to stimulate your writing is music. I discovered how much it opened up my creativity when I was writing Hephzibah. You cannot write well in silence. And you should not. The brain, especially the temporal cortex used for creativity and for music, closes down amid silence. Read: Writer's Block. My God, listen to music. Listen and cry to anything that inspires you. If a certain song puts you in the zone, set your equipment on repeat and listen to the same song all day while you write. Listen to it for days, weeks, and months, if you have to. Before I start a project, I listen to all kinds of music, and if it inspires me, if it gives me images, I earmark it for a specific scene and make notes. When I finally come to write the book, I consult my notes, play the music, and write the scene. Use the technique. It works.

Peripheral characters can be described with broad brush strokes because the reader is distanced from them by design. But when it comes to the young female or male eirôn, you have to be as specific as possible since distancing is minimal. You must research everything, that special body, eyes, face, feet, hands, and smile. Moreover, if you mention a location that everyone knows, you must be specific or risk bursting the reader's willing suspension of disbelief. For example, instead of merely writing, as I did in Tellusian Seed, that Xuxa brought the nuns back to Earth, I researched our position in the galaxy and described it. Everyone knows that our galaxy is called the Milky Way but few people outside of Astronomy circles know the specifics. Thus, I was able to apply Aristotle's use of improbable possibilities and probable impossibilities from his Poetics. And I was able to ratchet down the reader's focus incrementally from the alien, cold, and unfamiliar depths of our gigantic barred spiral galaxy to the human, warm, and familiar setting of a farm in the midwest. I described it like this:

Athena and the Gabrielican novitiates were delivered, by Xuxa, to the habitable zone of the Milky Way, within the rarefied supernova remnant of Geminga, in the Gould Belt, near the inner rim of the Orion Arm, to the Sol System, to the planet Tellus Mater, and to the equivalent of an Iowa cornfield in late summer during the extreme heat of late afternoon just before a thunderstorm.

Sometimes, you won't know what you are looking for but keep looking nevertheless. Eventually, you will find it, or it will find you. Develop morgues of your research. The more information in your morgues, the better. If you can't find what you are looking for in photos, draw what you imagine. It is all good. It is helpful and useful. It is part of the craft.

"No dear, I'm not looking at eye candy. I'm doing research," will become your mantra. "I'm a writer. I have to know these things." Right, Sure. You bet. Actually, if you want to write well, you have to read. You have to be critical of what you read. But you have to read everything voraciously. And you have to research absolutely everything that you put in your stories. Remember that bubble. Don't let it burst. And if you're writing Science Fiction, read Science Fiction magazines. Read science journals. Keep abreast of science news. And stare at those diagrams, illustrations, and photographs. They inspire me. They may also inspire you. You never know where that next great story idea will come from. Happy reading, happy researching, and happy writing.

Read: Fiction Bubble
Journal Infernal 
Killing Characters
Writer's Block 
Writing Tips

Now you know.

from the imagination of Mark A. Carter - novelist

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