juices and photo descriptions
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,
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?
Donne put it succinctly in
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and seuerall steps in my
sicknes, Meditation XVII, 1624:
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,
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie
well as if a Manor of thy friends or
owne were; any mans death diminishes
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for
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.
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
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.
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
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.
fail only if you stop writing."
- Ray Bradbury
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.
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
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.
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.