Writing Reality: Sensory Seasoning

05/08/2013 at 19:53 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

There’s nothing I enjoy more when settling down to read, than coming across the sort of sensory delights that work to enhance a literary style; a welcome handshake between author and audience. An image will be passed via metaphor and juxtaposition, and it’s left up to the reader to follow the trend of themes, for heightened enjoyment. There’s no better feeling than making that connection; the “aha!” moment, and (for me anyway) smile of real pleasure, at having my mind expanded that little bit more.

More often than not, it’s a case of drawing the audience into a sensory mindscape; giving them word-images to pick over and enjoy en route. As someone who indulges far more in the abstract, in setting and concepts, such literary techniques as metaphor and juxtaposition help me to avoid boring myself to death when writing. I love splicing words and their relevant connotations together, to see what works.

Alice Hoffman is one of my favourite authors to employ these sensory-themes. Probable Future has an unnerving plot, to be sure, but for me the real focus lies in the sheer beauty of tasting her words, the images they evoke:

“Today there were huge cumulus clouds in the hazy sky, and Stella felt the sultry dampness in the air. Everything at Cake House was faintly wet, the blankets and the carpeting. All night long, Stella had heard the peepers on the shore and the whisper of reeds.” – page 87, Probable Future

The plot of Probable Future revolves around such themes as hasty actions, indecision, natural magic and real lives. Rather than tell the audience in bland sentences, Hoffman conveys the themes with references to spring fever, heat haze, the colours green and gold, as they are primaries of the month of March, in which the story is framed. The universality of March-madness is one a reader can grasp when taking on board the often erratic actions of the characters. Wild weather and water, act as conduits for the suspension of disbelief required in small acts of word-magic.

“Before long, there would be sheets of green rain of various different consistencies: fish rain, rose rain, daffodil rain, glorious rain, red clover rain, boot polish rain, swamp rain, the fearsome stone rain, all of it washing through the woods, feeding local streams and ponds.” – page 120

This is no place for referencing dusky desert heat, nor yet the hard blandness of a concrete setting. The settings of the novel, its references, fairly drip with mould and sultry-dark water; they filter quietly through descriptions of the furniture in Cake House, bubble away like an underwater stream beneath the lives of the characters.

With your own written work, try to keep to a steady flow of themes and relevant imagery. Don’t suddenly change tack because something sounds good in your head; if it doesn’t fit the context, it doesn’t belong. For example, looking at this picture, I’d describe it as a gunmetal sky in a modern context:

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But this wouldn’t be so fitting of a genre where firearms were nonexistent. It’d only throw the reader out of whack, a real fourth-wall breaker. Instead, when trying to depict something like this sky full of cumulus, in words:

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I’d use archaic language and imagery; “burnished shields”, springs to mind.

“Gunmetal sky” came about through an inherent wariness of nimbus clouds; as a permanent pedestrian, I know what they can unleash. There’s the element of danger in potential lightning strikes, tumultuous rain. There’re the darkly gleaming colours, reminiscent of a gun barrel. And of course, with reference to a firearm, the connotations of injury and death.

So, all of the above can be nicely sandwiched together in a couple of loaded words. This frees up my writing space, and a reader’s time; and hopefully, gives them a little *nudge-wink* into the bargain.

That being said, I know I’m a terrible metaphor fiend. With every first edit, I find myself wincing at the stumbling blocks of my own imagery, laid on far too thickly to establish a smooth read.
Through studying various authors, I’m learning to pare down my style towards something mimicking their own exotic simplicity.

In Capote’s own words, “…the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.” He may not be an author to everyone’s taste or style, but I do believe his use of juxtaposition is second to none:

“It was one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa and fat chairs, upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train.” – page one, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

A universal truth, for anyone who’s used public transport before. No need for great detail in establishing the discomfort of the furniture. The one simple image-reference, is enough.

“Leaves floated on the lake; on the shore, a parkman was fanning a bonfire of them, and the smoke, rising like Indian signals, was the only smudge on the quivering air.” – page 52, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

To quiver is, of course, a verb, and a sensual one at that. In this context, it delivers a lustrous personification of the air surrounding the scene. There’s an aura of romance, of the unknown; the future flickering into being, taking the characters through a curious enhancement of emotion, as they spend the afternoon together. They may well be rippling the folds of the world in their enjoyment of each other’s company.

It’s a technique I like to borrow when scene-setting. There’s no need to waffle on in reams of description, where a handful of simple, carefully chosen words might suffice. Where “quivering” and “bonfire” are raised concurrently, the nature of Holly Golightly is made manifest in wavering heat, the inability to grasp at anything solid. The audience feels the beauty, the fragility of the scene, through the narrator’s sensory perceptions.

And I really can’t advocate using these five senses enough, to frame your own writing. Draw upon the memories of your audience. Allow them to touch, taste, see, hear, smell all that your characters do; overlap senses, to create memorable images that will enhance their reading:

“Royal’s house was like a house of flowers; wistaria sheltered the roof, a curtain of vines shaded the windows, lilies bloomed at the door. From the windows one could see far, faint winkings of the sea… Inside, the house was always dark and cool, and the walls rustled with pasted pink and green newspapers.” – Capote, House of Flowers, page 9.

I don’t know about you, but that’s more than enough smooth imagery to paint the picture for me. The use of colour references is simple, yet the names of the flowers are exotic, to create a subtle blend; alliteration / onomatopoeia found in “far, faint winkings of the sea … the walls always rustled,” evokes a gentle rhythm, as of the distant tide and the breeze.

While reading Tim Gautreaux’s excellent short story anthology, Welding with Children, a particular paragraph leaped out at me as both vitally clever in asserting its imagery through sentence structure, and a real pain on the eyes to read:

“…a loose tarpaulin flying over the forty-foot trailer, wild as a witch’s cape… After one click of his blinker he would roll out like a fighter plane, road reflectors exploding under his tires like machine-gun bursts…the car would surge into the curves like electricity, Wesley pushing over the blacktop as if he were teaching the road a lesson.”

Wild as a … like a fighter plane … like machine gun … like electricity…

Real stumbling-block words. Far too much imagery, condensed into a paragraph. Oh don’t get me wrong, in terms of context – the driver zigzagging through a dusty panhandle landscape – it’s an effective way of depicting his erratic slalom-run of acceleration and sharp braking.
All the same, it requires a readjustment of gears in the reader’s mind, just to keep up. The imagery pounds on the mind, each one different from the last, charged with its own electricity. I was left a little overwhelmed; as is often the case when reading back over my own freshly written work.

Learn to pare down your style, to use only the choicest and most contextual references and words. Don’t bombard your audience with imagery; lull them along, interspersing it with good stock words and simple phraseology. They won’t think you’re daft for it, that you’re not trying hard enough. Overblown words, sentences and imagery, will only make them squirm, as though you’d upended a salt shaker on their bowl.

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Writing Reality – Fleshing out Characters

07/07/2013 at 20:33 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

When writing the people who will populate my current novel, End of the Line, I work with various techniques to give them physical, emotional and symbolic qualities that help the reader achieve a vicarious experience. It’s not enough for the teen protagonist, Joe Blackthorne, to lever himself up off the page. I want him to stand (then slouch, being a tall lad and very conscious of it); to breathe, to look around … perhaps to nervously ruffle his hair. He needs to become flesh and bone, thought and idea, dream and memory. The essentials that will progress him beyond a written character, to a human being.

After all, the true achievement in writing comes from being able to unsettle that audience status quo, that what they have picked up is just a book. They need to care, to continue.

These are some of the tricks of my trade.

Get spatial

I don’t know about you, but I tend to struggle with linearity when it comes to plotting narrative flow. Bullet points and timelines always seem to end up sagging under their own weight. Relevant information drops off into a forgotten mess, leaving the less important stuff behind – my mind is cluttered with odd-sock ideas. These are great in and of themselves, but require space of their own, just as key narrative events need theirs.
So I take the lot off the line, and hang them up in the clouds.

With End of the Line, I’ve filled two A3 cartridge paper pads, and have plenty more to spare. Pencils, eraser, sharpener and good old exam highlighter pens (remember how much fun you had, colour-coding notes? Get back into that mindset) are the necessary tools to fill in the pages that will become an atlas of my novel’s world.

Each page becomes a cell; the name of each character, the nucleus, and it’s from here that ideas begin to grow. More often than not, details of the story will change with each monkey-thought session, jumping from page to page, often causing overlap. That’s fine – they’re just going through narrative-osmosis. This is where the highlighters come in handy, to mark out interactions between characters and their relevant scenes. I also date each fresh notation, as it’s a work in progress – with each page stuck up on the wall behind my bureau, I have constant visual reminders of character traits, as well as an endless source of inspiration, with progression tracked.

If there’s no way of pinning name-clouds on your own walls, keep their pad beside your main writing station. Use it as a memo pad; populate it with stickers, photos, newspaper clippings nail-torn out. My personal favourites are hair salon snippets, with the most creative makeup/styles going straight into the “teen gang” inspiration bank.

Do make sure the original owner of whatever you’re tearing into, is actually done with the piece first.

The information that appears in these name-clouds may not be all-inclusive to the novel, but they are noteworthy facts nonetheless. Whatever scene I am writing a character into, I need to know where he/she is coming from – their reactions, who they may or may not turn to for help or comfort; what they’re likely to say. To write such things as truth from respective POV’s, and not my interpretation of events, I need to know a character’s context.

For example, Joe has come from a decent middle-class background. His father worked in the City; his mother quit her job to dote upon her only child. The latter is emphasized by the lack of the former’s presence in Joe’s early life. Theirs was a happy household, well-tended, if a bit strained around the eyes. Joe’s father, Mickey, would often run late from work at the office – he was, as Joe describes to his new friend Li, a “shadow on the wall.”

When Joe’s mother died in the simplest, stupidest kind of accident, the already solemn child grew inward rather than out. Framed in the current series of events, he is a 17-year old with bark-hardened hands, and a head full of information lacking emotional context. He reads avidly in a bid to keep ahead of peers; particularly when his father’s drinking spirals them into a council-funded black funk of a house in Reighton. This is Mickey’s old home town, where the economy is sour as off milk. Joe is determined to avoid becoming “just another Dole scummer.”

This proves harder than he’d feared. He finds himself drawn into feral teen gang wars, played out on the town’s disused rail line; when he makes an unlikely friendship pact with Li, a girl leading a double life in the footsteps of her older sister, he feels himself diminished by events. He is fighting for his own identity.

None of this is aided by the childhood reputation his father left town to escape. Joe is now bearing the brunt of old blows. To cap it all, his insomniac nights are plagued by nightmarish visions of brambles, a rising blue moon, and blood.

Trying to keep hold of all the above was giving me one heck of a headache. So scrawling the name JOE BLACKTHORNE into the middle of an A3 page, was a vast source of relief – the thoughts flew easily into their own space, not tied by linearity, though I do keep close contact between facts with the necessary colour-coding.


I have a habit of twiddling hair at the back of my head, between my fingers. It’s a comfort thing, dating from childhood. Others have noted that twiddle-speed tends to accelerate/decelerate depending on my mood, and they’ve learned to use it as a personality marker for when I’m best approachable, or hostile as a morning cactus.

I’ve injected habitual/subconscious tics like this into the novel, to work blood through my characters. Some people crack jokes when nervous, others chew on their nails. I do emphasize the need to use tics sparingly though, as a pinch of seasoning, or a character will start to resemble the punchline of a bad joke.

Think about where these tics might come from, who influenced them. Look to your own, to family and friends – watch people out on the street (bus stops and train stations are great places for this, with tics dropped like coins in holey pockets.)

Joe’s a tall lad, gawky with it and – particularly around Reighton – made to feel very aware of how much he resembles his father. He walks with a slight stoop, as a man plodding an old furrowed ditch might. Interestingly, this occurs more frequently towards the start of the novel, and when he meets Li. She is small, fine-boned; he feels he might accidentally crush her. On Joe’s name-cloud, I highlighted this point as narrative non-essential, but of relationship-building note.

Garth Hakken Sr., a male resident of Reighton who has spent much of his life in jail, has the small, twitchy movements of a bird accustomed to confinement. Joe Blackthorne tugs at the thick forelock of his hair, as a subconscious need to distract himself with physical pain from moments of emotional distress. On a basic level, it also relates back to his father being on the Dole, and their lack of spare cash for a cut.

Colour Symbolism

F. Scott Fitzgerald has ever been a source of inspiration to me. In The Great Gatsby, his use of the synaesthetic metaphor transcends literary device, to become a sort of symbolic colour-coding of its own. There’s the green light on Daisy Buchanan’s dock; the continuous presence of yellow, as a sham veneer of gold. These inspired me to better illuminate (or indeed, disguise) my own characters, their intentions and relevancy to the plot.

The term toxic beauty occurs frequently in relation to Li’s older sister, Siobhan. Still missing after 15 years, and with a background chequered in renown as much as disgrace, she’s a girl wonderful to know and daunting to be in the presence of. A girl who completed each school year with top marks, while consistently defying her father’s moderate expectations by holding anti-demolition demonstrations around town, as part of a student body. Not to mention her frequent night-wanderings down the disused line. Her disappearance left deep seeds of doubt and pain in the town.

Her presence is still felt, in the petrol rainbows running down gutters after heavy rainfall; in a secret photograph Li finds, where Siobhan’s customary plain-pretty appearance is transmuted by her wearing “peacock” eye makeup (bright turquoise, broad enough almost to become a mask; brass flares along the lids.) There is the sense of another world, another time; of secrets waiting to be unlocked. All far more interesting, when hidden in plain sight among colours.

Another bearer of secrets, is the character of Daena. She is a wanderer through my fictional world (a Stephen King-inspired universe, our world yet not, broad and many-tiered), and as such has an undefinable quality. She is pleasant and intelligent, while significantly vague. There is the sense of trying to catch smoke when speaking to her.

To accentuate this, as well as her nomadic life, I gave her the colour blue as a symbolic marker. It lives in the rose tattoo on her shoulder (the blue rose being a sign of mystery, the unobtainable, since none may be naturally bred); in her long blue-black hair, and the alto voice that Joe (who has synaesthesia) describes as “ink floating through water.”

Redgrave is a teacher at the local college; he has a Blackthorne bone to pick, and isn’t fussy whether it comes from father or son. He is a man who carries others’ secrets as much as his own, and is difficult to gauge in terms of allegiance. While acting in an almost-unprofessional manner towards Joe – using his power to undermine the boy at every turn – he is also seen to demonstrate a curiously empathetic warmth towards the lonely Li, as he once did her sister.
To enhance this unsteady image, I refer to his having purple-black eyes, to their strange iridescence, as of a bubble’s slippery take on the world.

Sensory Spectacle: Write what you Know, Learn what you Don’t

I really can’t reiterate enough the worth of personal experience when it comes to writing. Sure, you can research a subject in its entirety, bone up on notes – but without actual sensory markers to give them context, these facts may fall a bit flat. Field research can be fun (or in my case, literal.)

It’s worth considering the simple beauty of Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s in this context. His minimalist prose and knack for striking to the core of a subject, helped him weave characters as exotic as they were universal. In the spring of 1958, Capote was on the New York scene. Among social gatherings, he would find the inspiration for his novella with the local tittle-tattle and socialite scandals; it’s acknowledged that his composite template for Holly Golightly was in fact drawn from many of the Manhattan socialites he had known:

“… the ragbag colors of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino-blond and yellow, caught the hall light. It was a warm evening, nearly summer, and she wore a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks.” (2.12), Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

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In writing characters, I try to find them in their natural environments. In this way, I learn their habits, so as to be better equipped for descriptions of response, when I stick my hand into the mix and shake things up. In the case of the novel, I’ve wandered a local disused rail line so as to truly know the slippery judder of my boots on mossy sleepers; testing their give, when not only walked but run across, as my protagonists are forced to do when chased by a gang. I want to embed the images with whatever sensory perception I can. When Joe runs hell-for-leather down the overgrown line, I want the audience to know that tingling bitch-slap of a nettle on the skin, or the weird korma smell which ferns give off when hot under a midday sun.

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Consider symbolism again, when writing the relationship between circumstance and character. Mariah Hakken, wife of the afore-mentioned jailbird, lives on a decaying council estate with four tearaway kids; she has been riddled up with mental illness for much of her life, and now exists in a near-hermit state in their family home. The tang of the corrugated iron roof is her bitterness; the sickly sweet scent of the buddleia overflowing in great purple swathes, is her life degrading by deadly degrees.

Take yourself out of your own environment, if it won’t fit that of the character you’re trying to depict. Ask friends/family for passes into places you’d normally have no right of way to – though if you’re writing a court room drama / cop thriller, do take care to keep the photography and notations to a minimum when in public. You don’t want to be suspected of anything nasty, and definitely don’t want your precious notes confiscated, when all you were trying to do was capture the sticky sparseness of a coffee-ringed interview room.

Your audience may well have already read other works of fiction in your genre – convince them that yours is different. It’s like a lived-in pair of shoes, easy to slip on and walk around in. When describing a situation, I like to call upon all five senses wherever possible, putting their slant on things – but it’s important to keep within the personal experience of whichever character being written. It’s no good having an alien character wax lyrical about how the twin sunset they’re watching is akin to the bombs of the London Blitz, if they were never there.

Keep within context, but don’t be afraid to go out on a limb when it comes to elaborating on sensory experience.

Walk to your own beat

As mentioned in this blog entry, I work to a specific soundtrack for each fictional piece, with one or more artists assigned to a theme and/or mood. Just playing them before I begin writing, can frame me neatly in the right mindset. A track may flow on my iPod shuffle, and the melody/lyrics will create a sense of its belonging in the blood and narrative arc of a character.

Incidentally, this ties to field research. I’ve scared myself nearly witless with twilight wanderings of local woodland, listening to Soley’s Kill the Clown; while jotting down notes of what I feel, I’m very conscious of the hairs on my neck going up, and write that in too – plus anything that immediately springs to mind, by way of comparison.

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Personal Reference – Opinion and Dialogue

You don’t need to go smashing through every fourth wall here. Anything ladled on may act as an anchor rather than a buoyant to your work. Narrative structure can become warped by reality, character voices may be lost in your own shout.

That being said, don’t be afraid to raid your own past and that of others. I’m currently rereading all of my old journals, dating back to teen school days, in a bid to recapture the often irrational and overly dramatic mindset of that time. Hormones don’t play easy with teens, and believe me this would be serious research, if I could only stop cracking up.

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My first journal began life in 1998, when I was on the cusp of adolescence. The full-on existence of school life sings off each scribbled, exclamation-marked page. Every sentence is a staccato, or a meandering stream of thought. None of these silly adult inhibitions, like sentence structure. I’ve found that child-woman again – all the longing, the lust, the fear of change and changing emotions (not to mention what growth spurts were doing to my body.) The pale fear of being left behind; the dark, twisting terror of becoming lost in the face of a teeming adult world.

Call up old school friends, get them down the pub – rehash shared experiences, while keeping careful note of their own inflection on stories. This is particularly handy if writing a retrospective narrative; more often than not, rose-tinted glasses are apt to be slipped on. See how what is said, compares with what’s based in your own memories. If you’re feeling brave, ask for their memoirs. Go to the library, pick up the autobiography of someone you’re interested in, or is in some way relevant to your piece. Draw inspiration from their experiences.

When working across genres, you will find that – regardless of what a character wields, preaches, loathes, stands up for – there are hearts beating beneath; there are inspirations to be drawn on, memories to be consumed by. Allow each soul their own opinions and ideals, based on the hand they’ve been dealt in life.

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