The other senses

I’m a very visual person. As a result my writing is pretty skewed toward visual descriptions of people and places. In fact I’d go so far as to say that unless something must be smelled, touched, heard or tasted by a character, I never inject those senses into the story.

I have just finished reading Perfume by Patrick Suskind. This book is an absolute feast of odours and aromas. The protagonist has a heightened sense of smell and describes everything by smell. I found myself becoming aware of the scents of my surrounds in a way I never have been before. I started to see my day to day activities in a whole new light, and it was fascinating.

Then in a rather serendipitous move onto the next Top 100 book on the list, I started reading Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn. In this book the main character has a heightened sense of hearing. Again, the focus on the description was all the little sounds we naturally dismiss (if we hear them at all).

Both these books have been really enjoyable and I’m sure a large part of that is the immersion in my other senses. I have been picked up a few times by my writers group about not having enough non-visual descriptions in my stories and now I understand exactly what they mean.

I guess awareness is the first step, now I just need to find the right words to get these senses across. I’m sure my writing will only benefit from making the story a more complete experience for the reader.

Strange looking bug

It’s not often we have genuine mysteries in our lives, even rarer still for us to go for weeks in the dark and finally solve it after a serendipitous insight. This is what happened to me recently over a strange looking bug.

Until the house I’m in now, my biggest garden (in my adult life) was only marginally larger than the desk I’m sitting at. So when I started digging around in real soil, planting some poor botanical specimen that was destined to die, I nearly had a heart attack when a 5cm long earwig-like creature crawled out of the dirt and nearly touched my hand. Before I could recover and investigate further a magpie came over and ate it! I was secretly grateful.

Since then I’ve had about six of these experiences (I now wear gloves so it seems a little less dangerous) and in all this time I’ve never been able to work out what the creature is. When my friend, who has a much better experience of gardening than I do, saw the thing on a visit to my house even she did not know what it was. I had a genuine mystery.

I scoured the internet, but my educated keywords brought back nothing. I decided there was nothing for it but to catch one to take to the university and start thinking up how best to represent myself in its name when it turned out to be a new species (natbug, pottus buggus).

With my jar always at the ready, I wasn’t running into them again. I was getting frustrated. Finally I turned back to Google and typed in ‘strange looking bug’. While the first couple of image lines looked something like this;

Strange looking bug

There, on about the fifth line of images, was my strange looking bug. It is a relatively common Mole Cricket.

Mystery solved.

P.S. Once I manage to take a photo of it I’ll come back and attach it to the post sans-googly eyes.

Cat tales

The book I’m reading at the moment is a kind of murder mystery. At least I think it is. There is some mystery and no murder yet, but the implication is there that we will have one eventually. The thing that strikes me as odd with this story is how often the author goes off on cat tangents.

Nearly every character in the story has at least one cat. Whenever we encounter one of these characters it is (apparently) important to know what their cat is doing. Sometimes there are two pages of cat antics, none of which are helping to solve or add to the mystery.

It reminds me a little of some advice I was given about dreams; people are only interested in hearing about your dreams if they were in them. Are people only interested in re-told cat antics if the cat is theirs? Clearly, as YouTube will attest, people love to watch cat antics, but is reading about them anywhere near as entertaining?

I must admit, the first couple were kind of cute distractions, but now they are getting a little tedious. I think it might just be me, I’ve been to countless dinner parties where cat tales were exchanged with as much abandon as kid tales are now told at more recent dinner parties. Maybe I’m fighting the cat-lady within with so much vigour that it has hampered my cat antic appreciation?

Perhaps a bout of YouTube videos will cure me?

Dreaming of work

I work in the knowledge management area, so it is not uncommon, when I’m stressed or busy at work, for me to dream about categorising bits of my life; adding metadata to my cat, clothes and friends. The dreams don’t necessarily make a lot of sense, but they have their knowledge nicely tagged and ordered.

This got me thinking about what life might be like if I was to work as a writer – would I dream about my characters? I’ve only ever once dreamed about my characters, it was when I was nearing the end of the first draft of Paragon and I dreamed of the biosphere and saw two of my characters walk past. I was so excited I woke up.

When I wake from a metadata dream I want to hit myself in the head, and feel cheated that I have not been paid for the extra few hours of work I put in. I don’t think I would ever feel that way about dreams of my characters.

Thanks to our Prime Minister, I could potentially be facing another thirty years of metadata dreams. If I am going to be dreaming about work for all that time, I think I need to find something a bit more dream-worthy. Perhaps it is time for my mid-life crisis to really kick in?

When I was a kid ‘Choose Life’ t-shirts were all the rage and I think I even owned one. Now, some thirty years later, I really understand what it means. And just for the record, I don’t ever recall seeing a ‘Choose Metadata’ t-shirt.

Flashbacks

I’ve often been told to use flashbacks sparingly and have always put it in the pile of rules that can be completely ignored if they get in the way of telling your story. That was until I came across a story peppered with flashbacks.

The first third of the story played out in chronological order, though you did have the feeling that you had come in part way through something. Then suddenly we flashed back to the week before the part we had just read. Then six months, then five weeks, then four months… for the next third of the novel. Then the last part played out in (mostly) chronological order from where we had left off before the flashbacks started.

It was confusing and a bit annoying. I could understand why we couldn’t know what had happened before when we came in, or else the suspense would have been ruined, but after that it was a case of trying to fool us again and again by only providing the information in the order the author wanted us to see it in. This did not help the story as you lost track of where you were in the timeline.

Despite what I’m saying, I did enjoy the book, but I think it would have been a much better story if at the point of the flashback it went right back to the beginning and then played out in chronological order up to the point where the character starts the flashbacks. I also think the story would have benefitted from the first third and last third being cut back so the historical portion had more room to shine.

It has definitely illustrated the pitfalls of playing with time. When you are the author and  you know the entire story, the flip flops in the timeline are fine, but when you are a reader (especially one who just reads for short bursts on the bus) it is hard to remember if the chapter was set five days ago or five months.