Pantser? Plotter? Why not both?

Salvete, readers!

There is a lot of debate regarding the best way to write a novel. Many a message board has been filled with surprisingly bitter arguments between ‘pantsers’ and plotters. Each side has its advantages and disadvantages. In today’s post, I’d like to talk about how I strive for the best of both worlds.

Upsides of pantsing

Now there’s a heading I never thought I’d use. I personally don’t like the term pantser. Isn’t pantsing a childish prank about pulling someone’s trousers down? Yeah, I know, it’s about flying by the seat of your pants and making the story up as you go along. I just prefer to call it discovery writing. It’s a little more dignified. Discovery writing is all about getting lost in the woods without a map, learning the lay of the land through trial and error. A lot of discovery writers love the thrill of not quite knowing where they’re going and letting the story sweep them along where it will.

Downsides of pantsing

To misquote Tolkien: ‘It’s a dangerous business, stepping out your door. And if you don’t keep your feet there’s no telling where you’ll be swept off to.’ Sometimes discovery writers don’t what kind of story they’re telling until the very end, or they go off on tangents that wind up getting deleted. And so extensive redrafting becomes necessary.

Upsides of plotting

Others prefer to have a map for the journey, a very detailed outline written in advance. The biggest advantage of this approach is that you get a clear sense of story structure and will hopefully eliminate issues of character development and plot before you write a word. You start out with a pretty good idea of the research you’ll need to do and have an endgame in sight. The actual writing tends to go faster and more smoothly… Though this isn’t always a good thing!

Downsides of plotting

Outlining can make the writing process feel very unnatural and mechanical. It can suck the joy out of the process. Outlining can be a dry exercise in craft—sure, it’s less chaotic, but where’s the fun in that? Beauty can come out of chaos. Sometimes writing to an outline is dull and repetitive—you’ve already told the story once in the outline, why would you want to tell it again? And what happens if you realise halfway through your story that what you outlined is nothing like the way it’s coming out? It happens, believe me.

Why not have both?

When I go walking in the woods, I like to have a general idea of where I’m going. The idea of just stepping into the wild with no clear destination or way of navigating is not something I’m prepared to try. That said, I like being able to find my own path and make the journey my own.

I discovery write the first third of my books. I find that this gives the writing a sense of pace and urgency and allows me to figure out who the characters are, letting their voices come out on their own. I need to figure out what kind of story I’m telling through experimentation. However, once I reach a significant turning point in the story, I put it away to the drawer and don’t look at it for at least a few weeks. It’s best to go away and work on something else. Once I’ve gotten a bit of distance I pull it out, re-read it, and start to think about structure. From here I write a very detailed outline, a blow by blow description of what goes on in the story with notes on dialogue, settings, characters, and research I will need to complete. Usually I do wind up rewriting the first third of the book a little, but I very rarely have to do any major structural edits.

It’s not a method that’ll work for everybody, but it seems to work for me.

Until next time,

Valete

PS. I’m offering a free short story exclusively to followers of my newsletter. Sign up here for your copy! Fear not, I won’t give away your email address and you can unsubscribe at any time.

A brief message for every writer working today

There’s something you need to remember, no matter how tough things get.

You are lucky.

Published or not.

Indie or trad.

Full-time or otherwise.

Pantser or plotter.

Whether you write for yourself or others.

Even if you just keep a journal.

Lucky.

You’re lucky because you have a story worth telling.

You have the education and the means by which to tell it.

Compared to the totality of human history, you’re a long way ahead of the curve.

 

Writing lessons from the Epic of Gilgamesh

Salvete, readers!

I recently finished the first draft of The Black Unicorn, a middle-grade fantasy. The first draft will be up on Wattpad until the end of March, 2018. At this point, I’ll take it down and give it a good polish before I start submitting to publishers. In the meantime, I thought I’d let you in on a little secret. Though the story is heavily influenced by medieval and classical traditions, I actually went a lot further back for inspiration—all the way to ancient Sumer. In this blog post, I share how studying The Epic of Gilgamesh helped me to develop as a fantasy writer.

For a fantastic overview of the ancient poem and its relevance for modern readers, check out Louise Pryke’s excellent essay on The Conversation.

The Black Unicorn is the fifth book I’ve written, but only the second since completing Book 1 of the Ashes of Olympus trilogy, which is scheduled for publication in July. Writing a middle grade novel was simultaneously easier and more difficult. On the one hand, I feel a lot more confident in my craft and I think I have a stronger grasp on structure, dialogue, and world-building. I’m a lot more conscious about how and when to use different techniques. On the other hand, this was my first attempt at a heroic fantasy for middle grade readers, and that brought its own challenges. When you write middle grade fiction, you have only the most primal elements of story-telling in your tool kit. You don’t have the space to gloss any shortcomings of substance with style. I decided to embrace the primal elements of story-telling in The Black Unicorn by going back to The Epic of Gilgamesh for inspiration regarding the themes.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first recorded story in human history, so I figured it was a good blueprint for an archetypal narrative. The themes of the epic are as relevant today as they were millennia ago—relationships between humanity and the divine, the nature of mortality, the tension between nature and civilisation, and above all friendship. These themes pervade all my stories, but in The Black Unicorn I wanted to explore them through the eyes of a twelve-year-old girl. I see no reason the heroic archetype of the youthful warrior can’t be made to fit a female character, and honestly, I think we need more heroines in the world. At the heart of my story, as in Gilgamesh, is a relationship between two characters who start out as rivals and through a series of shared trials become friends. Though it takes place against a backdrop with a massive scope, that’s the essence of the novel.

Brevity is another virtue of Gilgamesh. The poem comprises only about 60 pages in the Penguin translation. But in that space our heroes travel across the world and learn lessons about life and death. Likewise, middle grade books are short. The Black Unicorn is only about 40,000 words. There’s no time for navel-gazing. The characters develop through actions and reactions to changes in their situation. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for character development of course. Heck, I would argue that growth and development are integral to any narrative focused on children. It just means there is very little time for introspection or excessive narration. The characters show us who they are and who they are becoming through their decisions. Dynamism is the key.

The Epic of Gilgamesh also embodies one of the core principles of world-building: show, don’t tell. If you read it, you’re plonked into another universe. Though it’s easy to sympathise with the characters, there is no point denying that the poem is the product of an alien world. It’s a dark, frightening place where existence is precarious and world-ending catastrophes are always just around the corner. But the text never stops to explain how its world works. The narrator takes it as a given that readers can pick up the story and run with it. Four thousand years ago, the reader needed no more explanation of the mechanics of sacrifice than we do on how to send a text message. For modern readers, though, the trick is to immerse yourself in the world and drink it in. And once you get the hang of the internal logic, the story makes perfect sense. This is an excellent principle, I think, for writing fantasy, particularly in a middle-grade novel where there is little room to pause for info-dump.

There’s a lot more I could say, and I’d love to revisit the question of what story-tellers can learn from the classics. But for now, my kids are tugging on my sleeve demanding I take them to the library.

Until next time,

Valete

A lesson from Star Wars

Salvete, readers!

Just a short post tonight, as I’m juggling a couple of deadlines and need to focus more on writing.

A few weeks ago, I watched Star Wars with my boys for the first time. This was a big moment for me, as I’ve loved Star Wars since I was seven years old. The kids were enthralled right up until the medal ceremony at the end. It went like this:

Master N: Do the good guys get medals, Daddy?
Me: Yep!
Master T: Even that guy? (Points at Han) But he’s a scaredy cat who ran away!
Me: Yeah, but he did come back at the end.
Master N: But the robots didn’t run away and they don’t get medals. That’s not fair. They all helped.
Master T: The princess should get a medal too, and she’s definitely not a scaredy cat!
Master N: I’m Luke.
Master T: That’s okay, I’m Chewie. He’s my favourite, except I can talk. RaaaAAAAAaargh!

There are a few important lessons here for a children’s author.

  • Kids will usually identify with the marginalised characters and the dorks, rather than the suave ones.
  • They also have a strong sense of justice and will call out unfairness if their favourite characters get short shrift.
  • Children can spot nonsense a mile away. Han is a scaredy-cat in Act 3. He’s willing to let his friends die to save his own hide—I think he mostly comes back out of guilt. But he’s uber-cool, so most of us still cheer for him.
  • Boys will absolutely identify with a female heroine until some idiot tells them they can’t. Kids are less worried about the gender of the character than their achievements.

Until next time,

Valete

LOTR: The Shadow of the Past

Salvete, readers!

I continue on my epic quest to blog my reactions to re-reading TLOTR for the first time since high school. This week we enter the Exposition Zone with Bk. 1, Ch. 2 of The Fellowship of the Ring.

Look, I’m not going to lie. Tolkien’s world-building is amazing, but sometimes his methods of exposition aren’t. And when exposition is done badly, it slows the story down to the approximate pace of running tar.

To give an example, let’s consider the film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s The Northern Lights, aka The Golden Compass. There are lots of reasons that film didn’t work, but I would argue the biggest is that the story pauses every ten minutes or so to tell the viewer what’s going on. And it adds an unnecessary prologue which consists, more or less, of briefing notes on how the world of Northern Lights works. It’s a light, inoffensive and dull film which utterly lets down its dark, controversial and very exciting source material. In fact, exposition is one of the things which Pullman does really well. He throws the characters into the scenario and builds the pace and tension from the very first scene in which Lyra spies on her uncle. Every little bit of information we gain about the world of Northern Lights feels like a moment of growth for the characters. Know why the novel works so well? Because Pullman is not trying to be Tolkien.

Make no mistake, there’s a large number of oddities in Tolkien’s method of getting important information to the reader. There’s no drama in Chapter 2, no tension. Given that the fate of the world is at stake, everyone’s oddly calm about it. Tolkien actually opens Chapter 2 by assuring us that the story is going to have a happy ending.

‘The second disappearance of Mr. Bilbo Baggins was discussed in Hobbiton, and indeed all over the Shire, for a year and a day, and was remembered much longer than that. It became a fireside-story for young hobbits; and eventually Mad Baggins, who used to vanish with a bang and a flash and reappear with bags of jewels and gold, became a favourite character of legend and lived on long after all the true events were forgotten.’

From there we get a paragraph which summarises rumours of goings-on in the wider world. The dark lord’s back, the dwarves are fleeing from war and the elves are getting the hell out of Dodge. Tolkien follows up with yet another scene of Hobbits sitting around the pub discussing these very rumours, followed by a quiet scene in which Gandalf monologues about current affairs, relays the history of the Ring, and gives Frodo his mission. In other words, we get the same information conveyed thrice, using different techniques. I get what’s happening here—set the scene, then plonk the characters into it. But honestly, the opening chapters are not the place to test the reader’s patience with a lecture. If I didn’t know how amazing the story becomes later, I’d probably have given up by this point.

There’s a lesson here for any budding author. Tolkien wasn’t writing Tolkienesque fantasy—he was just doing his own idiosyncratic thing, and it works for him because of the authenticity of his voice. Many writers striving to produce the next epic fantasy try to mimic Tolkien in their early chapters. The exposition is usually about the point when the reader struggles to maintain the will to live. Copying Tolkien’s style of exposition, in which everything is told before it’s shown, is a rookie mistake. It’s always better to find your own voice than imitate another author. You’ve got to get to the heart of your story from the very first page.

Moving on, then. Here are a few stray observations from Chapter 2.

  • This is the first introduction of Sam. I find it interesting that Merry and Pippin are Frodo’s closest friends, while Sam is most definitely his servant at this point. This dynamic is largely absent from the films.
  • Sam’s ‘accidental’ discovery of Frodo’s quest seems a little less coincidental in light of A Conspiracy Unmasked, where we learn that Merry and Pippin have been onto Frodo and the Ring for ages and have recruited Sam as their spy. Again, this is a nice little bit of implicit detail which didn’t make it into the movies.
  • Entwives! Sam, sitting in the pub (sigh) mentions a strange story that one of his cousins saw a tree walking. This is brilliant foreshadowing for the Ents, and I think it’s very likely that Sam saw one the Entwives—if so, it’s a real tragedy he never meets Treebeard. But then, maybe the Entwives are better off on their own. Treebeard’s poetry and the responsibility for a forest of half-tamed trees would be enough to drive anybody away.

I know I’ve been a bit critical of Tolkien in this post, but this bit still never fails to move me:

‘I should like to save the Shire, if I could—though there have been times when I thought the inhabitants too stupid and dull for words, and have felt that an earthquake or an invasion of dragons would be good for them. But I don’t feel like that now. I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again.’

For every idiosyncrasy in Tolkien’s story-telling, at its heart the story is beautiful. Reading the books again is like spending time with an old friend, knowing their flaws, but enjoying the familiar presence nonetheless.

Until next time,

Valete

My writerly month: May 2017

Salvete, readers!

Well, we made it to the end of May. Queensland is a bit like Westeros at the moment: winter is coming, but it never quite gets here. Remember a while ago I asked readers’ opinions as to whether I should keep up the weekly updates on progress? Well, after thinking about the feedback I got, as well as my current schedule of deadlines, I opted for a monthly update.

On the academic front, my co-authors and I have put together a complete draft of the article we’re working on. We are well on track to get it out this month. Mythography is an amazing, highly technical area of scholarship which requires expertise in a range of disciplines. It’s also a lot of fun because you discover the weirdest and most wonderful things! I don’t know any other area where you’re called upon to consider the reproductive or dietary habits of Centaurs. I wonder if some of this detail might actually work its way into a novel someday. That said, typing in Greek is pretty much the opposite of fun. My poor word processor hates me right now.

Aside from that, I’ve finally figured out a fiction writing routine that seems to work. Huzzah! When you sit in front of your keyboard and your aim is to bang out a novel, that can be pretty daunting. The challenge seems insurmountable. Know why? Because it is! Especially when you’re working on an academic career and working full-time and raising a young family. Even among full-time writers, very few are capable of producing a novel quickly. Those who pull it off may very well be in league with the devil. The trick is to focus on one chapter at a time, one scene at a time. I’ve also set myself a weekly task—no matter what, I need to do one chapter per week, minimum, with a set word limit. This method of ‘chunking’ the tasks makes the weekly goal is very achievable. My eyes are still on the prize of having a finished novel, but week to week I’m no longer agonising about my productivity. Which, ironically, drives up productivity. Chunking is good for the story too. The pace remains high. Without room to waffle, every scene counts. It also provides a sense of rhythm. Things have been rocking and rolling since I adopted this method, and I’ve got a substantial portion of the manuscript down.

I’ve also been doing a lot of research into the publishing industry and where it’s headed. Listening to podcasts, talking to other authors about their experiences. In particular, I’ve been investigating the world of indie publishing. For now, my plan is still to seek a traditional publisher for my trilogy based on the Aeneid. But I’m also open to the possibility of publishing independently. No matter which way I go, the idea is to get better as an author. Connecting with even a small cohort of readers would help me to grow. And getting a behind the scenes look into the industry would be an amazing asset no matter what. Commercial writers can also learn a lot from indie authors, given that even in commercial fiction so much of the onus for marketing falls on the author.

The world is changing, isn’t it? We may be heading toward a time when writers need to show they’ve got the chops to make it on their own before a publisher will pick them up—especially when I see that Macmillan—one of the Big Five—has acquired the ebook distributor Pronoun.

Anyway. Work is progressing on the script for the audio drama, bit by bit. Writing for radio is really peculiar, but I’m enjoying the challenge. Will tell you more about that when it’s ready to go into production.

Anyway. I’ve signed up for a local authors’ event in a couple of weeks, which is thrilling. If funds allow it, I’m heading to the CYA conference in Brisbane next month. Really looking forward to meeting up with some like-minded people. Maybe I’ll see you there?

Until next time,

Valete

The essence of the story

Salvete, readers!

Last weekend I watched Moana again with my kids. This was no hardship, as I love this movie. Heck, I love the direction Disney is going right now—they really seem to have figured out what makes a story tick. As the credits rolled, my oldest son turned to me.

‘Dad, I think I know what this movie’s about.’

‘Oh, aye? What?’ Now, my son’s not long grown out of Thomas the Tank Engine, so I’m not expecting a particularly sophisticated answer. Probably he’s going to tell me it’s about a girl who goes on an adventure with a shapeshifter and fights a giant lava monster at the end. Nope. His next words staggered me.

‘It’s about being who you are.’

I blinked. ‘That’s interesting. What makes you say that, buddy?’

‘Well…’ He frowned. ‘They talk about it lots. Especially in the songs. Moana loves the ocean, and that’s who she is. But she needs to be brave to be a sailor, because the ocean’s scary and her dad doesn’t want her to go. So she has to be brave to be who she is.’

I smiled. ‘Go on.’

‘Maui, he’s really nice, and that’s who he is, but he acts mean and tough because he thinks that’s how everybody will like him. And the island lady at the end…’

‘Yes?’

He shrugs. ‘That’s what it’s about. Being who you are.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I would agree with you. That’s what it’s all about. Well done.’

He gets it. At heart, whatever the details of plot or character, stories are about something. And when you’re writing, that something isn’t always clear. Sometimes you don’t figure out the theme until you’re deep in the editing phase. But once you realise it, you hold onto it and never let go.

I’d say it’s really important to know what your story is really about before you start trying to sell it—to the reading public, agents, publishers, whatever. It should be implicit in your elevator pitch, even if you don’t beat readers over the head with it. Once you can distil the essence of your story into a simple phrase, it’s your first step toward getting others to understand what it’s really about.

Until next time,

Valete

Dear Twenty-Year-Old Me

Dear Twenty-year-old Me,

Right now, I’ve just turned thirty. Everyone assures me this is a huge milestone. Folks these days talk about turning thirty the way they used to talk about turning twenty-one. Apparently this is when real adulthood begins—when you settle down, get serious about your career, start a family. It sometimes seems like my generation spent its twenties lounging on the couch watching Spongebob and washing down fruit loops with vodka. That’s not going to be you. Sorry. In terms of life achievements, you’re going to pole-vault right over your twenties and land square in your thirties. It won’t be long now before you’re married and have two little people in your life who will argue with you on the correct way to use a lavatory.

And you know what? It’s going to be awesome. Your kids will teach you to see the world through new eyes, to appreciate just how amazing life can be. You’re going to read them Narnia and Roald Dahl, and they’ll applaud when you do the funny voices. Don’t misunderstand me, it won’t be easy—basically, you’re going to get signed up for a fulltime job where you are on call twenty-four hours a day, get no sick leave and no holidays. Sometimes, when the kids wake you up at four in the morning because they can’t find their damned Pokémon cards, it’ll feel like this will never end. But you’re doing something amazing—building a life together, teaching and nurturing them to become the best they can be. You wouldn’t trade the feeling of having your children fall asleep on your chest for anything.

Right now, at twenty, you’re working two jobs to get yourself through uni. You didn’t achieve stellar academic results in your first year, and you wonder whether it’s really worth it, especially when all you want to be is a writer. Don’t worry—you’re going to start hitting your academic goals in second year. Uni is a learning curve, so don’t beat yourself up. Your parents assure you that an Arts degree is going to be your ticket to stability in life. Don’t hold that against them. Mum and Dad are just passing on the wisdom of their generation. They didn’t realise that they came of age in the heyday of the liberal arts, and they couldn’t have known. Don’t fret about the value of an Arts degree. In about eighteen months, this thing called the Global Financial Crisis is going to happen, and it will mean the end of stability for your generation, regardless of what you study. Economic neo-liberalism will come to be taken for common sense, and most of the jobs will be casualised. It sucks, but you’ll make the best of it. Getting out of poverty is going to be an incremental process, and it isn’t going to be because of your education so much as your willingness to work hard and take opportunities as they come along. In this, you will be no different from anybody else.

But, um, if you want to invest in these things called Facebook and Twitter, I wouldn’t object.

At one point, after finishing the PhD, you’re going to convince yourself that being a school teacher is the best and only use of your knowledge and skills. The bad news? This is going to be the biggest mistake of your twenties. The good news? This is going to be the biggest mistake of your twenties. Anybody who can make it in the secondary education system will forever have your respect and admiration, but a job which involves reprimanding kids about their socks isn’t for you. Luckily, it’ll turn out that you’re good at other things too, and you learned a lot from your experience working in schools.

Oh, and that ambition to become a writer? It’s going to happen, but not until you figure out why you’re doing this. You’ll turn your PhD thesis into a book and advance human knowledge by a micron or two. Go you, but remember it’s not the Nobel Prize. The real test is whether your research is going to make a difference in people’s lives and have an impact upon the world. Let’s see what happens there, eh? The greatest thing you’ll gain from your education is comprehension of how little you really understand, and how much of the world there is to see.

It’s much better than it sounds right now.

I also happen to know you’re working on a novel. You’re far too scared to show it to anybody, but you’re convinced it’ll be the next blockbuster. Hate to say it, Twenty-year-old Me, but the one attitude cancels out the other. And it’s not going to be a bestseller, and that’s fine. That poor, unfortunate, half-formed novel is going to be valuable as a learning experience. You’ll gain the confidence to experiment with language, hone your storytelling ability. Most of all, you’ll learn how far you’ve got to go. Don’t be downhearted.

You’ll apply what you learned from your first attempt when you put pen to paper on your next novel. In hospital on the day your son is born, you’ll start scratching out a first chapter while your wife sleeps. You’ll keep scratching at it until it becomes a first draft. By the time you get to draft four, you’ll show it to other writers, and learn how to deal with criticism—both constructive and otherwise. Eventually you will tally of your drafts and feel like a gunslinger notching his rifle. At writing conferences, you will make like-minded friends who want your story to succeed just as much as you do and give you thorough critiques. It’ll be strange and a little intimidating, but you will repay the favour in kind. That’s how it works in the writerly world. With every stroke of the red pen, you become stronger as an author.

And on the bestseller thing? Sorry, Twenty-year-old Julian, you’ve got it wrong. As much as you might love JK Rowling’s work and hope to walk in her footsteps, her career is the exception rather than the rule. And Rowling didn’t write with the intention of becoming a bestselling author. She had a story which she wanted to share with the world. C.S. Lewis once said that we read to know we’re not alone. The flip side, of course, is that we write to reach out to others. It shouldn’t just be about selling books. It’s about contributing something to the community, giving people something to enrich their lives. Achieving sales matters far less than reaching the people who need your story.

By the way, it won’t be long now before you see second-hand bookstores flooded with unwanted copies of this these books called The Da Vinci Code, Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. Learn well from this: you can sell a story to millions and reach nobody. Far better, I think, to reach a few to whom your story means a lot.

Over and over, you’re going to be absolutely bamboozled by the human instinct to tear each other down over differences. You’ll figure out over the next ten years or so that story is the answer: to have the courage to speak, and to listen. Story brings people together, binds us. Sort of like the Force.

Also, right at the tail end of your twenties, Disney is going to purchase Star Wars and release the sequel trilogy, and—don’t look at me like that, it’ll be loads better than you expect. Remember when Disney started making Marvel movies? Oh wait, that hasn’t happened yet. Disregard.

Read, Past Me. Read stories from as many different perspectives as possible. I know you love fantasy and historical and science fiction, and that’s cool, but even within those genres there’s a lot more diversity than you choose to see right now. You’ll go through periods where you choose to read only novels written by women, or by people of colour. The ones by women of colour will teach you the most! As you discover more stories grounded in the here and now, you will find the world is more fantastic than you ever realised. Hear other people’s stories, the stories of strangers you meet in the streets. When you develop the capacity for patience, you will discover every human being is on their own hero’s journey. Learn how complicated and wonderful and strange the world is, and be willing to acknowledge the limitations of your understanding. That is the first step toward growth.

Just a couple more messages, Twenty-year-old Me. Over the next decade, you’ll start to learn how to take care of yourself. I don’t just mean how to pick out your own clothes and cook your own meals. When you’re there for people, you throw yourself into their wellbeing and care for them with your whole heart. And that’s good, that’s fine, that’s a part of who you are. But sometimes you’re going to get hurt, and sometimes you’re going to get exhausted. Once in a while, your caring will get thrown in your face. A handful of others will care for you as much as you do them. Nourish these relationships, but be mindful of your own needs also. It’s true that love is not a finite resource, but time and energy are. Don’t waste them on people who treat you as though you’re a complication in their life story.

In the end, there’s going to be one person who sticks by your side, and she is the love of your life. Right now, Twenty-year-old Me, you’re thinking about asking Kelly to marry you. There’s plenty of folks who will tell you it’s a mistake. Don’t listen to them. Getting married is the best thing you’ll ever do. Cherish Kelly, adore her and love her with all your silly heart. That’s what’s important. You already know it, I think, though you don’t quite know what it means yet.

I’ll close with a timey-whimey wibbly wobbly quote from your future and my past: ‘We’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?’

Until next time, vale.

Thirty-year-old Julian

Beyond sight: Using all five senses to evoke an historical scene

Salvete, readers!

Employing all five of the senses to capture detail about the world is an amazing way to suck the readers in. It’s particularly important for an historical author, as sensory details are your reader’s key to understanding what is basically an alien world. We comprehend reality through the senses. Aristotle devoted an entire treatise to this subject. The senses which your viewpoint character focuses on will show the reader loads about them. In historical fiction, I think there is a tendency toward visual description, and that’s fine, but it’s only one of the tools in your kit. Smell, for example, is one of the most powerful senses and can set up a scene beautifully.

If your characters are, say, on a Greek trading ship with a cargo hold full of spice from India, there is a wealth of sensory detail you could include to construct the scene. For a fun exercise, I’m going to list the sensory details I’d include in that scenario. Can you think of any others? And what kind of person do you think the viewpoint character is? Let me know in the comments!

TOUCH

  • The rocking of the ship
  • Sea sickness in the belly
  • Weak and shivery
  • Roughness of the unpolished wood
  • Heat and humidity
  • Sweat running down the spine
  • The closeness of the air below deck
  • Fresh wind on the face
  • Salt crusting everything

SOUNDS

  • Gulls shrieking
  • Ocean waves
  • Whisper of wind
  • Creak of rigging
  • Clatter of footsteps above deck
  • Shouted orders in a strange tongue
  • Crash of transport amphorae rolling around loose

SMELL

  • Spices in amphorae—strange, exotic
  • Brine
  • Vomit, especially if the viewpoint character doesn’t have sea legs
  • Stale air below decks
  • Pitch used as sealant
  • Pine wood

TASTE

  • The salt on the air
  • Vomit
  • The aftertaste of the character’s last meal

SIGHT

  • The blue-green ocean—or should that be the wine-dark sea?
  • Blinding sunshine
  • Shirtless men climbing the ratlines, loading cargo
  • Details of the ship: mast, rigging
  • Sail billowing in wind
  • Cloud formations
  • Barnacles on side of ship
  • Dolphins/fish in water

I love doing this exercise– it is a great way to get the imagination fired up when dealing with writer’s block and is also a really great way of planning out a scene. Hope you enjoyed it!

Until next time,

Valete