Friday, 28 July 2017

Creative Pulse - Week 5 - Sensory Storytelling

By Bernice L. Rocque
Images by JD Lewis
A snippet drawn from a writing group agenda - for the full session, see here

Can you recall reading a book that transported you, as if into a sensory painting --- one where you could taste the food, hear the sounds, smell the aromas (or stenches!), feel the textures, and perceive the deep or subtle emotions of people? When the storytelling is that fine, we cannot help but “slip into” the story, beyond its physical words.

Recently, my writing group explored the topic of Sensory Storytelling: What is it? What does it look like, sound like? When is it truly artful? And of course, how can we increase the sensory depth and quality of our own writing? Here are two steps.

Analyze excerpts from a highly sensory novel.

Read and discover the sensory language in the provided excerpt.

Start of Chapter XII, Blood Rose Angel by Liza Perrat, a work of historical fiction.

It is 14th century France. The Plague is about to strike…

In this excerpt, Raoul, stonemason husband of Midwife Heloise, the protagonist, has just traveled home from a cathedral job in Italy with an apprentice (Crispin) and in the company of a street vendor (Merlin), who are now guests in their home (“cot”) for a few days. The relatives of Heloise mentioned are: Ava her deceased mother, Morgane the daughter, and Isa the aunt who assists Heloise with midwifing. The characters expect to attend an annual fair that day.

Please print the extract and read without pausing to analyze anything.

I woke on the morning of the Spring Fair, several days after Raoul’s return, with the chill of a wraith walking by. I thought of Ava and grasped my pendant.
Raoul slept on, his throaty breathing steady. I caught Isa’s wheezy breaths and Morgane’s quiet ones, and down by the hearth, Merlin Lemarchand and Crispen snored loud enough to wake the Devil. All was well in my cot, and I couldn’t imagine why Ava’s spectre would haunt me on this morning of our greatest fair, celebrating the height of spring. Maybe it wasn’t Ava, but the terrible deaths of Jehanne and her child still gnawing at my heart.
I shook off the shiver, disentangled myself from my husband’s limbs and laced up my kirtle. I climbed down the loft ladder and washed my face in the basin of water.
Feeding in sticks, I fanned the fire’s dwindled night embers, flame shadows soon dancing on the wall. Besides its warmth, we kept the fire going to make draughts, so the air was always smoky, but sweet-scented with the rosemary we kept burning to purify the air of any sickness ailing people might bring to our cot.
I opened the shutters, inhaled the scent of drenched earth and loam, and once I’d broken my fast I took the leather pails out into a morning wrapped in a fine mist. In the frail grey light, cottages, barns and trees looked like ghosts, and all who were tending livestock seemed anxious to finish their chores. The Spring Fair was a well-earned break from the harsh toil of our daily work and a bit of threatening weather wouldn’t dampen anyone’s spirits.
‘This rain won’t last, Midwife Héloïse,’ one of the lepers called, as I lifted an arm in a wave to them. ‘You’ll see, we’ll have as fine a Spring Fair as any yet.’
I smiled back, but sighed at the injustice. The lepers had never been allowed at the fair.
As I returned from the well with our water, Merlin sat up on the pallet shivering as I set the kettle on the trivet to heat.
‘You’re cold,’ I said, ‘I’ll heat some pottage to warm you.’
‘Yes, cold.’ Merlin hugged his arms around himself. ‘… and hot too.’ He tried to stand, stumbled and fell back down. ‘Oh and … and giddy.’
I touched a palm to his brow. ‘You’ve got a fever … a touch of ague. Best you stay in bed today.’
Merlin looked startled. ‘No, no. I can’t miss the Spring Fair; can’t miss this opportunity to make a bit extra.’
The noise must’ve woken Crispen with a start, as the apprentice leapt from the pallet. Staring at Merlin, his eyes wide and filled with—was that fear?—he sprang away from the trader, towards the cot door.
‘Whatever is wrong, Crispen?’ I said.
‘N-nothing … m-must’ve been in the m-middle of a nightmare.’
‘A terrible nightmare to make you stammer like that.’ I eyed him warily as I filled a beaker with boiled willow bark cordial.
‘Here Merlin,’ I said, ‘something to ease your fever.’
A fit of shivering gripped Merlin as he took the beaker with a trembling hand and drank thirstily, slopping the liquid onto the rushes around him.
Merci, Mistress.’ He slumped back onto the pallet. ‘I’ll be well soon, I’m sure … can’t miss the fair.’
‘Well let’s hope it’s only a touch of the ague,’ I said, sprinkling fleabane and alder leaves over the rushes. Merlin was scratching at his flea bites again so I hung dried fleabane from a rafter too, for extra protection.
‘Odd, isn’t it,’ I said to the trader, as I clambered down from the stool, ‘how those little black soldiers find one person so flavoursome and another not at all?’

Begin your analysis:

Circle any word, phrase, or series of words that helped you to better Visualize, Hear, Smell, Taste, or Feel the setting, a character, the action, etc. Code the circled items with V, H, S, T, or F. Then, tally how many you found of each type.

After completing this analysis, use these questions as prompts, for yourself if working alone, or as discussion starters with your partner or members of your writing group. Following each, jot down any thoughts you want to remember.

1. Which concepts do you use regularly? Which ones would improve your writing if you used them more?

2. Which examples really made an impression on you? Why?

3. Which sensory words or phrases did you feel were the most effective? Discuss why.

4. Any other thoughts about the sensory words and phrases on the excerpted pages?

Collect insights for improving your own writing.

Select a small piece of your writing that you feel is bland. Revising for sensory depth would likely improve it. It should contain mostly narrative; a little dialogue is okay. Do not improve it before you share it, if working with others.

Read your selected piece and identify sensory storytelling opportunities, as follows:

If working alone, review the insights you gained by analyzing the excerpt from Blood Rose Angel. Now, try to apply some of those concepts and examples as you review your short piece.

If working with a writing partner, exchange your selected pieces of writing. Read your partner’s excerpt and provide relevant question prompts that reflect sensory storytelling opportunities of the Visual, Hearing, Smell, Taste, and Feeling types.

If working with members of your writer’s group, conduct a brief brainstorming exercise:

Write your name in a top corner of the page, and then pass your page to the writer to your left. Set a time limit of 10 minutes. Carefully read the page you received. Then, notate (on the bottom half page or on the blank back side) any question prompts for Visual, Hearing, Smell, Taste, or Feeling opportunities the piece owner might consider, as in the sample of my writing you reviewed earlier.

When the time expires, repeat the process again, by handing the piece you just reviewed to the person to your left. If time permits, repeat the process a third time.

Complete the exercise by returning the pages to their respective owners, and share a few of the sensory “opportunities” received.

Create cues that will remind you which sensory storytelling strategies you want to employ more in your own writing.

Review all the materials and notes you made and select 3-5 improvement strategies. Transfer them as brief cues onto an index card. Keep this list near you when you write and revise.
Here are a few examples; everyone’s reminders will be somewhat different.

· Sounds?

· Nostalgic aromas?

· Textures?

· Quality vs. Quantity (best sensory word selected)?

· Sensory description reflecting the character’s level of experience?

Congratulations, you have completed this online class for improving your sensory storytelling.

I want to close with a personal note. A few days after my writing group completed this exercise, a writing group member and I were talking about what we learned from the meeting. She inquired if I had ever read The Red Tent, a novel by Anita Diamant, published in the late 1990s. I had not… So, she kindly lent me her copy. Oh… what an amazing reading experience! The Red Tent is a fine example of sensory storytelling in historical fiction. Anita Diamant was a journalist and author of nonfiction prior to writing this novel. She embeds her terse, yet rhythmic writing style with artful sensory descriptions.

Bernice L. Rocque writes memoir and fiction based on her family’s history. Her first book, UNTIL the ROBIN WALKS on SNOW, was published in 2012, in the latter part of an eclectic career in the disciplines of librarianship, education, consulting, and project management. Her work in progress centers on the beloved bootlegging grandfather introduced in “Robin.” You can follow her at:
@UNTILtheROBIN on Twitter
@Bernice.L.Rocque.Author on Facebook

Next week on Creative Pulse: Filtering with Jason Donald

Friday, 21 July 2017

Creative Pulse - Week 4 - World-building

By Alison Morton
Images by JD Lewis 

Setting is vital to a story whether it’s in the background or an integral part of the narrative. But I want to take you further and deeper than mere location into building a whole world for your story – 3D instead of 2D. And it applies whether you are writing supermarket romances, terrifying thrillers or intense historicals.

If you set your story in a different country, you can visit the places the characters live in, smell the sea, touch the plants, walk under the hot blue sky or freeze in a biting wind. If nearer home, you will be familiar with much of your book’s world.

If you invent a country or a past or future time, you have to get your imagination going hand in hand with research. We’re creative beings, we’ve imagined alternative realities since we were children and that’s what will drive your world building.

But you have to be practical as well, and believe me, fans will expect you to know everything from costume, social philosophy and weapons to food, transport and childcare provision. (Yes, I was asked that at the launch of my second book.)

No country can survive without a functioning government, an economic, social and political system, food, law and order and income. You don’t need to mention any of these, unless it impacts on the plot, but you should have it all worked out in your head, notebook, file on your hard disk or in the cloud. 

Some questions to ask yourself

How do people make their living? How are they educated? What kind of industry is there? What is the food like? Are there markets, little shops, big chains? What does the money look like? Is the government representative? Are laws authoritarian or permissive? Who holds the power?

Consider what your book’s world looks like. If it’s a country we already know, has transport developed beyond the horse and cart to steam trains, electric trains or crammed motorways in your story’s time? Is it safe to travel from one town to another? And remember landscapes familiar in the 21st century looked a great deal different in the eleventh.

If it’s an imaginary country, are there mountains, seas and rivers? What’s growing in the fields, does the countryside consist of plains, valleys or desert?

You may like to draw a map, however crude, just to keep track of where you’re sending your characters. And spare a few moments for the climate. You can’t have grapes and thus wine without some rain and a lot of sunshine…

Practical tips to engage readers

· Anchors and links to ‘normal’ e.g. a cop is always a cop wearing a uniform and an attitude, a tired working mother is exhausted whether she’s on Mars, in Ancient Rome or Tunbridge Wells

· Juxtaposition: reinforce a setting or details of your world through a character’s eyes when she sees and reacts to something that diverges from ordinary life in your potential reader’s location and time

· Drip-drip: local colour or period detail is essential, but only where necessary and when relevant. 90% of your research does not belong in your narrative.

· Names, everyday words and slang: Make them appropriate to the setting but keep them simple, so they don’t jolt the reader out of the story.

Characters in setting

Character-based stories are popular and readers are intrigued by what happens to individual people living in different environments. Three key points that apply to building a book’s world:

· Characters have to act, think and feel like real people whatever language they speak or however they’re dressed

· Characters should live naturally within their world in their ‘now’, i.e. consistently reflecting their unique environment and the prevailing social attitudes.

· The permissions and constraints of their world should make additional trouble and conflict for them.

Go visible

Build a file of images of real environments similar to your book’s world. It’s an immensely useful way of re-immersing yourself into I when stuck. Obviously, an imagined country is hard to photograph. If you can draw, then you have the tools at your fingertips, but if like me your artistic skills are limited to turning out sketches of pin-men, then it’s back to the camera.

An imagination exercise

Close your eyes and walk your character through a street in your book’s world. What do they see, touch and smell? Is the place crowded, noisy? Are there stalls or shops, are people on foot, horseback or in cars? Is it deserted, eerie or threatening? What is your character feeling as they walk along? Anticipation, fear, excitement, cynicism, pleasure?

Happy writing!

Alison Morton writes the award-winning Roma Nova thriller series featuring modern Praetorian heroines. 
She puts this down to her deep love of Roman history, six years’ military service, an MA in history and an over-vivid imagination. 
 She blogs, tweets, reads, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband of 30 years.

Next week: Sensory storytelling with Bernice Rocque

Friday, 14 July 2017

Creative Pulse - Week 3 - The Invisible Spider

By Rohan Quine
Images by JD Lewis  

It’s easy to find sensible, responsible advice about writing, but there’s a shortage of irresponsible advice.


The former addresses structure, characterisation, editing etc. Much of it recommends good things, which may be enough to create something well-built and polished that chimes sweetly with the expectations of its readers, in any category (including literary fiction). And that’s the goal, for many writers and readers, which is fine – mission accomplished.

There are additional games in town, however. Many of these are complementary with the above, in that they generate their electricity not through chiming with expectations, but through challenging and expanding the expectations of their author and of readers who love to buckle up and take such a ride. To be entertained by consuming or creating a brilliant thing that fulfils expectations, or to be challenged by consuming or creating a brilliant thing that plays subversively with any expectations: these are not simple alternatives at opposite ends of a spectrum, in any category of fiction. But many novels can be identified as facing more in the direction of one or other of that spectrum’s ends (both directions being of equal value in themselves). It’s in this sense, to the extent any novel faces the expectation-subverting end of the spectrum, that I refer to a shortage of irresponsible advice.

The shortage is understandable, because this concerns something central yet elusive to define, for which there’s no recipe. When present, the something is often hidden in plain view, like a large invisible spider crouching at the centre of a visible spider’s-web. And for this spider, all that sensible advice about structure etc. is secondary.

The spider represents more than just the passion that has driven the author – though passion is capable of trampling with primitive glee over responsible considerations, so as to conjure up perhaps three or four of the creature’s legs. But to conjure up all eight legs, with eight fat thighs emanating from a muscular central spider-body, the passion in question has to be the passion of a killer. By which I mean destroying as much as possible of what would have been expected in a given paragraph, while still maximising what will most seduce and reward. (It’s an intricate set of negotiations between these two imperatives, down to individual words and syllables.) Among its other missions, this passion is a ruthless destroyer of received tropes, with a view to discovering new ones. This passion’s charm, in clothing its destruction in beguiling language, would have ensured it a successful career as a criminal if it had been destined to be a person in real life instead.

In general, one has to destroy to create, as in the old-school example of a sculptor hacking away the stone that isn’t the statue, or a writer’s rejections of a myriad words on the way to the best ones. But if a writer pursues such micro-level destruction/creation with an intensity that feels like a joyous criminality – if the abstract impulses in the writing process feel ferocious enough to have resulted in an arrest if they’d been somehow embodied in meat-space instead – then my instinct is that this writer is more likely to create something whose electrification is as irresponsible as many of the classics were regarded when they were first published.

I can feel my invisible spider turning her eyes in my direction, when I identify her as embodying the desire to create something whose core reason-for-being is to be explosively and irreducibly itself to the max, with such force and beauty and rightness that it had to be what it is, and that serves up a gigantic and celebratory fuck-you to the world, expressing both the darkness and the brightness of its creator’s unique experience of being alive.

I’m told each instalment of “Creative Pulse” should suggest a specific exercise … but I just can’t quite picture this kind of beast consenting to be activated by an exercise. So maybe the closest thing would be for a writer to create or re-visit a brief manifesto for themselves only, and ensure their spider animates it. Mine comprises the following questions, but such a manifesto can take whatever form feels right.

(1) How can I illuminate the world, to the best of my finite abilities, using language in new and old ways, and thereby leave the world infinitesimally better than it was beforehand?

(2) How can I aim and attune my ears as clearly as possible to whatever the highest artistic potential may be, then bring down the richest results from that place, then give those results the truest and most beautiful form I can create?

(3) How can what I write take an honest account of the darkness and pain in the world, while at the same time being a vote for life (maybe even an absolute blast of fun along the way)?

I suspect an invisible spider can’t be magicked into being, if she isn’t already there; though she may need to be coaxed out of hiding. If she is present, however, then she deserves to be allowed to walk in grand freedom through every paragraph of every novel she helped inspire.

Rohan Quine is an author of literary fiction with a touch of magical realism and a dusting of horror, celebrating the beauty, darkness and mirth of this predicament called life, where we seem to have been dropped without sufficient consultation ahead of time.

The Imagination Thief (novel); The Platinum Raven, The Host in the Attic, Apricot Eyes and Hallucination in Hong Kong (four novellas); and the upcoming The Beasts of Electra Drive (novel), a prequel to the others.

Reviews are here and here. Lists of retailers, latest info, video-books, films and other fun are at | @RohanQuine  

Next week: World-building with Alison Morton