To help me explain what I mean by sensory data, here is an interview I did with my daughter-in-law, Samantha Ro, author of The Eternal Flame fantasy series and Terror on the Plains: a Twisted Oasis, forthcoming from Penguin Books. The first two fantasy books are currently out of print and she is negotiating to have the republished along with the following books in the series.
Samantha, can you explain how your sensory surroundings as a writer affect what you put on the page?
I like to involve all my senses when I’m writing, because I don’t just sit down and write. I sit down and think of it as a painting. I want the reader to see what I’m seeing in my head. I paint the picture with words.
If I want something cold and dungeony, I will put peppermint on my temples, on the back of my neck, to give me that kind of chilled feeling. If I want a battle scene, I might play Lady Gaga or Mozart, or Beethoven’s last symphony. I do I’ll put on something earthy and then something very grounding, sandalwood and cinnamon. I will involve all senses, because if I want something very light and airy in the description, I’ll burn something like cardamom, hydrangeas. If I want to tell a love story, I go with essential oils–– myrhh and frankincense––very heavy, very deep–– and I’ll drink black tea I put on the right soundtrack for that, too. “A Road Going North” is one of my favorite pieces, amazing, and the train sounds in the background and it’s very––it’s almost lonesome, it calls to you. It was the first classical music piece I heard, on a radio station for the classics. If I want a military scene, I put on a heavy scent, something very fiery, like black pepper, and very warming. For music, I might use “The Last Samurai” soundtrack.
Actually for martial scenes I will put on Paula Abdul. Why? Because in a lot of her beats, it’s all about the base, the background is heavy beats and strong pulses. For emotions that are very happy, very dense, the kind of overwhelming assistance of cinnamon apple orchard. The kind of smell depends on what I’m writing.
I may also change the lights. I’ll turn on all the lights, turn off all the lights or put my headphones on. It varies with what I’m doing.
Look at the battle scene. Maybe we have no seashore, but there’s a seashore about 50 miles away. You can feel that heavy beat in the ocean, you can smell the salt in the air. The bark on the trees probably has moss on the northside. Everything’s crunchy and dense and animals start to run. You see birds flying off, you start noticing little things in trees, like shadows. There might be a location that’s all already been crushed, so somebody has hidden there. You’ll notice spots where animals have died, their carcasses. Other animals left the site because this army is fat itself, the nature of the air has a very coppery sense, the air is metallic. The grass is starting to turn brown and there’s a fine sheen on the armor almost like rain; the angels are crying. And you can see the clouds just pouring over the sun, a sense from a high place for what’s about to come, the carnage. You might have off in the distance a pack of vultures, waiting, watching. The cents and the sounds going on around you translate into these images that you put onto the page, help me focus on what I’m determined to do, and I purposely pick them for what I’m determined to do.
A love scene and war take more out of me than just general description. They’re exhausting to write because readers are gonna feel the energy of the pages, they’re gonna wish somebody hadn’t died. They know these characters so intimately. The senses spark that revelation.
I think you need to create a background for yourself.
Can you give me some examples of work that you think uses the senses particularly well?
Pandora by Anne Rice has a first person, female character who falls for a debonair young vampire because of the magic in the dark kiss. She can see what’s going on, she can feel when the Roman Empire crumbles. She can feel what happens, like a murdered family. Another one of my favorites is Stephen King. Rose Matter. It’s a domestic violence book and it shows in the first person how it feels, how he controls what she does, where she goes. It’s very textural. You want to feel, okay I can be this person for an hour and a half and feel their pain and no love. When she gets her revenge it’s just perfect and he deserves it.
You have to make a story that somebody can dig into it and you want them to be able to immerse themselves so deeply in the story that they can’t put the book away and so that they feel like they have accomplished something at the end. You want the reader to have some sense of loss and to love something because of that single moment. It’s kind of like, if you want more honey, it starts out slowly, trickles, and you can smell the richness in the sugar in it and you notice how it just lingers in the water and it dances its way to the bottom.
Tell us about your own books and what’s coming up.
The title of the series is The Eternal Flame. I established a character, and at an early age someone beats her and she gets so mad that she unleashes fire that literally melts the walls around her. There is no glorious cacophony required, you just see a person and things melting and then the stain on the earth as the fire eats the rest of the scene. This character grows enslaved to a vampire named Vincent. The White Knights, knowing he’s a vampire, burn everything to the ground and she can’t fight off fire that they’re using. He sounds bad, she agrees. She gorges herself and passes out. Vincent puts her in a fireproof dungeon by the beach and goes off to try to handle the situation. It hurts her, knowing that he may die in this fire, trying to save her and others. One of the White Knights sits down to treat with Vincent. She basically accuses him of stealing something of hers. She literally becomes crazy watching the plague, this black ache in her body, until it is ashes. Did she die? You know she’s reaching for someone, she’s trying to she’s trying to call out, screaming. In the third book I’m currently writing, she’s unleashed. She becomes this fury, fire, rage. She becomes the bad guy, all rage. This her love, this is what they did to him. The fourth will have them reunited, but they’re both very different people and Justin gets between them.
My pen name is Astrella Knight. I use it because some of the subjects that I talk about can be very touchy. I love my readers.I may use my real name when these are republished.
I like talking about the tough subjects, to educate people about them through these books, without sensationalizing them. I don’t want people to look at them and go OH my GOD. I want people to stop and question themselves, to see through someone’s eyes what’s happening and to think “I can do something about this if I need to educate myself.”
I want to invite the reader into the private world I’ve created, let them spy on it. i want them to look inward and find the elements inside themselves, the strength they really do possess. I want them to feel accomplished when they finish reading my books.
So there you have it. I could not have said it better. Today, inspired by Samantha, I will be drafting a new scene in The Man Who loved Chocolate. How about you? What are you writing today? Leave us a note below.
An Etermal Flame, by The Bangles
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