Physicality in Fiction

Recently, I read a thought-provoking and helpful article on Writer’s Digest on using physicality to bring your characters to life. There’s some great advice here. Incorporating different senses and the physical signs of emotion can help immerse the reader in the setting, even in the mind of the protagonist. Being grounded in the story world makes it feel that much more real – and exciting – as a reader.

 

I think this can be especially important in historical fiction. The genre brings its own unique challenge of trying to recreate a time long past, and sometimes, as a writer, it feels like grasping at echoes. Of course, one of the joys of historical fiction – both as a reader and writer – is that once the details and story click into place, you do slip into another world entirely. I love the way being drawn into a historical world feels like new, uncharted territory, but history has left just enough imprints on the present for it to feel a little bit familiar. You might know the bare bones of the time period, but not what happens to the protagonist, or maybe you find comforting kernels of ‘sameness’ in the characters. People haven’t changed so much, really. Three hundred years ago, they still wanted to find love, or worried about their children, or struggled under the weight of family pressures.

Trying to capture the sounds and textures and the smells of the story’s setting bring it to life. For me, while I’m writing, trying to show those things end up helping me connect more strongly to the world, help me to better polish it for the reader. It makes the setting more vivid, so a reader can easily imagine the acrid black smoke from the burning Réveillon wallpaper factory, or airy softness of one of Marie Antoinette’s muslin gowns, or picture the scum of half-congealed blood tarnishing the Tuileries after it was violently mobbed, to use examples from my novel The Wardrobe Mistress.

That last one was a little dark. Sensory depictions can be delightful, too, especially if they’re food related. I still think fondly of the way Crystal King’s description of kitchens and food in her Roman historical novel Feast of Sorrow made me clearly imagine I could smell the mouth-watering aromas of Parthian chicken or the tang of mustard beets. Sounds and music can pull readers into the world, too. I can still remember the rebellious thrum of music in the Prohibition ‘juice joints’ that Bonnie (of Clyde and Bonnie fame) frequented in Jenni Walsh’s novel Becoming Bonnie.

A story or character can also be deepened by plot, as the Writer’s Digest article that sparked this whole post suggests. The article mentions a Stephen King novel where the narrator is diagnosed with cancer. Another example I can think of that I particularly enjoyed is Julia Heaberlin’s novel Lie Still, where the protagonist is heavily pregnant throughout the story. It added an extra layer of tension. As danger escalated all around her, I feared not only for her, but for her soon-to-be-born child.

Habitual gestures or nervous tics can strengthen characterization, too. Outlander fans know that Jamie Fraser often taps his two stiff fingers (from being broken) against his thigh when thinking. In Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network, her character Eve struggles with a stammer, which sometimes intensifies during moments of high stress. While reading, it makes you ache with sympathy for her – especially because the high stakes WWI environment makes everything extra scary and intense.

What physical description or sensory element has really stood out to you in a book? Please share!

 

Forgotten Writing

Today, I was cleaning out some folders on my laptop. I anticipated this would be a tedious, dull, procrastinate-able task, but it actually turned out to be sort of funny.

It transpires that I have more random snippets of writing than I thought I did. Sometimes, I start writing something and after a page or so, I realize I really have no idea where it’s going, so I just stop. Hopefully, I’m in good company with lots of other writers on this one.

I found one snippet, though, that isn’t even a page long. It’s only 72 words. And I cannot remember anything about why I wrote this, or where I imagined the story would go before I quickly abandoned it. Full disclosure: wine was probably involved. Also, the document was is two years old, so maybe I can also foist the blame onto the mists of time.

So, here goes. If someone else wants to pick up this image and turn it into a proper sequence of events, feel free. If you’d rather just chuckle over it, like I did, that’s even better.

 

                It isn’t every day you get a guitar smashed across your shoulder blades. And a damn good thing, too – it hurts. The wood cracked, imploding around the shape of my body. A couple of the strings snapped against the bending wood. One of them snagged past my eye with a sad country twang. I twitched in reflex, and then blinked against the sudden sting as it left a scratch across my forehead.

 

Okay, I know I said full disclosure before, but now I am really going to lay the cards on the table, so to speak. After this guitar smashing scene, there was a huge gap on the page, and then I had written several meandering paragraphs about how I should maybe learn to meditate. Which I have not. I haven’t even tried, and frankly, I probably won’t.

What random writings have you ever found on your computer, or in a forgotten notebook? Please tell me I am not the only one who leaves hilarious forgotten prose lying around for years.

The Wrong Pizza

Sometimes, I write about mundane events and turn them into melodramatic narratives, just for fun. Because I am a word nerd. (But seriously…other people do this too, right? Someone? Anyone?)

Anyway, to switch up all the writing guides I’ve been posting lately, I thought I would share one of these snippets. I wrote this a couple weeks ago, to entertain my husband on his lunch break. At least, that’s my excuse. It was probably more entertaining for me.

 

“Today, as part of a fundraiser kick-off at work, there were individual pizzas for everyone. Excited for free pizza, I decided to take a break from my usual habit of walking home for lunch, and chose to stay and enjoy a delicious medley of cheese and tomato.

After perusing the stacks of pizza boxes, each with a large printed paper in front listing the type, I eagerly chose pepperoni and mushroom. One of my favourite pizza types! And on a Friday! And, let’s not forget, free! What a wonderful day!

I sat down at my desk, cracked open my can of iced tea, and opened the pizza box. Confused by the chunky pineapple and measle-like dots of red onion, I squinted and looked again. The onion fumes made me hold my breath, but the green peppers looked crisp and juicy. I looked more closely at the box, something – alas – I should have done earlier. “Classic Veggie,” I exclaimed. “I thought this was pepperoni and mushroom.” Sighing, I took a bite, and recoiled in horror from the powerful onion taste. Grateful I had grabbed paper towel as a napkin, I carefully picked off the many onion pieces, and the thankfully less-numerous pineapple. Better, but each bite still carried an echo of onion through my mouth, as if the vegetable had sweated its odour into the cheese and crust.

Classic veggie, indeed – my thoughts turned dark, erasing my earlier cheer, as I chewed slowly and flicked off yet another pustule of onion. With pineapple? It’s not even a vegetable, and not certainly not classic. What about tomato? Or spinach? This pizza was more like New Age Veggie. For hipster pineapple fanatics who put it on everything. It was probably a pineapple freak who purposefully mis-labeled the pizza stacks, trying to convert sensible people into the so-called joys of pineapple worship.

Curling my lip at the heap of raw onions and pineapple heaped in the corner, I closed the box after choking down two pieces of pizza. Well, at least it was free.”

 

Have a good week, everybody!