Evidence of the Senses – An Interview

Today I’ve got an interview with Mary DeSantis from Out of the Lockbox. Mary picked the topic from a couple of options that I had, and we went from there. It’s a great interview, and I had a lot of fun getting the answers. I hope you guys enjoy this as much as I did.


Hi, Mary!

Hey, Lauren!

I’m really excited to do this interview with you. The topic you picked is certainly a good one for writers to be thinking about. Lets get started.

So, how long have you been writing now?

Writing decently—since I started Seton Hill’s MFA program back in January.

Lol, no seriously, let me see. My family got a computer (big, clunky desktop thing) when I was around seven. I have a vague recollection of writing the beginning of a story about a little girl who was imprisoned for something to do with dragons. I grew up on Disney movies and can actually remember writing the line in this story “And then she sang a little song about dragons.”

Seems strange even for a seven-year-old. I wasn’t too average. I’m legally blind and have been all my life. Consequently, reading was tough for me growing up. I had Braille (which I have always been mediocre with at best) and reading print was a lose/lose proposition on good days. The first Braille book I read and finished was “Quest for Camelot” followed swiftly by “Charlotte’s Web.” I loved reading—loved being taken places—but it was so much effort.

Then, in fifth grade, I got my first audio book. Holy reading, Batman! I could read a book without struggling through the Braille and without getting a massive headache after two pages. I owe quite a bit to “The Secret of the Ruby Ring” by Yvonne MacGrory.

Audio books became something of an addiction for me. The Braille and Talking Book catalog from the Library of Congress would show up in the mail every month, and I’d go through the kids section and check off the books I wanted to read. Then I’d order them and read them.

Hmm, I seem to have strayed from the question. Sorry about that. I guess the short answer is I started attempting to write when I was around seven. I’m twenty-four now. So I’ve been writing for seventeen years.

It’s interesting how closely the question of reading and writing are entwined. I guess it’s true that you have to be a reader first, and a writer second.

So, tell me about the novels that you’re currently working on?

Okay, there’s a few. First is my Seton Hill thesis. It’s an epic fantasy with military elements that explores corruption, truth, and what happens when they become one and the same. It follows Jayleen Rothwell (daughter of Vladimir Rothwell—a prominent x-military man and current captain of the Royal Guard of her home kingdom—Edalya) and Prince Kylander (the crown prince of Edalya) through a journey equal parts intellectual and physical to find the truth about Blackfire—a rebel clan that threatens their home. It’s a story that I think I’ve always been burning to write—the prince and the military girl. Usually the prince is both royalty and an expert warrior. I believe in breaking norms.

Second, I have what I’m calling my 531-a-word-day project because I need to write 531 words a day to finish it by New Years. This is an urban fantasy set in modern-day New York about an investigation agency called MIA (not Missing in Action but Magical Investigation Agency) and, more importantly, the people who work there and the cases they solve. I guess it’s really a mystery novel disguised as urban fantasy, but I love my characters all the same.

And then there are all the other projects in various stages of completion. Lots of fantasy, a bit of ya, the occasional sf or romance that is more for fun than actual publication.

The theme of this week’s interview is “the evidence of the senses.” The idea is that we, as writers, need to give our reader’s evidence that the characters and the worlds are real (even though they aren’t), and that we can use the senses to help with this task.

So, in your own writing, what is the hardest smell you ever tried to describe?

I need a scent for Jayleen’s father’s study, and I’m looking for something more original than “the smell of old books.” This is more complicated than I thought, particularly when I try and work in a smell that is specific to the character. What mixes with old book smell?

What is a sound that comes up in your writing a lot?

I don’t know that there’s a specific sound. The sound of people comes up a lot. I don’t mean laughing or talking or dialogue. I mean the sounds of people moving. For my thesis “militant footfalls” and the “swish of cloaks” are frequent visitors. In my urban fantasy, there’s an inter-office intercom system that beeps.

Also, and this might sound strange, but silence creeps up a lot. Some would argue that silence is like the darkness—the total absence of light/sound. I believe the contrary. Silence is often more of a sound than any noise that can be made.

What is a sound that you don’t think you’d ever find yourself using in a story?

Unless the situation really called for it (it was part of an investigation…involving plumbing) I don’t think I’d ever use/describe a toilet flushing.

What’s an example of the sense of touch that you’ve worked into a story?

In an early chapter of my thesis, Jayleen’s troop (about forty cadets) is attacked during a training march. She is knocked off of her feet and collides with her brother “Her face buried in her rescuers chest, and the scratch of studded leather against her skin told her it was a cadet.”

Are there ways that taste factors into stories that are different from the characters just eating food?

I’d say yes. The obvious answer, at least to me, is romance novels/scenes. “Tasting” someone else’s lips during a kiss, for example.

Since I’m not a romance writer, though (mainly because I’m terrible at it), I have found another use for taste that I love. Call it “the taste of the wind.” There are those lines in a book, usually when something bad is going to happen, “She tasted blood on the air.” Or there’s the “taste of emotion.” “Rage tasted delicious in his mouth.”

A lot of people would say that novels are a very visual medium for storytelling, and this seems to hold even for audio books as most writers tend to describe things in terms of what their character’s see. Do your novels follow this paradigm, or are they different since you rely on other senses than sight?

Before I went to Seton Hill, I got my B.A. in psychology. Not terribly related to writing but still something that I find useful.

For instance, something I learned in one of my many psych classes—eighty percent of our sensory intake is visual. That leaves the other four senses to vie for the remaining twenty percent. Knowing this, I wonder if it is an accident that I often find myself describing most things visually. While that is a challenge sometimes, I think it is what readers expect. We take in the world mostly through sight. It stands to reason that we would take in any world mostly by sight. They say to use all five senses equally when writing description, but why should we? We don’t use them anywhere near equally in life.

With my vision as it is (and always has been) I’d say that out of the eighty percent of visual intake, I’m getting about 1/3. I’m already at a disadvantage, but, surprisingly even for me sometimes, that doesn’t seem to hinder my writing. Maybe it’s because people have always described things to me. Or maybe (and I’m more inclined to believe this) it’s because I’ve adapted. That line “When you lose your sight, all your other senses get stronger” is a line of bull. More accurately, the individual learns to see through their other senses. It doesn’t make up for the lost vision. Nothing ever will. But it allows me to “see” and understand the world in normal parameters.

What’s an example of something sight related that you’ve done in a story that was challenging for you?

Distances are a pain. I have practically no depth perception. So when it comes to the “how far is this thing from that other thing,” I have no idea what the distance would be in real life. So I can’t put it on paper. This results in me asking someone to help me eyeball a distance or measure something out. It works.

You certainly have a different perspective on the sensory world than most other authors do. What advantages does this give you?

Actually, I think the advantage it gives me is not overdoing description. I see the world in very little detail, and I function just fine. Not that I don’t give detail when I write, but I don’t feel compelled to describe everything in excruciating detail. “The bed was made. The blankets pulled up to the headboard with maybe a half an inch of space left uncovered. There was a single wrinkle toward the foot of the bed, but it was lost in the green, yellow, and aquamarine pattern and thus barely noticeable.” All right, no one writes like this (well, people do but it’s unfortunate), but you see my point. When you can see all of that, sometimes it’s tempting to put it in. When I walk into a bedroom, I see whether the bed is made or not, and sometimes I have a hard time telling even that.

How do you suggest that other writers can go about working more of these other senses into their work?

Don’t overdo it. Everyone will tell you “explain all the senses.” But that’s not how people function. The desk may be smooth to the touch, but, more likely than not, people will notice its color long before its texture if they notice the texture at all. In my experience, people only make note of noise, smell, taste, and touch if they are vastly different from what was expected or overwhelming in intensity. Ever wondered why when you first get to grandma’s house the baking bread smells amazing, but after a few minutes the smell fades? Sensory adaptation is something our brains do naturally. It allows us to pick up on new sensations when we first become aware of them. Once we have been around them for a bit, the sensation fades. This allows us to focus on new sensations that may pop up. Imagine if you were pain-stakingly aware of the feel of your hair on your shoulders all day long. You’d go insane.

Where do you draw the line at too much sensory information in a story? Is this possible?

Absolutely, it’s possible. Aspiring writers everywhere: please, for the love of God, do not give your readers three pages of description on a single piece of furniture unless that piece of furniture is the answer to the questions of the universe. And even then, three pages is a little much.

When you’re reading something that’s skimpy in sensory details, do you notice it, or does your brain just fill in the details?

My brain fills in the details. This, however, might be because it’s been doing that my entire life. That would be an interesting study indeed.

It certainly would!

Thank you so much for letting me interview you!


~ by lamichaud on December 18, 2012.

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