Drawing on Sense Memories

Most of us think of the five physical senses as we are experiencing them. The toast looks and tastes all right, but it has a slightly burnt smell. I wish the kids would stop screaming, my ears are starting to hurt. I love this faux fabric, it almost feels like my cat’s fur…

The Creator’s Sensory Perception
As a writer, or other creative person, sensory perception can be an important element in preparing a stimulating picture via words or graphic images. One of the most effective devices for creating believable images is drawing on our own memories. This is because referencing something we’ve encountered personally provides a depth of authenticity to any work we are undertaking.

The Truth of One’s Experience
This does not mean that we have to reveal our personal circumstances in order to truthfully share a sensory experience…unless we are presenting a work that is a memoir or similar personal expression, for which we are obligated to reveal this aspect of our lives. The truth of our sensory experiences can be shared without revelation of the circumstances in which they occur.  In fact, isolating the experience from its original circumstances, can encourage us to revisit the specifics of what we saw, smelled, heard, touched, and/or tasted with greater accuracy.

For example, while we may wish to describe the beauty of a star-lit night from our honeymoon, we do not need to provide details of the circumstances in which we viewed it. Even when we need to describe something we have not experienced, it’s good to seek out the concrete memories of those who have. In describing Shanghai in the 1920’s for Prospect for Murder, I drew on images shared by people whose fascination with the city transcended the actual era in which they traveled. And despite their degree of positive or negative reactions, I was able to utilize their perspectives to provide images of the bustling streets and even the scents they encountered in their sojourns.

In Murders of Conveyance, the third book in the Natalie Seachrist Hawaiian mysteries, my heroine overhears a conversation in Chinese from outside of the building in which she stands. I’m sure we can all think of times when we’ve  accidentally overheard a conversation, whether in a language we speak or not. When I moved to Honolulu at the beginning of the 1970s, there were many occasions in which I heard languages I couldn’t understand, nor even identify. Because I needed my heroine to feel connected to foreign dialogue, I inserted phonetic sounds that allowed Natalie to guess the speakers might be referencing someone she knew.

Stimulating Vocabulary
Sometimes we are fortunate to be able to utilize vocabulary or pictures that effectively mimics the images we wish to share.  I find the following words and phrases can bring clarity to a description, sometimes reaching beyond a single sense: wispy; screech; a snapping branch; wrinkled; razor’s edge; staccato; fragmented; shrunken; glassy; whispered; fiery.

The perception of other words often relies on those who read or hear them. Reference to an Upscale dining experience may arouse the taste and ambiance of a five-star restaurant to one person, and a fast-food joint to another. While the phrase Opulent jewelry signifies a strand of synthetic pearls with rhinestones to one reader, someone else may envision weighty crown jewels. Vintage clothing could generate a disco scene from the 1970s for a millennial, whereas someone my age may picture a flapper dress from the roaring twenties—the 1920’s that is. Similar variances can arise with an author or artist’s use of color and shape, as well as a composer’s insertion of pauses, changing rhythms, and escalating tones.

I’m fortunate that many of the images I wish to share in the O`ahu setting of the Natalie Seachrist mysteries practically write themselves: the sparkle and whooshing sound of incoming surf on a moonlit night; the stickiness of teriyaki sauce on a barbecued chicken thigh; the fresh fragrance of a flower lei, the stench of rotting plumeria blooms beneath an aging and neglected tree. But although I bring personal insight to such images, I must avoid cliché verbiage that will bore the veteran traveler. 

Your Target Audience
This brings us to a brief discussion of one’s audience…one’s target market. If you’re working within a recognized genre of literature, art, or music, there may be standards to which the majority of your audience will expect you to adhere. If you are striking out on your own to create a variant or wholly new artistic expression, you can move in any direction you wish…keeping in mind that you will need to attract some degree of a following in order to achieve any degree of success.

Accordingly, I sprinkle snippets of pan-Pacific and world history across my mystery plot-lines.  And while I present a fair number menu items within each book, I place actual recipes on my author website, rather than completely bogging down a story.  As to the cast of characters, folio art framing page numbers, chapter aphorisms, and linguistically and historically detailed glossaries, the reader can choose to appreciate or ignore them…

Wishing you the best on your own creative ventures,
Jeanne Burrows-Johnson, wordsmith and design consultant

Tips on research, composition, and marketing your work are available at Imaginingswordpower.com.
To learn more about my projects, please visit my author website at
JeanneBurrows-Johnson.com.

 

MEA CULPA

Your book series is doing well!  This truly is an accomplishment to cherish!  What must you do to ensure your writing career continues on an upward trajectory?  Regardless of whether you have a publisher or self-publish, problems can arise during the complex process of production.

Publishing Errors

I’ve previously discussed issues an author faces in publishing a series—regardless of genre.  Fortunately, the process of publication is seldom the responsibility of a single person.  Of course, as the author, the quality of the final product reflects on you—for it is you who will be facing the public.

As a reader, as well as an author, I have not heard of a book that arrives in a reader’s lap without flaws of one type or another.  They may be barely perceptible, and actually may be a matter of choice rather than outright error.

Whose Fault?

In truth, no matter how much effort [and sometimes treasure] you invest in maintaining the quality of your work, unexpected flaws can emerge.  They can arise from both overt errors, as well as from actions you failed to take.  Most of my errors come from copying and pasting text and repeating favorite words.  Unless one closely and repeatedly reads the edited text, words may end up out of sequence, or can be wholly missing.

Discovering Flaws

The process of finding errors can be simple or complicated.  In writing a series, you probably have a written or mental list of flaws you’re prone to make.  As I prepare for the publication of Murders of Conveyance and work to complete Yen for Murder, I’ve found that the following errors appear frequently:

~  Repeated words and phrases
My favorites, myriad and R & R.

~  Overuse of prepositional phrases
Mine frequent the beginning of sentences. 

~  Complicated action
I’ve found scenes in which a character would need three hands to accomplish what I’ve described.  I’ve also struggled to explain how hidden compartments are accessed…

~  Character flaws
Misspellings of names, and their pronunciation in audio books can easily occur, and did in the audio edition of Prospect for Murder.  Titles of officials and their organizations can be misstated or may change over time.  Evidently my love of British police procedurals produced my mixing of the word detective with the ranks of police officers.  In actuality, most police forces in the U.S. [including Hawai`i], do not do that.  A sergeant with the Honolulu Police Department who becomes a detective is simply referred to as detective, with higher ranking officers being referred to by their rank.

Major Errors

You might think that writing fiction means that few errors unrelated to grammar will materialize.  But issues of consistency still need to be addressed.  My own inconsistencies have included changing the floor on which protagonist Natalie has a condo and the color of the truck of her boyfriend and detecting partner Keoni.  While regretting even these minor mistakes, at least they do not interfere with the reader’s ability to follow the story.  I’m not sure the same can be said for the two lines of crossed-through text in Murder on Mokulua Drive.

One thing that cannot be ignored or casually dismissed is the erroneous reporting of a historical fact.  I was particularly embarrassed to discover that in copying and pasting text in the Glossary of Prospect for Murder, I mistakenly dropped a sentence relating to Hawaiian Princess Ka`iulani into the description of Queen Kapi`olani. This is an obvious mistake to readers who are familiar with the lineage of Hawaiian royals and a serious detraction from my desire to share Hawaiian history with a global readership.

Making Corrections

Having determined the cause of a problem, you face correcting it.  This can be fairly easy with the publication of a digital book, and other on-line pieces…That is, if you are capable of altering the text within the template that generated it. If you cannot do so yourself, you may have to return to the typographical artist who originally laid out the book. If you are not able to reconnect with them, you will have to find a new source of help.  Fortunately, my publisher is working to correct the MOMD Ebook error regarding Queen Kapi`olani.

Matters are more complex in correcting flaws in printed editions. Unfortunately, the error regarding the Queen can only be corrected when further batches of the books are printed.  I wish I could send out errata labels to everyone who has a copy of the book…The one thing I have done is to publish a message of Mea Culpa on Facebook!

Avoiding Repetition of the Crime

Once you’ve pinpointed the sources of flaws, you can seek appropriate ways to dodge their recurrence. This challenge is exacerbated in the production of a series.  To keep my projects separate but harmonious, I’ve prepared and continually update detailed reference notes listing aspects of appearance, voice, attire, movement and behavior. I also have spreadsheets that pinpoint chapter elements [such as when Natalie has which vision] and the family trees of major characters.

I’m glad that most of my readers enjoy references to daily life in the Hawaiian Islands—especially food.  There are, however, some who would prefer little discussion of food, beverages, relationships, history and cats.  At this point, I don’t foresee removing these elements from my tales—nor would I detract from plot lines by inserting actual recipes.  However, recipes  that reflect Natalie’s life, local restaurants and menu items one might expect at an Island gathering, do appear on my author website.  This has necessitated my keeping records of the food and beverages I write about for review during the writing of each book.

Variations…Not Errors

As a series unfolds, it is to be expected that improvements in writing style and changes in book layout may occur.  This doesn’t mean that earlier editions of books are necessarily flawed.  Happily, my publisher opted to offer embossing on the vibrant cover of Murder on Mokulua Drive.  And, as I like reference material to be readily accessible, we are enlarging the font that introduces Glossary sections.  Similarly, we are inserting spaces before and after the hyphens between author birth and death dates in chapter aphorisms.

Fortunately, while outright flaws need to be addressed, developments in an author’s style of writing and the presentation of their work can be things of beauty!

Wishing you the best,
Jeanne Burrows-Johnson, wordsmith and design consultant

Tips on research, composition, and marketing your work are available at ImaginingsWordpower.com

To learn more about my projects, please visit my author website at
JeanneBurrows-Johnson.com.