Ursula LeGuin has said that the writer’s job is to “put into words what cannot be put into words.” Writers of fiction—mainstream, horror, magic realism and fantasy as well as science fiction—have cheerfully (or not so cheerfully) accepted this job for uncounted centuries.
What sort of things are we trying to put into words?
In the classic Something Wicked This Way Comes Ray Bradbury gives this evocative description of the month of October:
First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month: school begins. Consider August, a good month: school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine: there’s no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June’s best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September’s a billion years away. But you take October, now. School’s been on a month and you’re riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you’ll dump on old man Prickett’s porch, or the hairy-ape costume you’ll wear to the YMCA the last night of the month. And if it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.
As Keanu Reaves would say: “Whoa.”
Then there’s Shirley Jackson. Known mostly for her women’s fiction, Jackson is familiar to readers of horror and fantasy for The Haunting of Hill House, in which she gives readers this gift:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
What these scenes have in common is a particular type of “alienness.” The month of October is something we are all intimately familiar with, having lived through it repeatedly. It’s my favorite month—in part because of how Ray Bradbury’s description made me feel. Houses, too, are not alien objects, but Shirley Jackson has made Hill House not only alien, but terrifyingly so. She has also endowed it with a terrifying persona, making it a diabolical character in the novel. She starts to do this from the first page. Both Bradbury and Jackson have taken mundane, every day things and made them seem alien.
The flip side of this, of course, is when a writer undertakes to describe something alien in terms a human being can imagine. Here, I offer a bit of one of my own stories—a description of an alien communication medium from Squatter’s Rights (first published in Analog magazine):
It was black. Solid black, she would have said, but it was not quite solid. It had a peculiar sheen to it—a depth of field that made her suspect that if she poked a finger into it, nothing would stop the thrust. Then there were the colors. They were part of the black; they moved through it kinetically, tugging the eye with a tease of blue, a hint of sunset, a shimmer of velvet green. But trying to focus on the color brought about a frustration of the senses. The directed eye saw only black, while the rainbow of hues skittered temptingly out of the way to linger just on the edge of sight. ….She ran tentative fingers over the obsidian surface. Her eyes said the object was solid, or at least dense, and its surface, smooth; but her fingertips told tales of silken fabric, mist-cool liquid, grains of sand. There was a faint aroma like strawberries. She tilted the tile. No, it was grass, wet grass. And she heard water rushing over rocks…or was that the whisper of wind? She peered at the shifting surface. Her eyes slipped after an image—was that a face? And wasn’t this a building with graceful, upswept eaves? Grinning, shaking her head, she handed the shard back.
So, there’s that haunting question again: How does one achieve fresh, alien perspectives? Here’s one starting point: Lists.
Ray Bradbury made copious lists of anything that caught his eye or ear—a phrase, a snatch of lyric, a word, a title, a word-picture. He said that he looked at them every night and every morning and that eventually every one of the ideas will find its way into a story. I’d add to this that evocative scents, sounds, music, textures, can also spark those story ideas. You may find that listening to a particular piece of music puts pictures into your head or that a particular scent evokes a place. Listen to the music, smell the aroma, then record what you see, hear, feel, etc.
There are two important pieces of advice I can give once you’ve identified an idea source:
- Experience the source. This can almost be a meditation. Basically, you want to milk that source (whether it’s in the form of words or music or scent etc) for all the feelings and images you can.
- Record the experience. Write stuff down—as briefly and vividly as possible.
Nothing a writer experiences is ever lost. It’s archived against the day when we’ll need it to evoke a sensation—new or used—in our readers.