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Seeing is Deceiving

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This past week I’ve crossed off two items on my unofficial bucket list. Playing soccer and getting a henna tattoo. I picked out a peacock feather design. They are gorgeous and peacocks are something of an inside joke with a couple of my writing friends. Except, when I posted a picture of my peacock feather, it was mistaken for a centipede by several people.

That’s great. I hate, loathe, and despise those creatures. It all started with the summer I lived in Okinawa. They have giant orange ones that are poisonous and jump. That little fact pretty much killed my desire to explore the numerous caves on the island. And when I say giant, I mean if the design on my arm was a centipede, it would be life sized!

This little controversy reminded me of “the dress” from a few months back. I was certain it was white and gold until I read a few articles that explained it was black and blue and why I saw it as white and gold. Our eyes can fool us.

These incidents made me think of sight and physical description in writing. Sight is often heavily used in writing to set the scene. Last week I wrote about smell, so after the henna tattoo “controversy” it only made sense [intentional word use] to write about sight.

The thing is, sight can be as subjective as any other sense. This is something else that came up on Facebook this week. Who should describe a location? The newcomer or the native returning after a long absence. As a child, we would often go on long vacations (3-4 weeks). When we came home, it was something of a game to see what had changed. This was Indiana in the era of inflation and high interest rates, not the boom years of the late 1990s or 2000s. I suspect a newcomer wouldn’t have noticed any changes. But one of my parents would inevitably pick out something that had either gone out-of-business, opened-up, or changed locations.

In my first full-length novel, the heroine describes her hometown, church, school, etc. It makes sense. She’s from there but also views it with a skeptical eye. She’s a visual person with an eye for detail, and the ability to find humor in everything from her grandparents’ mansion to a seedy motel. My hero is too preoccupied with being the new kid with a secret to hide, to soak up his new world. Although it’s through his eyes that we see the heroine’s house. That is intentional. He’s learning about her through her home. I also let him describe the doctor’s office because it’s a window into a world our heroine doesn’t understand.

I’m working through several of those “100 books” lists. One of my most-recent reads was On the Road. I’ve traveled all over the country, so I loved reading Kerouac’s account of crossing the Great Planes, Denver, San Francisco, and places between like Fresno and Cheyenne. I have a feel for what these towns were like in the late 1940s/early 1950s. Another book I finished was Indiana-native Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons. The beginning of the novel is hilarious because Tarkington uses anonymous comments from townspeople to describe the Ambersons and their mansion. I could see my ancestors making similar observations back in that era.

Of course in the speculative fiction world, all five senses are necessary. Whether science fiction, fantasy, dystopian, steam punk, or supernatural, a world has to be built.

What novels have captured your attention with their descriptions? Have you ever been deceived by sight?


About Gretchen E K Engel

Chemical engineer by day, spec fiction writer by night

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