Wednesday Writers: Narrelle Harris

I first met Narrelle at my second convention, and my first Melbourne con – Continuum in 2011. During the Con I had the opportunity to moderate a panel for the first time and was rather nervous (to put it mildly). It was a panel that depended on audience interaction to work, and Narrelle was one of the audience members whose input made it a real success, something for which I was hugely grateful. She was also kind enough allow me to email her and ask her some questions about some of the excellent points she raised in one of her own panels, and she also steered me in the right direction in developing my writing through study. That an established writer would take the time to do so was something I thought was very generous and really encouraged me at a formative time.

So, I was delighted to discover that not only was she a great person, but also an extremely talented writer who has gone from strength to strength with each release. And, as you can see from her bio, her skills do not end with fiction! Naturally I had to get her on board for Wednesday Writers, and I am sure that any writer will find this post hugely helpful.

Writing with five senses

World building can be a tricky business. There’s so much to consider. Social systems, economic systems, political systems, gender roles, landscapes, geography, rules of physics, laws of magic, flora, fauna, what colour is the sky?

Sometimes, when writing, we can get lost in the vista. We explain how things work, and what they look like, but maybe we forget that places have other sensations as well.

While describing what the elements of a world looks like is important, we have four other senses that experience any world we inhabit. Places sound and smell and even taste different from each other. Some of them feel different under your feet or under your hands.

Cobblestones under foot in an old Central European town square seem to change their shape as I try not to twist my ankle on them, but it’s a different kind of treachery to walk on than a smooth, wet Melbourne footpath.

Melbourne, my adopted home town, has all kinds of experiences I associate with it at different times of year and at different times of the day.

At night, I sometimes hear a brief hiss-crackle and see a flash of light as tram pantographs flare up at intersections.

At twilight in spring and summer, I can hear hundreds of sparrows chirruping away as they find their roosts for the night in the trees along Elizabeth Street. On some days the clip-clop of the horse-drawn carriages are pure Melbourne, and sometimes they transport me to the calishes that ply for trade along the esplanade in Alexandria, Egypt, and sometimes to the medieval square of Krakow where rows of carriages wait to take tourists down to Wawel castle.

The smell of wood smoke always takes me to winter in Krakow, now, because it’s a scent I so strongly associated with my year in that city. Some very hot, very dry days smell like house bricks and dust baking in 35C+ degree days and will forever be Cairo in summer to me.

I still remember waking in Cairo at 4am some summer mornings and hearing the call to prayer at some middling distant mosque. Some mosques had the most musical muezzins, with their Allah Akhbar! sounding so exotic to my ears, so beautiful. The day outside was not yet started, though cool, hazy light was starting to spill over the city. It was a quality of light and a spiritual sound that existed in a separate world to the din and bustle of Cairo at any other time of the day or night.

I remember, too, that the hot, hard stone of the Great Pyramids in the Egyptian sun had a different feel and a different smell to the moss-covered temple stones in the humidity of Thailand.

Born and bred in Australia, I discovered that European autumn had its own sounds. We were walking through a forest in Krakow one crisp autumn day, off to visit a monastery that was only open to visitors once a year (and the incredible sound of the chanting of the temple’s monks that swelled out of the gates of that medieval building as we approached made it into one of my Witch books, I loved it so much).

During the walk, I could hear a faint rustle and patter, which turned out to be part a gentle sprinkle of rain against dry leaves, and part the falling of red and yellow autumn leaves to the already leaf-thick ground. I come from a country full of non-deciduous trees and I didn’t know that sound could happen.

Neither did I know that fresh snow crunched underfoot when mine were the first feet to step in it. Sometimes it even squeaked a little.

There’s a chocolate factory in Krakow, too, which made the air taste and smell of chocolate, which wasn’t as nice as you’d think. It was too sweet and a little stale and altogether strange and overpowering.

Coastal towns smell like sea salt, but coastal holiday towns out of season smell of stale, damp concrete and carry the creak of empty swings moving in cold winds in unused playgrounds.

In my vampire novels, my vampire Gary hasn’t eaten food since the 1960s. He’s missed out on a food revolution. As part of his friendship with Lissa, she eats all these things he can smell but not ingest and describes their flavours and textures to him. It’s become an important part of the world of vampire-inhabited Melbourne I’ve created.

When you’re building your world, stop in the middle of your own sometime and close your eyes. What else is going on? What are your other five senses telling you? Visit new places and be receptive to what makes them distinctive. Use your five senses to make the worlds you create as full and as deep as the one you live in.

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Her book, The Opposite of Life, is a vampire novel set in Melbourne. In March 2012, her short story collection, Showtime, became the fifth of the 12 Planets series (released by World Fantasy Award winning Twelfth Planet Press). Walking Shadows, the sequel to The Opposite of Life, is due for release by Clan Destine Press in June 2012.

Narrelle also writes in the business sector. She created the Melbourne Literary iPhone app in association with Sutro Media. Her second app in partnership with Sutro, Melbourne Peculiar, was released in May 2012. You can find out more about the apps at www.iwriter.com.au/apps.

Find out more about Narrelle’s work at her website, www.narrellemharris.com, and her blog, www.mortalwords.com.au.

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