Sunday, January 07, 2007

Auld Lang Syne

Whenever a power crunch occurs people often revert to more primitive means of light and heat - candles, wood stoves, fireplaces.
Inevitably, some dreadful tragedies result, because people forget or never learned some basic safety requirements regarding raw flame.

Writers depend, sometimes unconsciously, on readers possessing a body of knowledge, on a communal understanding or memory to supply background for our stories.

It doesn't always work.
Knowledge gets lost, replaced, or becomes irrelevant as societies advance in technology.

I was asked what image I was trying to achieve with the following:

our faces washed to bloody bone in the streaming torchlight.

While the picture may have been clear to me, I eventually realized it might not create the same visual to someone who has never seen a torch.
Never seen how wind or motion moves and spreads flame like a banner.
Never seen by flambeaux, the scarlet sculpture of a skull.

It's neither the reader's fault - nor mine.
But something to consider.


Erik Ivan James said...

Excellent point, Bernita! I often wonder, after the fact of course, if the reader sees the same picture that I saw when I wrote the scene. Or, if they might have the same or similar reference/experience base that I have, which created the scene in my mind to begin with.

spyscribbler said...

So true. It's so difficult. Sometimes, I uncover bits in my research that fascinate me because they're contrary to the prejudices and popular beliefs. They end up in my story, and readers write me to tell me I've got that bit wrong.

What to do? Do you write to popular belief, even when it's wrong, just so readers will think you've done your research? I can't imagine doing that. But in the end, the reader tends not to look it up; they just assume that the author didn't, LOL.

(All that to say that I loved your image. And, btw, I love that your annals resemble poetry a little bit. I think that's their beauty.)

Anonymous said...


But I love your description. It also evokes a certain movement, say as in sound, and then in feeling. And that's just as important to a reader. You've got voice and tone.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Erik.
As writers we have to make assumptions. Sometimes, we can make them "see" regardless, and sometimes we blow it.

It's a fine line, Spy, along which a writer wavers like a drunk. Frustrating.
Thank you.
Beauty or not, it seems to be my style.

Thank you, Janie. Appreciate that vote.

Anonymous said...

On a more basic level. I write something and misspell a word or two that I know how to spell correctly. When I read over it, I read the word correctly, but still don't catch the misspelling. We see what we want, but it's not always what was intended. I hope I'm making sense.

Bernita said...

It took about 35 edits on a WIP before I noticed I had written "cuneiform" rather than "cruciform", Steve.

Still, in my post case, I prefer to blame the fugit of tempus, rather than myself.

December Quinn said...

I've had the same experience, spyscribbler. Sucks, doesn't it?

No, there's certainly no guarantees people will see things the way we see them. We just do the best we can, I guess.

Bernita said...

I remember a certain instance, December!
Some critics are so set up in their self-conceit that their comments defy learning, logic or common sense!

writtenwyrdd said...

Here I disagree with you, in the specific example at least. While lack of shared experience can keep the reader from getting your meaning, in this case, I thought the imagery was fantastic.

Please, if the person had ever considered the action of a candle flame, a match flame or any flame when moving air struck it, he/she would know what 'streaming torchlight' indicated. And we all of us have seen the action of colored light on things.

This one wasn't your fault; it was the reader's failure to imagine and to listen.

Bernita said...

And there's the history channel...
Thank you, Written.
However, people don't always "see' what they look at, it seems; and amazing as it sounds, some writers may lack imagination.
Certainly, that passage really bugged the hell out of one critic, and I'm trying to figure out why.

writtenwyrdd said...

Bernita, I have learned that sometimes the best response to a confrontation is to Just Back Away From The Crazy Person. Ignore them. You cannot figure out that person's perspective when it doesn't make sense.

Carla said...

Well, I don't think I've ever seen a flaming torch in the flesh, and I grasped the image.
I went over to EE and read the comments. (Why did you owe him, by the way?) I was reminded of a senior editorial colleague of mine who used to have a sign over her desk that read:
"The most basic human need has nothing to do with food, shelter, safety or sex. It is the overriding compulsion to change/alter/amend/modify/ improve/vary/modulate/correct/ revise/rearrange/variegate/change
someone else's copy."
I wouldn't worry.

Bernita said...

That's a delicious quote, Carla!
Particularly true of writers - and I don't exclude myself from the itchy pen syndrome either!

I "owe" EE because he put up a piece of his own and I trashed it.
So he suggested I submit something.
Fair is fair.

Rowan said...

I have learned, from writing my own prose, technical reports, even wargaming scenarios, that each person reads with their own baggage firmly attached. There is little the writer can do save their best to convey the image or idea. That and a few edits never hurts.

raine said...

It was a striking image, Bernita. I pictured it right away. But then, I remember time spent at my Grandmother's house in the woods sans electricity, and even during lightning storms.
It's a fine line to walk, isn't it? I've often put descriptions or references in stories that made perfect sense to me, or seemed quite obvious, only to have it questioned by someone later.
All you can do is write your story.

Bernita said...

Very true, Rowan.

In the end, yes, Raine.
I wonder, sometimes, if one could chart which images seem to excite the most reaction.

Rick said...

This reminds me once more of the hilarious misunderstanding when I had a sea captain gave the order to "gather up some hands" after a battle. Though that was a matter of specialized rather than archaic usage.

Really, though, my reader's misunderstanding made sense; the image of dismembered hands scattered around the deck would be as hard to dislodge as a tiresome houseguest. I don't see how even non-familiarity with torches would be a problem in reading your line.

Daisy Dexter Dobbs said...

Stunning imagery, Bernita. I have to be cautious about including outdated phraseology or references--terms I may still use in conversation but that might leave my younger readers scratching their heads in wonder.

Bernita said...

And I have a problem with your reader's misunderstanding, Rick.
The synedoche of "hands", even without a naval context, is so firmly entrenched in everyday language as to be an automatic I would think.

That is a consideration, Daisy, and a good observation - especially since slang and social references seem to change so rapidly.
Who remembers an Edsel and why, for example.
Thank you.

writtenwyrdd said...

But still, when you receive feedback, if there is one lone voice railing against a word choice, then I would be comfortable ignoring it.

Now, if you get a host of objections, that's a different story.

Bernita said...

Certainly, Written.
Still, one has to analyze the objections and determine their basis.

writtenwyrdd said...

Well, that's where I disagree. If after a couple of moments of pondering I don't get the gripe, I ignore it.

Rick said...

Bernita, I guess I give my reader some slack because the image of dismembered hands scattered around a deck would be so hard to shake if it came even for a moment. (After all, I still remember it, after some 15 years!)

I remember Edsels, even having seen a few still on the road!

Anonymous said...

An excellent point. Everyone takes away their own interpretation. This also means that people will focus on different things...