Ideas, Raw Blue and Synaesthesia
Following on from my last post, I wanted to talk you through one of the ideas that fed into Raw Blue. It’s a good example of the happy accidents that sometimes occur when you’re writing. Little moments of serendipity, when the universe throws solutions at you. If you want me to frame it in terms of the ‘write what you know’ thing – it was something I just knew about my character, but in no other way did I 'know' it. In fact, I'd never heard of it before.
Raw Blue was born from a couple of things converging at once. The initial impetus for the story came from my reaction to some high profile sexual assault cases that were in the media at the time. I also wanted to capture the place where I was surfing – the people, the natural environment, and some of the moments it had given me. And I knew my main character, Carly, fairly quickly. She was nineteen, and more than anything else, she wanted to be alone. If I had an emotional ‘in’ to Carly’s story (see Trinja’s comment in the previous post), it was anger (the deep seated, self-destructive kind), and also, oddly enough, gratitude.
All of the other characters arrived in the course of my first draft. And I wanted to tell you about one of them in particular – Danny.
Danny is fifteen, he surfs, he’s Eurasian, and his parents have split up and he lives with his mum. He and Carly become mates over the course of the story. And I knew one other thing about Danny: he associates people he knows well with a strong sense of colour. To this day, I have no idea why I had decided this about him. I had never heard of anything like that before. I told a couple of people about it, and the first thing they asked was, Do you mean like an aura? And no, that wasn’t what I meant. The colour he got from people happened in his own head. It was his reaction to them, not something they were giving off.
Then one day I was reading the newspaper and I came across an article on Synaesthesia. A condition where people get additional sensory stimulus from certain triggers. So, a synaesthete might get colours from numbers, or letters, or words, or even the days of the week. Or they might smell something weird when they hear a certain sound.
That’s interesting, I thought. After that, I started researching Synaesthesia big time (see? good segue, Jordi - commenter from the previous post!). I ended up emailing academics overseas who’d published research papers on the condition, and then, closer to home, I got in touch with Dr Anina Rich at Macquarie University in Sydney, who heads up a Synaesthesia Research group (for more info, click here).
The bonus to all this was that I got to learn about some interesting stuff. And it also helped the writing. For instance, after that, Danny’s colour responses became a lot more three-dimensional. More generally, it really made me think about how I used the senses in my descriptions.
But the ultimate question is – would I have followed through on the colour thing even if I hadn’t found a rational reason for it? The story is contemporary, and there are no paranormal or supernatural elements, so including something like that might have been problematic if it didn’t come off as realistic.
The answer is yes, I would have. That doesn’t mean I would have held on to it no matter what – part of the writing process is getting feedback, and the question of whether or not to include it would have been solved at this point anyway. But in terms of writing my first couple of drafts, I would have included it. To me, it was so intertwined with Danny’s character that I truly believed it of him. So the challenge would have been to write it with enough conviction to make the reader believe it, too.
Which I guess is a large part of what writing fiction is, isn’t it? And that’s why I don’t really buy into using the labels ‘contemporary’ and ‘fantasy’ as a way of connoting whether one is more ‘real’ than the other. I think it comes down to the writing. How about you guys?
PS If you want to know something really weird – while writing the book I only ever talked to Dr Rich on the phone or via email (and at that time there were no photos of her on the web). Then, maybe six months or so after the book had been published, I went for a walk on one of the beaches near where I live (not one I normally go to either). There weren't many people around, but there was another woman there, and I had the strongest sense that I knew her, even though we'd definitely never met before. We started talking and guess who it was? Yep.