I spent a while yesterday morning sitting on a bench overlooking Puget Sound and was struck by how, although the water looked the same as it must have looked for thousands of years, the sky was very different. It was full of contrails–not just the sword-like slash of a just-cut trail, but also the gauzy cloud that such trails turn into. How long is it since I saw a trailless sky? Probably six or seven years (Sept 12th, 2001). It would be easy to fall into the unconscious trap of describing sky in terms of the twenty-first century.
But I’m writing about the seventh century. Skies were different, then. The smell of the air was different: no deodorant, no plumbing, no clean gas heat; no petroleum-based combustion engines, no Indian or Thai spices (not in the time and place I’m thinking of). No aniline dyes. No plastics. Lots of dung and disease. Lots of wet wool. Lots of delicately-scented weld, and the aromas of malting and oasting barley. Peat smoke. Baking bread. Bad teeth. Freshly tanned leather. Dogs. Horses. Unwashed hair.
And then there’s the imagery. People can’t pop up from behind a wall like balloons. They would have to pop up like, hmmn, like laundry with the air trapped in it pops from the water, like a piece of wood from a ship breaking up on the bottom of the sea. A horrible sound couldn’t be like fingernails on a blackboard, it would be, well, uh, ask me later.
I love this part of the writing discovery process. It’s not just about politics, or gender roles, or character or story, it’s about building a world. I’m living in another time and country, and I don’t need to pack.