As the weather breaks and we head into autumn, the Prime Writers are turning their attention to the senses.
Today, we join Christina Banach, author of the young adult novel Minty. Christina considers how to handle the senses in your writing – when your narrator is a ghost…
It was the sense of smell that sparked the idea for my novel, Minty.
Some years ago, in the middle of the night, I thought I sensed my late father’s presence: the self-same aroma of flour and sugar that used to linger on his overalls when he worked as a baker-confectioner during my early childhood. Although Dad had died the previous November, this wasn’t the first time that I’d detected this distinctive scent around my house. The question was, why?
Was my father trying to contact me – to tell me something? These thoughts ran through my mind as, unable to get back to sleep, I sat in the sunroom. Then, just as the sun rose, I heard my dog panting and put out my hand to stroke her. Until it struck me – how could it be my pet? She’d died the month before. That’s when Minty came to me: the tale of a teenage girl to whom the unimaginable happens. The story of twin sisters, Minty and Jess, whose unbreakable bond is challenged in the most heart-breaking way. As I sat in that room it was as if could see these girls before me. I knew how their story began and how it ended, plus much of what happened to them in-between, and became convinced that this was a story I just had to write.
Minty deals with universal themes such as love, loss and family, grief, hope and redemption, but it also attempts to answer one of the big questions in life, namely, what happens to us after we die? Big themes for any novel, ones that certainly challenged me as I wrote mine, but never more so than when I tried to include all of the senses into my writing.
You see, this book is written from the point-of-view of a ghost; a girl who exists somewhere in that shadowland between life and death. A ghost who can see and hear but can’t taste, smell, or touch anything in the living world. In other words, one whose normal sensations of existence are seriously curtailed. As a writer this posed several complications, especially when it came to that all-important advice to ‘show, not tell’. Because, how do you create a fully-realised lead character when she can’t interact properly with the world around her? How do you show her reactions and feelings to what’s happening to her? Tricky, but not impossible.
Let’s take the sense of touch. How could I show Minty in her new reality – one where she can sit, stand and run without her body sinking through the solid surfaces of the natural world, whilst also showing the difficulties she encounters when attempting to touch the loved ones she’s left behind there?
‘I blink, rub my eyes, and look along the row again at Jess and my parents. And for the millionth time I ask myself surely this can’t be happening? Maybe this is all some crazy nightmare? Or a cruel joke that someone’s playing on me? I hide my head in my hands. Yeah, it’s cruel all right. I can touch my skin, my hair. But I can’t touch Jess…’
To answer this, I turned to science, or more particularly physics: reacting to forces, movement, electricity etc. In short, I manipulated scientific facts to meet my needs. Additionally, I constructed an argument about the infinite power of the mind in relation to these, and tried to show how not everything in the living world can be explained scientifically. I hope I was successful but you’d need to read the book to judge that for yourself.
“But at school, in science, they told us that thinking was all to do chemical messages between synapses, or something. So how come we’re dead – our brains are dead – and yet we can still think? I don’t get it. And that doesn’t explain everything. What about when I go to pick things up, or move things, why can’t I do that? And what about Remus? What’s the deal with dogs? And—”
One of Minty’s several frustrations in her new life is not being able to smell or taste things – food, for example. She has no actual sense of hunger yet still lusts after the things she adored in life, such as burgers, pizza and bananas. However, she uses one of these unrequited desires to her advantage as a way to communicate with her grieving dad.
‘Do something then, Minty. Show Dad she’s telling it how it is.
Concentrate. Concentrate. Put yourself into the moment. Concentrate…
On what? Ah, that would be telling!
Thus far I’ve only touched upon the five senses, yet there’s one more sense that I haven’t discussed and that is a writer’s sixth sense: the visceral reaction that grips when crafting a story, the feeling that something within the manuscript isn’t working – a gut instinct, if you will. In my experience it can take some time to recognize this sense, to trust it. But acknowledge and trust it you must, and it demands to be acted upon. For instance, Minty had a brother in draft one of the manuscript but my gut told me that, however much I may love him, this character was complicating the story. The result? I ‘killed my darling’ and my book was all the better for it.
So, in conclusion, what am I to make of that morning in my sunroom when my sense of smell led me to write Minty’s story? Was Dad trying to tell me something? I’m honestly not sure. One thing I am certain about, though, is that my father’s last birthday gift to me was that of a laptop, and that his words to me on having opened his present were this – “You’ve been given a talent, Christina. Use it!” To put this in context, I was working as a headteacher at that point and couldn’t find the time to properly devote to my writing. In truth, I was on the verge of giving up. Eight months later my dad died, several months after this I resigned my post, and only weeks later I discovered Minty.