No lie. I spent several hours creating a chart of textures, and another of colors.
Because I'm a writer and I can write it off as a work expense. Okay, not really, but I can pass it off as required workplace maintenance in order to do my work projects efficiently. Okay, that's a stretch, too.
In my WIP (working title Simi), Simi has a thing for textures. She touches trees, cloths, yarns, anything she walks past. She also is a weaver, mixing together colors and helping her sister and other neighbors dye. Because she could have any number of different blue skeins, or red ones, or purple ones, she has names for them all. (Also, I can't just say blue or dark purple every few pages.) So the solution is to use sky or lavender or peach, right?
The first problem? A peach is not just one color. Look at a peach. It's got yellow, orange, and sometimes a dark reddish-pink. The inside is yellowish. Not really the color we think of as "peach." The second problem? The book's world is based on pre-columbian South America. Peaches came to the Americas with Europeans. Yes, I could always pretend that in my world there are peaches, and most readers won't even think about it, but I want to stick with things native to the region.
So each time I wanted to describe a color, I'd look it up. Try it. "Things that are blue." Lots of results, like sapphire, jeans, USPS drop box, bluebird... Okay, my fantasy world doesn't have USPS. Sapphire is a cliche comparison, and can actually be just about any color. Bluebird is decent. So we get more specific. "Blue animals." Now we have poison dart frogs. They come in various colors, not always blue, but it lives in the right area, and can't you at least picture the vividness?
How about "blue gemstones?" Some aren't helpful (fluorite comes in many colors) but you find aquamarine, azurite, iolite, lapis lazuli, and turquoise in my target region, all various blues, some edging toward green or purple. Search blue flowers, blue foods, blue insects, blue birds, shades of blue, plants that create blue dyes, images of blue things...and one by one you get names you can use for a specific blue. Think creatively. New bruises, snow in shadow, sunrise, summer. Some situations call for more literal color descriptions than others. But isn't "the blue of distant hills" much more interesting than "light blue?"
And, rather than going through the whole search again each time, I finally compiled my results into a list. I searched foods, plants, animals, minerals, anything from the region, and put what I could into my color chart.
It sounds obsessive, but it's actually pretty fun. This must be what it's like to name paints.
Textures were easier. I found a list of 400 words for texture, arranged alphabetically. The hard part was just eliminating ones that weren't quite textures and sorting the rest into categories. Again, it's pretty fun to figure out how to group such a wide array of descriptors.
Did I feel ashes this week to know how to describe them?
I sure did. I don't go camping often, and I definitely never ran my hands through a pile of ashes. But it turned out we have years-old ashes in the wood stove. Ashes look like tiny charcoals, but when you touch them they don't actually have substance. They just crumble into nothing. They hardly even feel like anything. They're pretty cushiony, but the best word for the feeling of them is âelusive.â
What's the weirdest thing you've ever felt? For me, cow udders. Tell me in the comments.
"Write what you know."
That's the advice a lot of beginning writers hear. But if we just wrote what we knew, our characters would too often have our hobbies, live in our hometowns, and never do things we haven't experienced. Writing what you know limits fantasy, horror, science fiction, even historical fiction if we're not historians. It restricts most of us us from writing about doctors, lawyers, mental illnesses, horses, Peru, farmers, being rich, living in poverty... you get the idea.
(But at least it lets you write a choking-on-swamp-water scene based on the time you almost drowned on Dr Pepper at Qdoba because someone told a fart story.)
So my modification of this advice is:
"Write what you know. If you don't know it, learn it."
And to learn, we research. Sometimes we have to research very specific topics or questions that don't always get us answers. Sometimes we spend an hour looking up names for grey, because we've already used ash and hematite, and the characters have never seen steel or concrete to compare a color to. And sometimes, we make weird searches and hope no one sees in our browser history that we Googled "man shave face how often."
So in the name of getting details right in my fiction, here are some searches I've made while writing Beyond the Mountain, of varying levels of weirdness. Not all of them even made it into the later drafts of the book.
I lived in Kenya with my parents and younger brothers in the mid-2000s. It was the first time I'd been out of the country since I was 3, and besides one vague memory of a trip to Washington, DC I couldn't remember ever being outside the Carolinas or Georgia.
Kenya is on the equator, so the temperature and day/night length are pretty constant all year. Nairobi is elevated, so it's cool. I remember some sweatshirt days, but I can't remember if it ever got hot except during the week we spent at the coast.
In the city, most people walk or use public transportation--buses and 14-passenger vans called matatus. Matatus usually have a yellow band painted around them, along with their 80KPH speed limit. Cars drive on the left side of the road, but weave into your lane as they avoid all the potholes. Kids walk to school in collared white shirts, blue sweaters, navy skirts or shorts, and grey knees socks with stripes around the top (uniform colors vary, but these are the ones I remember).
I went to an American school that had buses, flat-front ones painted green and white, with a manually operated folding door, seat belts, and about 25 seats. Houses and compounds have gates and walls topped with barbed wire or broken glass. Bricks are larger and greyer than in the US. Roofs are reddish clay tiles. The natural world is green, like North Carolina, but a greener sort of green. There are palm trees and banana plants, and a single banana leaf is as big as a person.
Many windows are louvered glass slats 6" wide that overlap but don't seal closed, with security bars. My house didn't have (or need) heat or air conditioning, and above each window was a vent in the wall (with a screen to keep out mosquitoes). The living room had parquet flooring, and the kitchen had linoleum tiles like you'd see in a classroom or a 50s diner, only they were red. No one in my family liked those red tiles. For some reason, the bathroom light switches were on the outside of the bathrooms.
Sodas are available anywhere. Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, and Fanta Orange. Some places also have Fanta Blackcurrant, but any restaurant or grocery store will have the first four options.
I don't know that there was ever a household we visited that didn't have sodas to offer us. They're cheap, and if you buy it in a glass bottle, some kiosks let you return the bottle for a small discount on your new purchase. Plastic bottles are 500mL, but glass bottles are available in 300mL or 500mL.
It seemed everyone had a mobile phone, and it was pretty cheap to buy minutes. There was a Celtel billboard near our house that showed two Masai men on bikes. At least one of them wore the traditional Masai red shuka, and both men were using their cell phones.
Part of what I love about fantasy is that anything can happen. A high school kid probably isn't going be ambushed by bad guys or lead a heist or attend an academy to learn a system of magic. But he might if he lives in some fantasy or futuristic world.
But another huge appeal to me is place. After living in Kenya I'm very interested in cultural anthropology, and after researching settings for my book I have a growing love for all kinds of climates, architecture, terrains, and everyday living. Even when they're only made up.
What I love about faraway places (or long ago places, or invented ones) are the everyday details.