When I first thought up the Darkborn, I never envisioned writing three novels about them (plus an assortment of short story beginnings scattered like crumbs – or maybe seeds – on my hard drive). I had Balthasar and Floria, and the paper wall between them, and I had Tercelle Amberley arriving in distress on Balthasar’s doorstep, and I had Telmaine coming down the stairs and encountering Ishmael. Who was a Shadowhunter, whatever that was.
I ought to know by now to watch those offhand remarks. I toss one off, and when I look again it has sprouted and ramified, and turned into a major part of the plot.
So I hadn’t considered the sustained exercise of writing a novel completely lacking in visual references. The Darkborn are born without vision: they have eyes, but the optic nerve is atrophied. They replace vision with a sense akin to sonar; however, although the liberties I have taken are considerable. The original reference is Howard C Hughes fascinating book, Sensory Exotica. Electroreception is going to work its way into a story, one of these days.
First of all, I couldn’t use colour. I couldn’t describe the colour of peoples’ hair, eyes and complexions. I couldn’t describe the colour of curtains or carpets or tiles or linoleum or wallpaper or trinkets or flame or … or anything. In one stroke I’d lost the use of every single colour-word I possessed – and I keep lists of them, even the ones so archaic or extravagant as to be inadmissible to modern prose. I lost all references to distance; it’s not merely indistinct, as it is for myopes such as myself, but beyond reach of their senses. I had to expunge all references to distance and things only seen at a distance, sky, stars, clouds, etc, though horizon works its way in there, via an outré piece of artwork. I’d to start thinking about living in a world composed entirely of echoes, sounds, shapes, volumes, textures, and smells. My first concentrated exercise in it was that scene in Darkborn where Ishmael is lurking and waiting to speak to Vladimer. Ish is an excellent viewpoint for an immersion in the world of the Darkborn, because he pays such close attention to his senses. Balthasar and Telmaine are both urbanites.
Next, eyes are irrelevant to the Darkborn. I couldn’t describe looks or glances, directed or exchanged, when I was in Darkborn heads. No-one’s eyes would meet another’s in a private moment. In my teens, I’d been given a boxed set of Jane Austin’s novels, and the introduction to one of them described Austen’s portrayal of the language of looks and glances in playing out relationships and social exchanges in that repressed and rôle-prescriptive society. Nothing else about Austen took (truly), but I liked that. With the Darkborn, I lost that vocabulary, too; I had to do much more with speech, tone, and timing. I think being a regular listener to radio drama helped
Furthermore, there’s no watching from the sidelines. A Darkborn can listen without being observed, but the moment he or she sonns, his or her attention becomes obvious to the listener. That changes the dynamics; passivity is less achievable. Sneaking around is challenging, since Darkborn are aware each others’ sonn. Scenes such as the one where Ishmael comes into Tercelle’s house required strategy, on my part as well as his. I wasn’t quite writing action with my eyes shut – because doing that has the tendency to produce output like piy[iy ;olr yjod, but I was deep in my head.
If I admit to doing this, someone’s sure to send me an email saying ‘you missed one’, but I did try to remove all visual references. I kept ‘visualized’, as a generic term for an internal representation of a reality, but I tried to round up and substitute for ‘look/looked’, ‘see/saw/seen’, ‘watch/watched’, etc, without getting into verbal contortions. There was a point late in the edits of Darkborn when I was so sensitized to the words that they distracted me in other people’s writing.
I got a bit odd, I must admit. One does – well, I do – when the writing becomes intense. If the phone rings, I’m not quite sure who’s going to answer it. I’ve experienced my characters’ dreams and the odd attack of social anxiety for violating imaginary customs. At one point during the revision of the Darkborn sections of Lightborn I could be found following a nervous pigeon along a side-street, trying to find the exact words for the softly opaque, greyish cream of its feathers. I’d go into a trance in the grocery store with a tomato in my hand, tripping on its pure redness. (When I was writing Blueheart, it was plums. Eight hours writing, and I’d be standing in Safeway thinking, ‘what is this thing?’, bewildered to find myself on dry land). I blame the need to go on restorative colour trips for my fascination with the graphics capabilities of R, and the vcd package – though I think the 20″ by 20″ mosaic plot that took 1.5 hours to render was carrying it to excess.