Mistakes Authors Make (When We Don’t Pay Attention to Place and Things

Marsh outlet of Thompson Creek, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

In “A Dance of Cranes” (Dundurn, 2019) author Steve Burrows erroneously describes the actions and motions associated with canoeing. In the following scene, the protagonist Jejeune is canoeing on a river in the boreal wilderness of northern Canada:

The low sun seemed to light the stand of birches from within, flickering through the trunks like a strobe light as Jejeune rowed past. 

One does not row a canoe; one paddles—with a paddle.

You might think that this is a small error, hardly worth mentioning; however, the friend who pointed out this mistake to me, was thrown out of the novel by it. She is a naturalist and has often gone canoeing in the lakes and rivers of Ontario. This mistake suggested a lack of professional attentiveness from both author and editor of the publication. By compromising the authenticity of the fictional setting the error stopped the reader from participating. We were no longer paddling with Jejeune; we were looking at the book.*

Some of you may rail at me for being overly harsh. You would remind me that this is a work of fiction, after all, not fact. You’d remind me that fiction is a work of the imagination, of characters and journeys; not a dry documentary.

I would agree with you—up to a point. Certainly, in fiction we can and do take liberties with “facts” so long as the narrative keeps the reader moving in the “fictive dream.” Authors have managed to successfully bend reality considerably in the past to great effect because the reader was fully engaged in the narrative and the characters.

But ultimately, beginning-to-end factual accuracy remains important in a made-up story for various reasons. While some “fake facts” or mistakes (such as the example above) may slip by many readers unnoticed, someone will notice. Guaranteed. And, as with my naturalist friend, it can make the difference between a seamless read and a jarring one. Writer Dorian Box shares that, “Some readers may even post reviews criticizing your book on that basis.” Dorian adds that when they spot large factual inaccuracies in a novel, “it detracts from the reading experience. I start to question other things. Credibility is damaged.”

All good fiction is anchored by consistent and believable world-building, whether the story is set in contemporary New York City or a made up planet in some made up solar system. The key to this believability is the use of grounding ‘facts’ or world-consistencies that immerse the reader in the story world. The reader relies on the author to realistically represent the world they are reading about. This allows the reader to experience the story as though it was real. Representing the facts accurately enables the writer to take liberties with other aspects of the story. Because the reader is nicely embedded in the world through accurate depiction, they will follow your characters through it eagerly.

Forest and marsh on Ontario (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

The Importance and Ease of Research in Fiction Writing   

To prevent what happened in the example I gave above, authors must exercise due diligence in world building, in representation of setting and place, and in other elements of the story. Writers have easy access to so much knowledge about so many topics through local libraries, local experts, the internet, social media, and more. In other words, no excuse.

In the novel I’m currently working on I needed to understand what it felt like to handle, load and shoot a particular make of shotgun. I had handled one in the past but not actually used it. The internet provided exceptional instructional videos and sites that I could use to come close to the actual experience. I paid particular attention to nuances and sensual aspects such as texture, smell, weight, as well as mechanical aspects, like recoil; anything that would more viscerally help me experience it. When I had written the scenes, I showed them to someone who had handled a shotgun for their verdict on accurate depiction.

For more examples and discussion on place and doing research, check out Chapter H and R of my first book in The Alien Guidebook Series “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and Part 2 of my third book in the series “The Ecology of Story: World as Character.”

*There is such a thing as a rowing canoe; canoes can be set up for rowing with oarlocks and sockets, oars, rowing seats and even forward rowing contraptions such as foot brace for efficient rowing. However, this was not the case in the book I gave as an example.

Fence post covered in vines on water’s edge, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

How to Structure Your Short Writing—Fiction and Non-Fiction

I recently gave a webinar through the Immigrant Writers Association on how to structure an effective, compelling and meaningful short piece of writing, whether fiction or non-fiction article.

All good writing requires setting up a purposeful narrative that directs the reader seamlessly from the lead hook to the fulfilling conclusion. I went over the process and necessary steps from idea (premise) through introduction/set up (what’s at stake) and development (the journey/theme) toward a fulfilling end (message).

I used two examples (one that needed work and one that was superlative) to explore hooks, paragraphing, overall narrative structure and development, and tips on how language can enhance or detract from compelling story.

Heron in marsh of outlet stream, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Journal Writer: How to Keep Going When You Really Don’t Want To

Country road through Kawartha region, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow’

The Talmud

There will come a time when you just don’t feel like writing in your journal, when you are blue or frustrated or angry, even. It may be that you’re just bored with your journal, with your work and school and life in general. It may be simply that you have nothing to say, your muses have fled to Tahiti or someplace far away and you are left with a blank page or more importantly—and alarmingly—a blank mind.

Chasing the Journeying Muse

Here’s my solution: don’t sweat it. Embrace the emptiness and something wonderful will fill it. I said something; not necessarily what you expect. I believe that when your muse “leaves” you, it is on a journey. More to the point you are on a journey. You’re living. More often than not, our directed muse leaves us because something has gotten in the way. What you probably need to do is pay attention to that something. It’s telling you something. Ironically, by doing this, you open yourself to something wonderful. Okay, enough of somethings!…

Writing is a lot like fishing. In order to write you need something to write about. So, when the world gets in your way, you should pay attention. This is what you’re here for. A writer is an artist who reports on her society. A good artist, at least an accessible one, needs to be both participant as well as observer. So, take a break and live. Chances are, you will have much more to write about after you do.

Dealing with Writer’s Block

I’m not a very patient person. I make no time for writer’s block or lingering in useless limbo over some plot issue or misbehaving minor character. I write pretty much to a tight schedule: this short story to that market by this date; edits to this book to the editor by that date; blog posts created by such and such a time; an article to another market by another date. It goes on and on. When I go to my computer to write, I write

Then there’s Sammy. My cat.

Who likes to jump on my lap, make himself all comfortable and then lie over my arm — trapping it along with five of my typing digits. Now what??? Some of you would advise me to simply pull out my pinned arm and/or shove him off.  But how can I disturb such a blissful creature? He is so content furled on me, so satisfied that he has captured that wandering appendage of business that is all his now. Content in the bliss of now.

Pinned in the moment, my mind first struggles with the need to pound out the next line. My mind then rephrases and teases out nuances of that line. Finally, it wanders out with my gaze and I find myself daydreaming in a kind of trance.  It is here that magic happens. In the being; not in the doing.

This is the irony of writing and the muse. To write we need to live; we need to have something to write about and we need to be in that state of mind that allows us to set it to print. I am at my best as a writer when I am focused on the essence of the story, its heart and soul beating through me with a life of its own.

My cat Sammy isn’t the only vehicle to my magical muses.    

Waking Up The Muse

Here are a few things that help me entice those capricious muses into action:

Music: music moves me in inexplicable ways. I use music to inspire my “muse”. Every book I write has its thematic music, which I play while I write and when I drive to and from work (where I do my best plot/theme thinking). I even go so far as to have a musical theme for each character. You can do the same for your journals.

Walks: going for a walk, particularly in a natural environment, uncluttered with human-made distractions, also opens the mind and soul. It grounds you back to the simplicity of life, a good place to start.

Cycling: one of my favorite ways to clear my mind is to cycle (I think any form of exercise would suffice); just getting your heart rate up and pumping those endorphins through you soothes the soul and unleashes the brain to freely run the field.

Attend literary functions: go to the library and listen to a writer read from her work. You never know how it might inspire you. Browse the bookshelves of the library or bookstore.  Attend a writer’s convention or conference.

Visit an art gallery, go to a movie: art of any kind can inspire creativity. Fine art is open to interpretation and can provoke your mind in ways you hadn’t thought before. If you go with an appreciative friend and discuss what you’ve seen you add another element to the experience.

Go on a trip with a friend: tour the city or, better yet, take a road trip with a good friend or alone (if you are comfortable with it). I find that travelling is a great way to help me focus outward, forget myself, and open my mind and soul to adventure and learning something new. Road trips are metaphoric journeys of the soul.

Form a writer’s or journal-keeping group: sharing ideas with people of like mind (or not, but of respectful mind) can both inspire you and provide the seeds of ideas.

This article is an excerpt from The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice (Pixl Press, 2013) by Nina Munteanu.

The Journal Writer is the second writing guide in the Alien Guidebook Series. This comprehensive guidebook will help you choose the best medium, style and platform for your expressive writing. The guide provides instruction on issues of safety, using the computer and electronic devices, social media and the internet.

Engaging, accessible, and easily applicable…Brava, Nina, brava.”—David Merchant, Instructor, Louisianna Tech University

Straight up, fact-filled, enriching, joyful and thorough…Nina is honest, she is human and she wants you to succeed.”—Cathi Urbonas, Halifax writer

Nina Munteanu enjoys a snowstorm in Ontario

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

My Story … And My Dream

Nina, age four, pretending to read, Granby, Quebec (photo by Maria Munteanu)

I started writing and drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil. Even before I could read, I wanted to become a “paperback writer” like in the old Beatles song.

It was an incredible moment of clarity for me and despite being challenged by my stern and unimaginative primary school teacher, who kept trying to corral me into being “normal”, I wasn’t going to let anyone stem my creativity and eccentric — if not wayward — approach to literature, language and writing. I was a little brat and I knew it. She and I didn’t exactly get along. But I did okay and, despite her acidic commentary, Miss House awarded me some A’s and B’s…

Country road in late fall, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I wrote some fan fiction but quickly found my own creations far more interesting and less limiting.

As a teenager, I wrote, directed and recorded “radio plays” with my sister. When we weren’t bursting into riotous laughter, it was actually pretty good. She and I shared a bedroom in the back of the house and at bedtime we opened our doors of imagination to a cast of thousands. We fed each other wild stories of space travel, adventure and intrigue, whispering and giggling well into the dark night, long after our parents were snoring in their beds.

Those days scintillated with liberating originality, excitement and joy.

(Photo: Nina Munteanu and sister Doina Maria Munteanu at Grouse Mountain, BC)

My first attempt at a graphic novel (pencil and ink drawings by a very young Nina)

I also enjoyed animation and drew several cartoon strips, peopled with crazy characters. I dreamt of writing graphic novels like Green Lantern and Spiderman. My hero was science fiction author and futurist, Ray Bradbury; I vowed to write profoundly stirring tales like he did.

I had found what excites me — my passion for telling stories—and I’d inadvertently stumbled upon an important piece of the secret formula for success: 1) having discovered my passion, I decided on a goal; 2) I found and wished to emulate a “hero” who’d achieved that goal and therefore had a “case study”; 3) I applied myself to the pursuit of my goal. Oops … the third one, well … it went downhill from there … Life got in the way.

The Beeches area of Toronto after a heavy snowstorm, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I grew up.

Well, that, and the environment intervened. In several ways. It started with my parents. Recognizing my talent and interest in the fine arts (I was good in visual arts), they pushed me to get a fine arts degree in university and go into teaching or advertizing. They didn’t see fiction writing as a viable career or a strength of mine (I was lousy at spelling and, despite my ability to tell stories and my love for graphic novels, I didn’t read books much). I can still remember my father’s lecture to me about how perfect the teaching or nursing profession was for me. I wasn’t enamored by either. The second blow to my author-ego came in the form of a school “interest-ability” test, meant to prepare us for our career decisions. I remember the test consisting of an IQ portion (spatial, English and math), and a psychology portion (including problem-solving and scenarios meant to tease out our affinity for a particular career). Secretly harboring my paperback novelist dream, I filled out my forms with great excitement. I still remember the deflating results, which suggested that I was best suited to be a sergeant in the army. “Writing” as a career barely made it on the graph, and scored well below “computer programmer” and “mechanic”; none of which interested me.   

Country road in a heavy snow, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I got involved in the environmental movement, while quietly holding my dream of being a paperback novelist close to my heart. I got several degrees in ecology and consulted for various companies to help protect the environment. I wrote a lot in those days, although it was more about the ecology of creeks and about industrial pollution. But my passion for writing fiction continued to simmer. Magazines started publishing my articles—my first sale was to Shared Vision Magazine in 1995 on environmental citizenship—and my published articles became my entrance into the world of fiction. Once I began publishing fiction stories—my first short fiction sale was “Arc of Time” to Armchair Aesthete in 2002—I never looked back.

Eventually, I was publishing a novel and several short stories every year. My fiction most often focused on environmental issues, humanity’s relationship with the natural world, and how we reconcile our reliance on technology with our respect for the natural world.

Publications of long or short eco-fiction that include my writing or editing

Throughout my writer’s journey, and particularly early in my journey, I weathered the threshold guardians, tricksters and shadows: friends and family who called what I did a hobby, something I did just to pass the time; people who didn’t believe in me, envied my drive or simply thought I was wasting my time; even industry scammers who preyed on my dreams and wanted my money for nothing in return; and ultimately my own fears and frustrations on query after query and rejection after rejection. Throughout it all, I never stopped dreaming.

Nina’s family hiking and boating in British Columbia over the years

I’ve travelled through Europe, Africa, parts of Asia, and Australia. I raised a family and lived all over Canada from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast. I worked as a barista, shopkeeper and science lab instructor, then as environmental consultant, writing instructor and writing coach.  During these wonderful life-adventures, I never stopped writing. 

Nina Munteanu in the castle at Gruyères, Switzerland (photo by Jane Raptor)

To date, I have written and sold over three dozen eco-fiction, science fiction and fantasy novels, non-fiction books, short stories and articles. I have sold short stories to magazines in Canada and the U.S. with translations and reprints in Israel, Poland, Greece, and Romania. My short fiction has appeared in Neo-Opsis Science Fiction Magazine, Chiaroscuro, subTerrain, Apex Magazine, Metastellar, and several anthologies. I’ve seen my short stories nominated for the Aurora Prix Award (Canada’s premier award for writing science fiction and fantasy) and the Foundation of Speculative Fiction Fountain Award. Recognition for my work includes the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award, finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the SLF Fountain Award, and The Delta Optimist Reviewers Choice Award.  

Nina celebrates her adventures in Toronto (left) and Paris (right)

I’ve published nine novels with nominations for the Aurora Prix, Foreword Magazine Book of the Year (several times), and various Reader’s Choice awards.  My non-fiction book “Water Is…” (Pixl Press)—a scientific study and personal journey as limnologist, mother, and teacher—was Margaret Atwood’s pick in 2016 in the New York Times ‘The Year in Reading.’ My recent eco-novel released in 2020 by Inanna PublicationsA Diary in the Age of Water“—about four generations of women and their relationship to water in a rapidly changing world—was a silver medalist for the Literary Titan Award, the Bronze winner of Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year in 2020, longlisted for the Miramichi Review’s ‘Very Best Book of the Year Award,’ and a finalist for the 2021 International Book Award. Reviewers have described it as “lyrical…thought-provoking…unique and captivating…insightful…profound and brilliant…unsettling and yet deliciously readable…” One reviewer described it as a “a bit of a hybrid” and the writer “a risk taker”—which I quite liked. Another reviewer acknowledged that this was not a book for everyone and yet she found it “strangely compelling.”—which I found delicious.

It’s been twenty years since I seriously started my writing career with my first publication in 1995; my work is now recognized and translated throughout the world and I frequently get writing commissions from reputable magazines and publications. I am also frequently invited for speaking engagements and radio/podcast/TV interviews about my science and my writing. In short, I’ve come home; I’d taken a rather long detour but I’ve acquired some tools along the way. It’s been and continues to be a wonderful and exciting journey; and part of what made it so was that I never stopped dreaming and writing.

“…If you have nothing at all to create, then perhaps you create yourself…”

Carl Jung
A sampling of literary publications up to 2021-end that have included something of mine (short fiction, long fiction, non-fiction)

Two people walk through snowy path after a fresh heavy snowfall, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

On Writing: Nina Munteanu Interviewed by Lisa Haselton

The Otonabee River glints in the sunlight in the midst of a snow flurry, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

This time last year reviewer Lisa Haselton posted an interview with me on New Year’s Day of 2021 on my latest release “A Diary in the Age of Water.” 2021 saw incredible sales for my clifi eco-novel, along with several appearances on radio shows, podcasts and TV stations. It would seem that water is on everyone’s mind and what better way than a limnologist’s diary to learn more about it.

Lisa and I talked about what inspired me to write this novel and about my writing process. What follows is part of that interview. Check out this link for the complete interview with Lisa Haselton.

*****

Lisa: Please tell us about your current release.

Nina: The book tells the journey of four generations of women who have a unique relationship with water, through a time of extreme climate change and water shortage. The book spans over forty years (from the 2020s to the 2060s) and into the far future, mostly through the diary of a limnologist, which is found by a future water-being. During the diarist’s lifetime, all things to do with water are overseen and controlled by the international giant water utility CanadaCorp—with powers to arrest and detain anyone. This is a world in which China owns America and America, in turn, owns Canada. The limnologist witnesses and suffers through severe water taxes and imposed restrictions, dark intrigue through neighbourhood water betrayals, corporate spying and espionage, and repression of her scientific freedoms. Some people die. Others disappear…

Ultimately, the book carries themes of hope and forgiveness—of ourselves and each other—and compassion for all things, starting with water. Each character carries an aspect of that theme, from the diarist’s activist mother, to the diarist’s own cynical protectionism, her spiritual anarchist daughter, and lastly the innocent storm of the last generation.

Lisa: What inspired you to write ‘A Diary in the Age of Water’?

Nina: It started with a short story I was invited to write in 2015 about water and politics in Canada.  I had long been thinking of potential ironies in Canada’s water-rich heritage. The premise I wanted to explore was the irony of people in a water-rich nation experiencing water scarcity: living under a government-imposed daily water quota of 5 litres as water bottling and utility companies took it all. I named the story “The Way of Water.” It was about a young woman (Hilda) in near-future Toronto who has run out of water credits for the public wTap; by this time houses no longer have potable water and their water taps have been cemented shut; the only way to get water is through the public wTaps—at great cost. She’s standing two metres from water—in a line of people waiting to use the tap—and dying of thirst.

The short story and the novel that came from it explore the nuances of corporate and government corruption and deceit together with global resource warfare. In this near-future, Canada is mined of all its water by thirsty Chinese and US multinationals—leaving nothing for the Canadians. Rain has not fallen on Canadian soil in years due to advances in geoengineering and weather manipulation that prevent rain clouds from going anywhere north of the Canada-US border. If you’re wondering if this is possible, it’s already happening in China and surrounding countries.

Lisa: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Nina: After astronaut, actress and a drummer in a rock and roll band—seriously—it was paperback writer. That’s been my dream since I was ten. I told stories long before I wrote them and long before any of them was published. I told stories in the form of cartoons. Since I was a small child, I wanted to be a cartoonist and write graphic novels (back then I knew them as comics). I created several strips with crazy characters that I drew, blending my love for drawing with my love for storytelling. My sister and I used to make up amazing adventure stories in the universe, peopled with aliens and crazy worlds. I wrote my first complete novel when I was fifteen (“Caged-In World”—which later served as a very rough draft for my first published novel, “Darwin’s Paradox” in 2007). My first published work was a non-fiction article “Environmental Citizenship” which appeared in Shared Vision Magazine in 1995. My first fiction work was a short story entitled “Arc of Time”, which was published in Armchair Aesthete in 2002.

Heavy snowfall in the forest in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Lisa: When did you first consider yourself a writer?

Nina: I’ve considered myself a storyteller since I was a child when I wrote and directed plays that my older brother and sister played in and drew cartoon adventure stories. My dream was to be a paperback writer (like the Beatles tune). But I didn’t think of myself seriously as an author until my first short story was published in 2002. It was called “Arc of Time” and appeared in a small magazine with a circulation of about 200. That story went on to be reprinted several times in larger magazines and led to a career of award-winning short stories—the latest appearing in the literary magazine subTerrain in 2020.

Lisa: Do you write full-time? If so, what’s your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?

Nina: While I don’t write full-time, my career is all about writing. Every day I write and research my next novel; I also write commissioned articles and short stories for magazines and for my several writing and science blogs. When I’m not writing, I teach writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College. I also coach writers online to publication. Finding time to write has not generally been a challenge. I’ve embraced an opportunistic process in my writing and research that allows me to write considerably. The process recognizes that there are many ways to “write” from observations and note-taking, to reading and research, to writing short vs long and fiction vs non-fiction. For instance, I can fill a short break time with meaningful research, editing, or the start of a short article; this saves longer break times for my current novel, which requires a greater stretch of uninterrupted time.

Heavy snowfall in the marsh in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Lisa: What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

Nina: That I am both a pantser and an outliner—with the same book. My writing process has always been a tandem kind of ‘fish and cut bait’ scene / sequel scenario with research following a premise followed by vigorous writing, which in turn engenders more research, which often reveals another plot or sub-theme that needs inclusion. It may seem a haphazard way to write, but I find it very fulfilling, fun and revealing—especially when the Universe provides with serendipitous discoveries (just when I need them). 

Lisa: What exciting story are you working on next?

Nina: I’m currently researching and working on the sequel to “A Diary in the Age of Water”—a thriller about how a phenomenon brings together four lost and homeless people through a common goal to free the Earth from the manacles of human greed. The story takes place throughout Canada—from Halifax to Vancouver and the Arctic. It takes place mostly during the 2050s, and features a few ghosts, the Halifax 1917 Explosion, experimentation on humans, espionage, murder, and—of course—a plague. I’m calling it my COVID19 novel…

Use this link to read my entire interview with Lisa Haselton.

Sun emerges after a heavy snowfall at the marsh, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

What I Love About Teaching How To Write

Path leading into a mixed gnarly forest in a December fog, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

During a recent professional development session for writing instructors at UofT, I got a prompt to share what I loved about teaching how to write. We had eight minutes to write what first came to us. I found myself writing easily and quickly. Here’s what I shared:

Path through a gnarly forest in a December fog, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I love how fluid it is. I used to work as an environmental consultant (as a limnologist) and what I loved about that job was the lack of structure and the diversity of projects. No day was the same. And—like a box of chocolates—I never knew what lay in store for me. I flourish in that kind of chaotic problem-solving.

Teaching how to write is like that.

Teaching how to write is about process. It’s about the journey and the relationships, not just about things. It’s more about how they fit together, why they work, and where they go. The act of teaching is always changing. It’s fluid, like water. And how apt, considering that our bodies are over two-thirds water. Just like water, we like to flow.

Teaching how to write is more than teaching how to use a tool, how to string a good sentence together or choosing the best word; it includes “voice”, expression, identity, freedom, and autonomy. Writing is power and I am empowering when I teach writing.

What a cool thing to do!

Path along the edge of a small woodland in the December fog, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Journal Writer: Why Keep a Journal?

Old maple tree under snow dusting in a mixed cedar-pine forest in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

There are as many reasons for writing a journal as there are people in the world: to express, to heal and clarify, to create, learn and influence, to record, to celebrate, to share with friends or the world even…and everything in-between. The journal is a way to connect—to yourself and to others—with gentleness, compassion and deeper understanding. It’s a “safe home” where your deepest thoughts can reside without fear of judgment, blame or need for justification. A place where you can be just you.

Late afternoon sun glimmers through cedar-pine forest in winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

What is a Journal?

Most people think of a journal as a bound notebook with text, sketches and pasted-in mementos. But it can also be a binder full of memorabilia and notes, a collection of digital information on a computer, CD or flash drive, or an audio tape. According to Ron Klug (2002), a journal is essentially a “day book” where you record daily happenings. But it is much more than that. The journal is a tool for self-discovery, an aid to concentration and finding clarity, a “mirror for the soul”, a training ground for a writer and a good friend and confidant. It is at its heart a place of learning and being.

Mary Louise Holly (1989) describes a journal as “a reconstruction of experience and, like the diary, has both objective and subjective dimensions, but unlike diaries, the writer is (or becomes) aware of the difference. The journal…is a book that someone returns to. It serves purposes beyond recording events and pouring out thoughts and feelings. Like the diary, the journal is a place to ‘let it all out’. But the journal is also a place for making sense of what is out.” The journal helps you assess the next step and help you find direction. I talk more about this in Chapter 5 of my guide The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice.

Swamp forest reflected in icing pond, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Some reject journaling as too self-absorbing; the truth is that most of us during some part of our lives are too little connected to ourselves. We keep so busy, filling our lives with activities, filling our senses with stimuli, running at full tilt. We may be constantly communicating with others through cell phones, computers, notebooks, at school and at work. But we aren’t communicating with ourselves. For that to happen we need to quiet our minds and our environment to have a meaningful self-dialogue. This is the gift that journaling brings to us.  It helps us find the depth of ourselves and lead richer more truthful lives. The key is to use it to learn.

A journal need not be the dark brooding place many people envision when they think of diaries and journals. A journal can be a happy place, a place to celebrate one’s explorations and achievements and self-education. Here’s what journal writer Jennifer Moon (1999) says about her journal:

A journal is a friend that is always there and is always a comfort. In bad moments I write, and usually end up feeling better. It reflects back at me things that I can learn about my world and myself. It represents a private space in my life, a beautiful solitude, the moments before I go to sleep just to stop and note what there is about the day or about my life at the time. I think that it has enabled me to feel deeper and more established as a person, more in control and more trusting of life. On a less introverted note, I think that it contributes to my ability to write in general, and it underlies an interest in poetry and creative writing which awaits a quieter time in my life for fulfillment. 

–Jennifer Moon

Remember, it is just as important to record your happy, wonderful, scintillating and inspirational experiences as those dark moments.

Moss-covered base of a cedar tree under a light dust of snow in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Why Keep a Journal?

Writer Louise DeSalvo shared an interesting story about what expressive writing means to her. Here’s what she said:

“Many people I know who want to write but don’t (my husband, Ernie, for example) or who want to write more than they have but say they can’t find the time (my friend Marla) have told me that taking the time to write seems so, well, self-indulgent, self-involved, frivolous even. And that finding the time to write—even a diary, much less fiction or memoir or poetry—in their busy schedules is impossible. I’ll write when I have the time, they say.”

–Louise DeSalvo

DeSalvo adds, “what if writing weren’t such a luxury? What if writing were a simple, significant, yet necessary way to achieve spiritual, emotional, and psychic wholeness? To synthesize thought and feeling, to understand how feeling relates to events in our lives and vice versa? What if writing were as important as a basic human function and as significant to maintaining and promoting our psychic and physical wellness as, say, exercise, healthful food, pure water, clean air, rest and repose, and some soul-satisfying practice?”

Journal writing encourages engagement and reflection. It helps you deepen your self-understanding and make added sense of your life and what you believe. It can provide you with added perspective on you and the world, by giving you a greater awareness of what is happening to and around you in your daily world. Writing a journal can help you write better and help improve your skills in observing, recording and interpretation. It can also help you set goals and manage your time and priorities.

Give yourself the permission to write. Give yourself the gift of expression.

Beech tree with marcescent leaves in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

This article is an excerpt from The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice (Pixl Press, 2013) by Nina Munteanu.

The Journal Writer is the second writing guide in the Alien Guidebook Series. This comprehensive guidebook will help you choose the best medium, style and platform for your expressive writing. The guide provides instruction on issues of safety, using the computer and electronic devices, social media and the internet.

Engaging, accessible, and easily applicable…Brava, Nina, brava.”—David Merchant, Instructor, Louisianna Tech University

Straight up, fact-filled, enriching, joyful and thorough…Nina is honest, she is human and she wants you to succeed.”—Cathi Urbonas, Halifax writer

References:

Baikie, Karen & Kay Wilhelm. 2005. “Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing.” Advances in Psychiatric Treatment. 11: 338-346.

DeSalvo, Louise. 1999. “Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives.” Beacon Press, Boston. 226pp.

Holly, Mary Louise. 1989. “Writing to Grow. Keeping a personal-professional journal”. Heinemann. Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Klug, Ron. 2002. “How to Keep a Spiritual Journal: a guide to journal keeping for inner growth and personal discovery.”Augsburg, Minneapolis, 4th ed.

Moon, Jennifer. 1999. “Learning Journals: A handbook for academics, students and professional development.” Kogan Page. London.

Munteanu, Nina. 2013. “The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice.” Pixl Press, Vancouver. 170pp.

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Solaris: Planet as Alien Character in Science Fiction

Kelvin (played by George Clooney) arrives on Solaris in Steven Soderberg’s 2002 film

Some time ago, I participated in an inquiry to name my choice of “Best Alien in Science Fiction,” posed by John DeNardo at SF Signal. “Aliens are a classic trope dating back to the earliest days of science fiction,” John said. They are the quintessential “other” archetype in science fiction.

From conquering warlords (War of the Worlds) to instructing sages (The Day the Earth Stood Still) to victimized pacifists (Martian Chronicles), how the “other” is portrayed and how humanity interacts with it, has been explored throughout science fiction since it began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Of course, in science fiction—a metaphoric literature of grand scope—these ‘others’ / aliens make representation through archetype. So, the aliens of War of the Worlds represent a conquering nation; Klaatu of The Day the Earth Stood Still may represent a benevolent dictator; the Martians of Martian Chronicles represent our indigenous peoples under the yoke of settler colonialism and an exploitive resource-extraction mindset; and the monster of Frankenstein exemplifies the disabled/deformed unsavory departure from our ‘perfect’ self-image. Author Brian Ott tells us that “it is a profound mistake to interpret the genre [of science fiction] literally.” He reminds us that it is not what the aliens are but what they represent that matters (except when, in some cases, they are one in the same). Science fiction is both “the great modern literature of metaphor” and “pre-eminently the modern literature not of physics but of metaphysics,” adds Peter Nicholls, Australian scholar and critic.

Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film of H.G. Wells’s book “War of the Worlds”

In a previous article entitled “Dreams and Perceptions And ‘the Other” I described an experience with the unfamiliar. Have you ever done the same? Looked backward while driving through a familiar scene to gain a different perspective? And just felt different for a moment? Like you’d entered a different dimension and briefly glimpsed ‘the other.’

What is it like to meet ‘the other’?

In story, characters are defined through their experience and their approach to the unfamiliar. A new relationship. A stranger in town. A different culture. An alien encounter… How does the character react? Is it with fear? Wonder? Curiosity? A mixture of these? By describing “the other” science fiction writers describe “us”, given that it is through our own eyes that the other is viewed and described.

In his book Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient Edward W. Said contended that for there to be an ‘us’, there has to be a ‘not-us.’ According to Patricia Kerslake of Central Queensland University, this arises from a postcolonial notion of ‘the Other’, through a mutual process of exclusion. This exclusion inspires the very idea of ‘alien’ by imposing expectation on perception. Kerslake argues that: “When one culture imposes its perceptions on another, in that it begins to see the Other not as they are but as, in Said’s words, ‘they ought to be’, then the process of representation becomes inevitable: a choice is made to see a ‘preferred’ real.”

Klaatu greets humanity in “The Day the Earth Stood Still”

In her 1975 article “American SF and the Other,” Ursula K. LeGuin unequivocally scolded the Western SF genre for representing and promoting colonialism and androcratic motives by “othering” or making inconsequential the poor, the uneducated, the marginalized and women.

…The question involved here is the question of The Other—the being who is different from yourself. This being can be different from you in its sex; or in its annual income; or in its way of speaking and dressing and doing things; or in the color of its skin; or the number of its legs and heads. In other words, there is the sexual Alien, and the social Alien, and the cultural Alien, and finally the racial Alien…

The people in SF are not people. They are masses, existing for one purpose to be led by their superiors…

If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person, if you declare it to be wholly different from yourself–as men have done wo women, and class has done to class, and nation has done to nation–you may hate it, or deify it; but in either case you have denied its spiritual equality, and its human reality. You have made it into a thing, to which the only possible relationship is a power relationship. And thus you have fatally impoverished your own reality.

You have, in fact, alienated yourself.

Ursula K. LeGuin

Written 45 years ago, Le Guin’s scathing article may have accurately represented the North American science fiction community of writers of that time. Today, despite the remnants of a strong old guard that still promotes a patriarchal colonialist hegemony, the science fiction genre has matured and grown beyond this self-limiting view. This is partly because current authors—many who are women and many who are representatives of minority or marginalized groups—have given SF a new face and voice that promises to include equality, inclusion, and a fresh look at exploration and ‘the other.’ In most cases it is ‘the other’ whose voice—for so long missing—is now being expressed.

The genre of science fiction has diversified and matured to embrace “mundane science fiction,” literary fiction, speculative fiction, climate fiction, cli-fi, eco-fiction, indigenous futurisms and more. Each of these genres provide new opportunities that give voice to ‘the other’ from women (Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and N.K. Jemison’s The Broken Earth series) to disabled people (Mishell Baker’s Borderline) to the indigenous human (Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves) to the non-human (Costi Gurgu’s RecipeArium) and the environment such as water (Emmi Itäranta’s The Memory of Water and my own A Diary in the Age of Water).

My Choice for ‘Best’ Alien Character: Solaris

The most memorable aliens for me have been those that helped illuminate our history and our very humanity, whether they played the archetype of simple antagonist or misunderstood as “commentator” on human prejudice, insecurities, greed, heroism, compassion and honor. I can think of several aliens who have provided excellent examples of this: the victimized ” prawns” of Peter Jackson’s District 9 come to mind. Each provided a platform for the exploration and exposition of human’s strengths and weaknesses. How we handle or even recognize “the other” is very compelling and illuminating.

The planet Solaris

My choice for alien character is the ‘self-aware’ planet in Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris: see my film review of Steven Soderbergh’s film interpretation of Stanislaw Lem’s book Solaris in a previous article on this site. What follows is a brief summary:

In response to his friend’s plea, a depressed psychologist with the ironic name of Kris Kelvin (George Clooney), sets out on a mission to bring home the dysfunctional crew of a research space station orbiting the distant planet, Solaris. Kelvin arrives at the space station, Prometheus, to find his friend, Gibarian, dead by suicide and a paranoid and disturbed crew obviously withholding a terrible secret from him. It is not long before he learns the secret first-hand: some unknown power (apparently the planet itself) taps into his mind and produces a solid corporeal version of his tortured longing: his beloved wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone) who years ago had committed suicide herself. Faced with a solid reminder, Kelvin yearns to reconcile with his guilt in his wife’s death and struggles to understand the alien force manifested in the form of his wife. He learns that the other crew are equally influenced by Solaris and have been grappling, each in their own way, with their “demons,” psychologically trapping them there.

Crew onboard the Prometheus orbiting Solaris: Snow (Jeremy Davies), Rheya (Natascha McElhone), Kelvin (George Clooney) and Gordon (Viola Davis)

Ironically, our hero’s epic journey of great distance has only led him back to himself. The alien force defies Kelvin’s efforts to understand its motives; whether it is benign, hostile, or even sentient. Kelvin has no common frame of reference to judge and therefore to react. This leaves him with what he thinks he does understand: that Rheya is a product of his own mind, his memories of her, and therefore a mirror of his deepest guilt—but perhaps also an opportunity to redeem himself.

Kelvin and his ‘dead’ wife Rheya onboard the Prometheus orbiting Solaris

Solaris is the epitome of the “other”, a force and entity unrecognizable and unfathomable. Lem’s existentialist portrayal of “the other”—and by extension of humanity—serves as excellent commentary on what is important to us and our identity. Unlike the familiar human-like figures of a Spock, Zhaan or the fremen, Solaris accomplishes its ‘other’ role through arcane manipulation of the human characters’ dreams and yearnings. We never understand its motivations or intelligence, yet we are drawn to its force and reflective mirror of our souls. It is its very incomprehensibility that attracts us, as to an abstract artwork, and challenges our very identities. Solaris shows neither judgment nor morality. It exists through the lens of paradox. Both there and not there. Fluid but enduring. Fractured yet whole. Like water. 

All lead to the ultimate question asked of science fiction: who are we and why are we here?

Kelvin arrives at the space station orbiting Solaris

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

On Writing: The Gestalt Nature of Passion & Success

Marsh and swamp forest in a blushing sunset, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

What is to give light must endure burning —Victor Frankl

Says Keyes: “Any writing lays the writer open to judgment about the quality of his work and thought,” writes Ralph Keyes, author of The Courage to Write. “The closer [the writer] gets to painful personal truths, the more fear mounts—not just about what he might reveal, but about what he might discover should he venture too deeply inside. But to write well, that’s exactly where we must venture.”

So, why do it, then? Why bother? Is it worth it to make yourself totally vulnerable to the possible censure and ridicule of your peers, friends, and relatives? To serve up your heart on a platter to just have them drag it around as Stevie Nicks would say?…

Welcome to the threshold of your career as a writer. This is where many aspiring writers stop: in abject fear, not just of failure but of success. The only difference between those that don’t and those that do, is that the former come to terms with their fears, in fact learn to use them as a barometer to what is important.

“Everyone is afraid to write,” says Keyes. “They should be. Writing is dangerous…To love writing, fear writing and pray for the courage to write is no contradiction. It’s the essence of what we do.”

Marsh in the Kawarthas, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Unravelling the Secret…

How do you get past the fear of being exposed, past the anticipated disappointment of peers, past the terror of success?

The answer is passion. If you are writing about something you are passionate about, you will find the courage to see it through. “The more I read, and write,” says Keyes:

The more convinced I am that the best writing flows less from acquired skill than conviction expressed with courage. By this I don’t mean moral convictions, but the sense that what one has to say is something others need to know.

This is ultimately what drives a writer to not just write but to publish: the need to share one’s story, over and over again. To prevail, persist, and ultimately succeed, a writer must have conviction and believe in his or her writing. You must believe that you have something to say that others want to read. Ask yourself why you are a writer. Your answer might surprise you.

Every writer is an artist. And every artist is a cultural reporter. One who sometimes holds the world accountable. “Real art,” says Susan Sontag, “makes us nervous.”

The first step, then, is to acknowledge your passion and own it. Flaunt it, even. Find your conviction, define what matters and explore it to the fullest. You will find that such an acknowledgement will give you the strength and fortitude to persist and persevere, particularly in the face of those fears. Use the fears to guide you into that journey of personal truths. Frederick Busch described it this way: “You go to dark places so that you can get there, steal the trophy and get out.”

John Steinbeck, author of Grapes of Wrath, said:

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader.  

Marsh of cattails, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Finding Success Through Meaning

Victor Frankl survived Auschwitz to become an important neurologist and psychiatrist of our time and to write Man’s Search for Meaning.

Blogger Gavin Ortlund wrote: “What gripped me most about [Frankl’s] book, and has stayed with me to this day, is not the horror and barbarity of his experiences in concentration camps—when you pick up a book about the holocaust, you expect that. What really struck me was Frankl’s repeated insistence that even there, in the most inhumane and horrific conditions imaginable, the greatest struggle is not mere survival. The greatest struggle is finding meaning. As I was reading, I was struck with this thought: going to a concentration camp is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. The worst that can happen to a person is not having a transcendent reason to live. Life is about more than finding comfort and avoiding suffering: it’s about finding what is ultimate, whatever the cost.”

Victor Frankl wisely said:

The more you aim at success and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.

Frankl is talking about passion. “If you long to excel as a writer,” says Margot Finke, author of How to Keep Your Passion and Survive as a Writer, “treasure the passion that is unique within yourself. Take the irreplaceable elements of your life and craft them into your own personal contribution to the world.” It’s what has you up to 2 am, pounding the keys. It follows you down the street and to work with thoughts of another world. It puts a notebook and pen in your hand as you drive to the store, ready to record thoughts about a character, scene or place. “For the passionate, writing is not a choice; it’s a force that cannot be denied.”

Finke says it astutely: You need to be passionate about everything to do with your book—the writing and rewriting, your critique group, your research, your search for the best agent/editor, plus your query letter. Not to mention the passion that goes into promoting your book. Nothing less will assure your survival—and success—as a writer.

“Follow your inner moonlight, don’t hide the madness”

Allen Ginsberg

This article is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! by Nina Munteanu

References:

Finke, Margot. 2008. “How to Keep Your Passion and Survive as a Writer.” In: The Purple Crayonhttp://www.underdown.org/mf_ writing_passion

Frankl, Victor. (1946) 1997. Man’s Search for Meaning. Pocket Books. 224 pp.

Keyes, Ralph. 1999. The Writer’s Guide to Creativity. Writer’s Digest, 1999.

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now. Starfire World Syndicate. 294pp

Ortlund, Gavin. 2008. “Frankl, the holocaust and meaning.” In: Let Us Hold Fast. http://gro1983.blogspot.com/2008/02/frankl-holocaust-and-meaning.html

Slonim Aronie, Nancy. 1998. Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice. Hyperion. 256pp.

Marsh near Millbrook, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Aroma of Story

Old cabin behind seeding goldenrods, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

One of my favourite smells is of pipe tobacco smoke. 

But here’s the thing:  I’m really not a fan of smoking. Both my parents were chain smokers (who wasn’t back then?) and I quickly discovered that cigarette butts carried thousands of ugly toxins and lasted years on the ground. In the one rebellious occasion that I skipped school with two school mates to spend the day in the forest, I accidentally lit my hair on fire trying to light the cigarette. Taking the karmic connection seriously, I decided that was the end of both skipping school and smoking for me.   

Cigarette butt found near a river in a park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

So, why the allure with pipe smoke?

Well, to begin my rationalization, pipe smoke is nothing like cigarette smoke. Cigarette smoke squeals up my nose and mouth, choking my breath with an acrid burning that lodges like a smothering cancer in my throat; pipe smoke coils heavy and loose into my nostrils with lazy notes of fermenting cherry or plum.

There’s more to it, obviously . . . 

Left: Four-year old Nina Munteanu pretending to read; Right: Rue Principal in Granby, Quebec in the early 1960s

When I was little, one of my favourite things to do was hide behind the comic stand in the back corner of William’s General Store and read comic books. Superman, Supergirl, Green Lantern, Magnus Robot Fighter. So many more . . .

Mr. Williams knew I was there. I was, after all, hiding in plain sight, as kids generally do. But he was a kind man and let me stay and read for free. He recognized someone who loved story. 

The store was a typical general store of that era. Long and narrow, dark wood walls covered in paraphernalia. Shelves and stands cramped full with stuff. Anything from toys and penny candy to games, puzzles, watches, newspapers, pocket books and magazines, household necessities, shoeshine kits, canned goods and preserves, pocket knives, to cigars, pipes and the tobacco and lighters to go with them. A smoky mist settled on everything in the store and the place gave off the complex scent of old polished wood with a tobacco undercurrent. Williams might have smoked a pipe himself; I don’t recall. However, my sense-mind has wonderfully coupled that evocative aroma with a sense of freedom to immerse myself in fantastical worlds of imagination. And, in turn, to imagine my own worlds. 

That place and my experience in it not only gave me an abiding love for pipe smoke; it made me the storyteller I am today.  

Taste and smell appear to linger most in memory and yet are often neglected by writers. According to the California Institute of Technology, smell is generally considered the sense tied most closely to human memory. Smell profoundly influences people’s ability to recall past events and experiences. “A smell from your distant past can unleash a flood of memories that are so intense and striking that they seem real,” says Dr. Karl (Kruszelnicki), author of Great Moments in Science. “This kind of memory, where an unexpected re-encounter with a scent from the distant past brings back a rush of memories, is called a ‘Proustian Memory’.”

In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust writes: 

When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls.

In this excerpt of The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl, fragrance permeates with meaning: 

The flower shop was here and it was my father’s domain, but it was also marvelously other, this place heavy with the drowsy scent of velvet-petaled roses and Provencal freesias in the middle of winter, the damp-earth spring fragrance of just-watered azaleas and cyclamen all mixed up with the headachey smell of bitter chocolate. 

In John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, his main character recalls the following memories, through several evocative smells: 

I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer— and what trees and seasons smelled like—how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich. 

Barrels of aging bourbon in Kentucky (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In Part 2 of my writing guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character, I discuss how the various senses—not just smell—are strong tools in storytelling and provide examples and working exercises.

Psychologist Michael McCollough argues that environment plays a key role in human behaviors, such as forgiveness and revenge. He theorizes that various social environments can cause either forgiveness or revenge to prevail. McCollough relates his theory to game theory. In a tit-for-tat strategy, cooperation and retaliation are comparable to forgiveness and revenge. The choice between the two can be beneficial or detrimental, depending on what the game partner (or organism) chooses. The brain’s limbic system processes external stimuli related to emotions, social activity, and motivation; these then propagate an instinctual behavioural response. Examples include maternal care, aggression, defense, and social hierarchy; these behaviours are influenced by sensory input, such as sight, sound, touch, and—of course—smell.

Parts of this article are excerpted from the third book of The Alien Guidebook Series:The Ecology of Story: World as Character.

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.