When a Gentle Fog Settles Like Water’s Beauty Transformed…

Rotary Trail in Peterborough during a foggy day, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

A few days ago, I woke up in the morning to a dense fog outside. I hastily dressed, grabbed a clementine, put on my boots and coat and raced outside into the gentle morning. The air was fresh. A calm stillness had settled over everything, from ghostly forest to dripping branches by the path to people who appeared and disappeared in the mist.

Rotary Trail path to the bridge across the Otonabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

As I strolled along the trail and forest paths, camera in hand, I realized that I needn’t have rushed; the fog didn’t burn away and dissipate beneath a strong sun. It remained foggy the entire day.

Path through winter forest on a foggy morning, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Thompson Creek marsh in the fog, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Otonabee marsh in the fog, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Dogwood shrubs add colour to the marsh as ice forms, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

At Thompson Creek marsh, crimson dogwood shrubs and gnarly trees greeted me with arms stretched through the fog. The damp air, fragrant with the stirring of Winter, caressed my cheeks. I felt like I’d entered a Camille Pissarro painting…

Alders, willows and other trees, amid ruddy dogwoods, line Thompson Creek marsh behind, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Road to Lakefield along Otonabee River in the fog, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

During my drive along the river, the calm stillness of the day settled over me with muted beauty. Nature’s shapes peered through the mist like quantum entangled apparitions, coalescing to the nearness of my gaze then vanishing again on my parting.

Shore of ice-strewn Otonabee River off Lakefield Road, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
1906 building on shore of Otonabee River during a foggy day, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Small island in Otonabee River on road to Lakefield, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I drove along country roads that vanished in the mist. As I plied through the fog, phantom trees loomed, quietly announcing themselves on the side of the road as their shapes assembled into something solid.

I imagined I was catching the breath of heaven…

Country dirt road in the Kawarthas on a foggy day, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Tree ghosts in a farmer’s field in Kawartha country, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Snow melt stream and marsh on the side of a country road on a foggy day, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

The fog is a shape-shifter. Sometimes a brooding beast, obscuring all in its indiscriminate path. Other times an impish rogue, a pale coquette, winking and teasing as it both reveals and hides, like a good mystery novel…

Fog over the Otonabee River, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Thompson Creek marsh in a winter mist, ON (photo 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 Gift of Purring Cat Meditation

Willow, goddess of Purring Cat Meditation (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Her name is Willow, and she helps me centre my being…

Willow is a diminutive 18-year old Russian blue cat, who I looked after for some friends in Mississauga. When I first met Willow, she responded with reticence–like all smart discerning cats. She appeared so delicate, I was scared to pick her up. I soon realized that this was a fallacy. That not only could I pick her up but that she loved to be held. I just needed to learn how.

As soon as I did, we became best friends. And it all came together with the Purring Cat Meditation.

“Time to feed me, Nina!” says Willow (photo by Nina Munteanu)

It starts out with her finding me “doing nothing terribly important” like typing on the computer, or something. A soft but decisive tap of the paw on my leg and I have to smile at her intense look up at me with those guileless emerald eyes. I abandon my work–how can I ignore such a plea?– and pick her up. After all, I know what she wants…And so starts our journey toward “nirvana”… the meditative state that will centre our beings and ultimately save the world.

I wander the house with her. We check out each room and make our silent observations. We end up in the bedroom upstairs, where she normally sleeps (except when she’s decided to join me on my bed to sit on me and purr in my face in the middle of the night).

Willow playfully teasing (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In her sanctuary, we drift to the window that faces the back yard, now cloaked in the fresh drifts of winter snow. The window is slightly open and a crisp breeze braces us with the deep scent of winter. I breathe in the fragrance of fallen leaves, mist and bark…

Willow settles into a feather-light pose in the crook of my arms and I hardly feel her. More like she and I have joined to become one. We are both purring …

We remain in Cat-Purr-Meditation for …

I have no idea. It feels like moments. Infinity. It encompasses and defines an entire world. We’ve just created something. Just by being.

“Time to pick me up, Nina!” says Willow (photo by Nina Munteanu

Cats–well, most animal companions–are incredibly centring and can teach us a lot about the art of simply being.

And meditating…

Whenever I run across a bout of writer’s block or need to stoke my muse, instead of trying harder, I stop and reach out for my cat-friend.

And practice Purring-Cat Meditation…

First snow on the Otonabee River, Peterborough, 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.

Apex Magazine Interviews Nina Munteanu About Story, Ecology, and the Future—Part 2

Issue  #128 of Apex Magazine featured an interview that Rebecca E. Treasure did with me, posted on December 10, 2021. We discussed the power of story, the use of dystopian narrative, and the blur between fiction and non-fiction to create meaningful eco-fiction. Here’s part two of the interview. For the complete interview go here:

INTERVIEW

Nina Munteanu, author of “Robin’s Last Song,” is a prolific creator with multiple books, podcasts, short stories, and nonfiction essays in publication. Her work spans genre, from eco-fiction to historical fantasy to thrillers, and of course, science fiction. Her work as an ecologist informs all of her writing, which circles around an essential exploration; the relationship between humanity and our environment.

 At the top of Nina Munteanu’s website, there is a quote: “I live to write, I write to live.” This sentiment is reflected in her fiction, which is not just about characters in compelling situations solving their problems with compassion, but is about all of us, our planet, our environment, and our future.

Nina Munteanu sat down with Apex for a conversation about story, ecology, and the future.

APEX MAGAZINE: Your novels and short stories examine the role and evolution of humanity in the context of nature and technology. As an ecologist, what do you believe needs to happen—internationally, nationally, locally, and personally—to restore our planet and move forward in a sustainable way?

NINA MUNTEANU: All things animate and inanimate naturally oscillate toward equilibrium or balance in a kind of stable chaos of polarities. Goethe and Hegel told us this long ago. Our actions have exacerbated this oscillation through massive extraction, habitat destruction, and pollution with associated conflicts, take-over and subjugation. Everything is connected and all have contributed to climate change and habitat change. Our mission—given that we’re responsible for much of that imbalance—is to help the planet return itself to balance. That means ensuring that Nature’s natural checks can do their job to ensure functional forests and phytoplankton, a healthy ocean, a resilient biodiversity—all systems that we rely on for our own healthy existence. Restoring our denuded global forests, and the oceans will need the concerted and united efforts of all nations and individuals. We have the knowledge, the science, and technology; all that is needed is the will. And that can only change as our own narrative changes. That’s where storytelling plays a key part. Surveys have proven that fiction can be deeply persuasive through character journey that convinces at a deeper more emotional level (as opposed to a litany of facts that appeals only at an intellectual level).

AM: Do you believe industry and sustainability are compatible? What about colonialism and sustainability? Capitalism? In other words, is sustainability something we can achieve with our current systems, or is global systemic change required?

NM: Some people—mostly economists—would say definitely yes to the first question; we just need to be conservationist in our approach to doing business. But the very basis of capitalism is exploitation, not conservation. The driving force behind capitalism is fear and uncertainty and its main process is exploitation. From an ecologist’s perspective, this makes sense for a community during its early succession and growth stage …  when it first colonizes a new area. Ecologists call this approach r-selected (for rate), based on the need to be profligate and fast-growing to successfully establish. But as we reach a climax community and our carrying capacity—where we are now—this r-selected approach no longer works. We need an economic model that better matches this new paradigm. NOT based on continued growth! A climax global economy, one based on cooperation not competition. Elisabet Sahtouris calls this ecological economy “ecosophy.” In his book Designing Regenerative Cultures, Daniel Christian Wahl talks about changing our evolutionary narrative from one based on fear defined by a perception of scarcity, competition, and separation to one based on love defined by a perception of abundance, a sense of belonging, collaboration, and inclusion. He promotes a regenerative economy based on true reciprocation.

And moving forward we can take a lesson from Robin Wall Kimmerer who promotes a gift economy—an economy of abundance—whose basis lies in recognizing the value of kindness, sharing, and gratitude in an impermanent world. This is what she says: “Climate change is a product of [our] extractive economy and is forcing us to confront the inevitable outcome of our consumptive lifestyle, genuine scarcity for which the market has no remedy. Indigenous story traditions are full of these cautionary teachings. When the gift is dishonored, the outcome is always material as well as spiritual. Disrespect the water and the springs dry up. Waste the corn and the garden grows barren. Regenerative economies which cherish and reciprocate the gift are the only path forward. To replenish the possibility of mutual flourishing, for birds and berries and people, we need an economy that shares the gifts of the Earth, following the lead of our oldest teachers, the plants.”

AM: The language in your stories is richly thematic, using strong description to weave the subtext into the piece. For example, “killing two squirrels with one stone.” Is that something that comes about organically as you compose a piece, or a more intentional part of editing?

NM: I use both processes to achieve a final narrative that is multi-layered with metaphor, symbols, and deep meaning. The first process is through intuition derived through intimacy; the second process is more deliberate and generated through objectivity. Insights from intimacy come about organically, during moments of true inspiration, when my muse connects me to the deeper truth of a character’s voice and actions. Given that the inner story runs many layers (some of which I, as writer, may not even be overtly aware) and links in a fractal relationship with the outer story, those moments of inner inspiration happen as if of their own accord. That’s what writers mean when they admit that their characters “talk” to them and instruct them on what to write. When a writer achieves that level of intimacy and understanding, they can let the muse guide them.

Much of the description that is woven into story is generated through the editing process when I read the manuscript as a reader. The process involves letting the story sit for a while so when I return to it, I am reading more objectively. During this process, I apply my knowledge in storytelling craft to showcase combustible moments in plot, and work in foreshadowing, subtext, and compelling metaphor. A writer can’t add metaphor without context related to story theme (otherwise this may result in what the industry calls “purple prose”). Metaphor—given its roots in the deeper psyche of a culture—must arise organically from a deep, sometimes intuitive, understanding—where the personal meets the universal.   

AM: Your work takes complex topics that are nonetheless critical to humanity’s future and pulls stories with compelling characters out of them, making the science accessible, the warnings personal to the reader. This has always been one of the callings of science fiction. What is the role of stories in the climate action movement?

NM: Our capacity and need to tell stories is as old as our ancient beginnings. From the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux to our blogs on the internet, humanity has always shared story. Story is powerful in how it helps us define who we are, what’s important to us, and where we are going. Stories compel with intrigue, stir our emotions, connect with our souls through symbols, archetypes and metaphor. Stories inspire action. We live by the stories we tell.

For too long, our stories have promoted a dominant worldview of exploitation and capitalism. We’ve been telling the patriarchal story of “othering” for too long; we need a new voice and a new worldview to replace our old stories of conquering and taming a “savage land” and “savage people.” When Copernicus proclaimed in 1543 that the sun did not revolve around the Earth, it took a long time for the world to accept and let go of its Ptolemaic Earth-centered view. But the world did come around eventually to the point now that this is common knowledge and lies embedded in our daily lives and language.

Storytelling about how the Earth takes care of us and how we can take care of Earth is urgently needed. This means shifting our stories from an exploitive capitalist narrative of separation toward an inclusive partnership narrative. This means embracing a more eco-centric worldview; a worldview in which humanity is not central, but lies embedded within greater planetary forces and phenomena. A worldview that sees humanity only as part of a greater entity, as participant in a greater existential celebration of life and the elements. A humanity that must learn to play along, not bully and take over. A humanity that must embrace compassion, respect and kindness; a humanity directed by humility—not hubris. It is my firm belief that until our worldview embraces humility in partnership with the natural world—until we cast off our self-serving, neo-liberal, capitalist ideologies—we will remain hampered in our journey forward. When we change our stories, we change our lives and we change the world along with it.

This is already happening with the emergence of a strong eco-voice by writers through the feminine voice, the gylanic voice, the voice of the marginalized, of ecology and the environment itself. Authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, Annie Proulx, Margaret Atwood, Richard Powers, Emmi Itäranta Cherie Demaline, Grace Dillon, and Cormac McCarthy give Nature a face and voice to care about. And caring is the first step.

AM: Your stories also bridge fiction with nonfiction, using speculative fiction as a lens to bring your subject into focus for the reader. How does that work? Why do you approach story in this way?

NM: Marcie McCauley with Temz Review observed that, “[Munteanu] does not appear to view fiction and non-fiction as separate territories; or, if she does, then this book [A Diary in the Age of Water] is a bridge between them.” In Herizons, Ursula Pflug called the book “a bit of a hybrid, and Munteanu a risk-taker.” Buried in Print wrote of the same book, “ultimately it exists in an in-between place, some mystical elements of the generational tale possibly alienating the dedicated science-y readers and the instructional elements possibly alienating fiction devotees. And, yet, I read on: strangely compelling.”

I find that I enjoy this in-between place that blurs fiction with nonfiction. It’s more edgy, gripping, and believable, albeit fantastical, even playfully challenging at times. For instance, I may subvert facts, creating semi-facts to tease the discerning reader (e.g. when the diarist in “A Diary in the Age of Water” observed that President Trump had gone blind from staring at the sun during an eclipse; while Trump did stare directly at the sun without eye protection during an eclipse in 2017, he did not go blind—yet). Readers have told me that the story was more impactful; they honestly didn’t know what was taken from fact and what was fictionalized. Such narrative reads like a true story and there is little more tantalizing than eavesdropping on another’s real experience and intrigue. The risk—that the blur will either confuse the reader or invalidate its truths and message—is hopefully addressed through compelling narrative that engages the reader. But this is also why I tend to include an extensive bibliography at the end of a novel or short story.

Readers have told me that my fiction/nonfiction storytelling trope, like “mundane science fiction,” grips my stories with a more keen sense of relevance. Given that I am writing mostly climate fiction and eco-fiction these days, that sense of relevance is exactly what I wish to achieve. 

AM: A last question. Both “The Way of Water” and “Robin’s Last Song” showcase the relationships women have with each other, the importance of human connection, the damage that disconnecting from each other can do and, inversely, the power of connection. In your view, what is the role of individuals and local communities in the climate crisis?

NM: There are many things we can do as individuals and as part of a community. I was recently asked this question by the Toronto Star and I responded with three things:

●      First, plant a tree; make an actual difference through action. By doing that, we get out from hiding under the bed and face the monster of climate change and show that we care and that we are not alone.

●      Second, vote for green politicians. Politicians need to hear directly from their communities. They need you to push them to act on climate change.

●      Third, find your tribe and create a movement. Everyone says that people have the power, but that power comes best through numbers and solidarity. Find your tribe and you’ll find yourself more motivated. So, start with you and your home: plant trees; put in a rain garden; put in permeable driveways and solar panels; lower meat intake, especially beef; don’t buy bottled water. Then connect with your physical community and social media community. Let them know what you’re doing and why. Work with your community. All members of a community can help change how your street looks and behaves by communicating with your local government, attending meetings, and having a voice. Initiate a tree-planting program in your parks and street greens. Do stream or lake cleanups. Let the leaders of your community know you care and are willing to do something about it. The wave of change starts local and ripples out into a global phenomenon. Change comes from the heart and heart is where the home is.

For the entire interview, go to Apex Magazine, December 10, 2021.

Birch trees and marsh on a foggy morning in winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Rebecca E. Treasure grew up reading science fiction and fantasy in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. After grad school, she began writing fiction. Rebecca has lived many places, including the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Tokyo, Japan. She currently resides in Texas Hill Country with her husband, where she juggles two children, two corgis, a violin studio, and writing. She only drops the children occasionally. To read more visit www.rebeccaetreasure.com.

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.

Apex Magazine Interviews Nina Munteanu About Story, Ecology, and The Future

Issue  #128 of Apex Magazine featured an interview that Rebecca E. Treasure did with me, posted on December 10, 2021. We discussed the power of story, the use of dystopian narrative, and the blur between fiction and non-fiction to create meaningful eco-fiction. Here’s part of the interview. For the complete interview go here:

INTERVIEW

Nina Munteanu, author of “Robin’s Last Song,” is a prolific creator with multiple books, podcasts, short stories, and nonfiction essays in publication. Her work spans genre, from eco-fiction to historical fantasy to thrillers, and of course, science fiction. Her work as an ecologist informs all of her writing, which circles around an essential exploration; the relationship between humanity and our environment.

 At the top of Nina Munteanu’s website, there is a quote: “I live to write, I write to live.” This sentiment is reflected in her fiction, which is not just about characters in compelling situations solving their problems with compassion, but is about all of us, our planet, our environment, and our future.

Rebecca E. Treasure

Nina Munteanu sat down with Apex for a conversation about story, ecology, and the future.

APEX MAGAZINE: “The Way of Water” in Little Blue Marble is such a powerful piece touching on water scarcity and friendship, a dry future and the potential for technology to overtake natural ecology. “Robin’s Last Song” explores extinction, human fallibility, friendship, and again, that conflict between technology and nature. Do you think we’re heading toward the kind of dystopia shown in these stories?

NINA MUNTEANU: The scenarios portrayed in these eco-fiction narratives are deeply grounded in current realities that involve a kind of dissonance between technology and natural processes—more specifically our myopic use of technological “fixes” to make nature more efficient for our use, whether it’s to mine water from the air (disrupting the water cycle) or gene-hack monocrops to increase yield (compromising the crop’s resilience and long-term productivity). It isn’t so much the technology, but the thought process driving its use that is undermining the environment we live in. Our unwillingness to think of ourselves as part of the very environment we’re manipulating for shortsighted purposes could certainly bring about some version of these dystopias.   

While these narratives are based on the realistic premise of current and projected water use and food production, their trajectories are fluid and multi-faceted. We still have many directions we can go. Concrete precedents set by a changing climate and our several-century interference will ensure continued extinction of species, reduction of bio-diversity, the proliferation of unstable simple ecosystems prone to crashing, and an unruly water cycle. Despite these, planetary responses remain fluid and unpredictable; there is so much about the natural world we still don’t know. And that is what my story “Robin’s Last Song” touches on: even when it looks utterly bleak and nothing seems left, Nature surprises us with hidden gifts. If nothing else, we are humbled by it. And a little wiser, hopefully.

AM: Your stories show readers the kind of world we could be facing if nothing changes. Do you believe such disaster is preventable?

NM: Humanity can destroy habitats and ecosystems; but we can’t destroy the planet—well, not yet anyway. We can only change it. Earth will endure. The question is: as Nature changes will we endure? We are currently destroying and simplifying the ecosystems that best support our species, and heralding in those that may not. Ecologists use a term “natural succession” to describe when one species or group of species create better conditions for another group that will succeed them. We are in danger of doing this. And we’re taking down a lot with us. This planet has experienced four major extinction events in the past (wiping out up to 90% of its species) and each time life came back in full force; but each time, that life looked different from what had preceded it.

To ensure our own survival, we need to ensure the survival of our supporting network: forests that balance a climate best suited to us; a biodiversity that brings resilience; a clean healthy ocean that nurtures all life. But I am hopeful. We need creativity and joy and connection to do this right. We are creators at heart and are more joyful when creating. We are capable of creating so much beauty in our music, art, and science. When faced with insurmountable odds and terrible circumstance, our earnest hearts fill with kindness and compassion. Some countries have embraced the Happy Index—over the GDP—to measure their success. Bhutan has achieved carbon negativity and others are following its lead. We know what the solutions are. We have the technologies. We understand the science. We just need the will.

As Yuval Harari noted, we remain an insecure species; despite our curiosity and capacity for wonder, we are prone to fear, suspicion, and defensive action in the face of the unknown. Our preoccupation with “self” in all its iterations limits our ability to gain a more healthy perspective and to see ourselves as part of our environment, not apart from it. Our hubris and separation comes from that same insecurity. Like the hero in the hero’s journey, we’ve strayed from our “home” to find ourselves. The changes in the world that we’re largely responsible for creating (e.g., climate change, habitat destruction, and oversimplification) are also part of our journey to find ourselves. When we find our humility and our unique gifts to the world, we can prevent disaster. It won’t be the tool—technology—that does it. It will be the wisdom that comes with loss of ego, allowing us to forge a partnership with the rest of the world, human and non-human.

With the wisdom of feminine energy emerging from the shadows and lighting its voice with kindness, humility, compassion, unity, and wholeness, I’m ever hopeful. It’s time to grow up, forgive ourselves and each other, and become whole.

For the entire interview, go to Apex Magazine, December 10, 2021.

Birch trees and marsh on a foggy winter morning, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Rebecca E. Treasure grew up reading science fiction and fantasy in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. After grad school, she began writing fiction. Rebecca has lived many places, including the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Tokyo, Japan. She currently resides in Texas Hill Country with her husband, where she juggles two children, two corgis, a violin studio, and writing. She only drops the children occasionally. To read more visit www.rebeccaetreasure.com.

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 Power of Diary in Fiction—with Focus on “A Diary in the Age of Water” by Nina Munteanu

Last August I was invited by the University of Saskatchewan to give a talk at 20/21 Vision, their conference on Speculating in Literature and Film in Canada. My presentation was entitled “The Power and Relevance of Diary in Near-Future Mundane Science Fiction.”

The use of mundane realism through setting and events—particularly through letters or diary—creates powerful narrative that uniquely engages the reader with metaphor, allegory, and archetypes through additional sensibilities and personal connections. Devices such as POV, tense, and voice help create this form of storytelling.

What Is a Diary?

Diaries are first person accounts of real events relevant and meaningful to that person’s life experience. They are written in casual conversational language, usually a chronological account of daily life over lifetime, have wide scope; and are autobiographical.

If the scope is more narrow and focused, we have a memoir. The memoir is often focused by theme (e.g., addiction, loss, parenting, war, etc.). Memoirs are usually written in scenes and may trade accuracy for dramatic effect (emotional truth over historical truth). Anne Frank’s diary is a mundane account of her tragic short life in Nazi Germany; Yoko Ono experienced Hiroshima during World War 2.

If the focus is by topic, we get a journal (e.g. nature journal, grief journal, travel journal). Henry Henry David Thoreau’s journal became a manifesto for living simply with Nature; Sister Gargi’s journal was an ode to a spiritual movement.

Examples of memoirs and journals

Non-Fiction in Fiction

The play of non-fiction in fiction is achieved through several tools. This includes:

  • use of point of view such as first person or second person; writing as an epistolary novel—or a series of letters—such as The Colour Purple
  • displaced narrative such as The Great Gatsby
  • detached autobiography such as To Kill a Mockingbird
  • interior monologue such as Finnegan’s Wake.
Examples of fictional diaries

Fictional diaries play on historical truth through emotional truth through narrator voice and use of metaphor. This provides authenticity, meaning, relevance, and impact to the story. Reality and fiction blur through realized premise that provides a gritty realism to the dramatization and intensifies the experience The diarist’s ability to introspect provides great insight for the reader to the protagonist’s inner voice, their eccentricities, and self-delusions. These provide great intimacy with the character.

Most fictional diaries are memoir-like because they are usually based on THEME which carries the meaning of the story. In The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver effectively uses several first person voices—of the mother and her four daughters—to provide more perspectives of the story.

Mundane Science Fiction

Mundane science fiction is a niche literary movement from 2004 focused on near-future realism—also called speculative fiction or literary SF. The focus is on already existing technology and plausible extensions—no ray guns, warp drives or time travel. The premise lies in existing circumstances and events. It has similarities with hard science fiction, cyberpunk, ecopunk, ecofiction and climate fiction. Mundane science fiction incorporates elements of literary fiction and mainstream fiction to achieve a strong sense of realism.

Examples of mundane science fiction

Mundane science fiction is the literature of near-future realism that explores how environmental and technological changes will change our lives. Christopher Cokinos calls mundane science fiction the “science fiction that functions more as compass than chimera.” Examples include cautionary tales and dystopias, all predicated on and launched from real events and phenomena—and including my own recent climate fiction “A Diary in the Age of Water.”

“A Diary in the Age of Water”: Mundane SF with Fictionalized Diary 

A Diary in the Age of Water” is the climate-induced journey of humanity through four generations of women, each with a unique relationship to water… Centuries from now, in a dying boreal forest in what used to be northern Canada, Kyo, a young acolyte called to service in the Exodus, yearns for Earth’s past—the Age of Water, before the “Water Twins” destroyed humanity. Looking for answers and plagued by vivid dreams of this holocaust, Kyo discovers the diary of Lynna, a limnologist from a time just prior to the destruction. The diary spans a 40-year period in the mid-21st century and describes a planet in the grips of severe water scarcity. Lynna in her work for the international utility that controls everything to do with water, witnesses and records in her diary the disturbing events that will soon lead to humanity’s demise.

The story begins and ends in the far future with the blue being Kyo, who finds the diary of the limnologist, Lynna. The story is hard SF with a strong basis in science. This is obvious through the narrator, who is a scientist, and the form of the diary itself, in which each entry has an epigraph from a science textbook related to the experience in the entry. Lynna also includes sketches, formulas and other references to science and these appear in the entries.

The diary portion of the book is a first person narrative nested within the larger 3rd person narrative of Kyo in the far future. Its SETTING is based on many real events with dramatized fiction stitched in. This blurs what’s real and what’s fiction. VOICE and POV are used to achieve differing scope and time perspectives between the diarist’s world and that of the future being. We get insight into the inner voice of the diarist through 1st person voice; this is contrasted with the 3rd person voice of the future being—they remain on the outside, looking in. The PLOT is essentially that of a young future human “in discovery”, a metaphoric coming of age for humanity.

The diary format includes the use of:

  • short entries with epigraphs and quotes from fact
  • conversational voice of intimacy with introspection, opinion, and judgment
  • outer conflict with family and colleagues
  • inner conflict with motivations and truths
  • metaphoric connections with water
  • illustrations embedded in the diary entries
Two pages with illustrations in ‘A Diary in the Age of Water’

The diarist is a real and flawed protagonist—this makes her more like us and we are more likely to empathize with her despite her considerable flaws … Lynna makes mistakes and does some terrible things, but the diary allows the reader to find out more about why she does these things, what motivated her and how she feels, including remorse and regret. This allows the reader to forgive Lynna, even as her own daughter cannot, even as she cannot. This becomes key to the story, which is about forgiveness. The diary abruptly ends with pages torn out and Kyo is anxious to know what happened to both Lynna and her world. So is the reader.  

Responses to “A Diary in the Age of Water”

Readers and reviewers had interesting responses, some paradoxical:

The blur of real events/history and fictional action brought the story into living colour. Several readers confided in me that they often did not know what was non-fiction and what was fiction and that this confusion made the book more gripping. Several reviewers, caught up in the blur of non-fiction with fiction, accused the book of being overtly polemic, when it was the fictional diarist who was proselytizing and being protective and narrow-minded; one need only look to the diarist’s daughter and her actions to see another voice).

In their analysis, reviewers gave the following visceral responses:

In her review of ‘A Diary in the Age of Water’ in The Temz Review, Marcie McCauley writes:

Munteanu “invites readers to recognize themselves in the ‘historical’ story and to project themselves into her imagined future…the diary…operates as a doorway…Munteanu combines methodologies, familiar literary motifs with text and images from non-fiction…She does not appear to view fiction and non-fiction as separate territories; or, if she does, then this book is a bridge between them.”

That blur with reality makes readers both love and hate the novel and it is precisely this that makes them read on. They are thoroughly invested. They need to know how it turns out, as though this is real lives at stake.

Red maple leaf sits on mossy log of old growth forest, 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.

Nature’s Archetypes in Story: Part 1, The Herald

Pine-cedar forest in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

The early fall breeze stirs with the pungent vanilla scent of pine as I walk the damp forest.

Giant white pines rise high above me like columns of a sacred cathedral. Their deep green canopies sway and creak in the breeze as they strain toward the heavens. Below, at my feet, a profusion of ferns and forest plants lie in the dappled light of the understory. My boots crunch and squelch on the spongy ground.

A sound stops me. I halt to listen.

It’s the song of a bird. The ethereal trill of a hermit thrush offers its tender ode to the forest. A pure song that opens from a singular note into successive waves of pure light.
The light of heaven.

Hermit thrush

The hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) is a reclusive indistinct brown bird that lurks in the understories of northern forests; yet its echoing flute-trill celebrates the forest like no other sound. It is a prayer to beauty, stirring one’s heart into celebration. This aptly named bird is not often seen, though its flute-like song carries far into the forest. It is the unseen messenger. Some call her haunting song melancholy; others think it heavenly.

The song of the thrush fulfills the herald archetype of catalyst. They enhance whatever stirs you at the moment. If you are sad, they might stir you to tears. If you are feeling joy, they will stir you into ecstasy. If you are neutral—of little mind and emotion—their song will stir you to feel deeply alive.

When I was growing up as a child, I remember every spring looking forward to the sweet fluting song of the robin–another thrush. The robin was my herald of spring. It still is. I adore this bird for all it evokes of my glorious childhood, filled with the wonders of thrilling adventure.

Robin’s egg, left by mother far from the nest to deter predators, cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Just fledged robin resting on a patio chair, Mississauga, ON (photo by Merridy Cox)

Nature’s Archetypes

Psychology mavens suggest that the existence of archetypes can only be deduced indirectly through story, art, myths, or dreams. This is because an archetype is linked to a universal (subconscious) understanding that is often best expressed through metaphor, icon and symbol. Carl Jung understood archetypes as patterns and images that originate from and are shared within the collective unconscious (e.g., mother archetype or mentor archetype). Archetypes are the psychic counterpart of instinct

Old growth eastern hemlock, Catchacoma Forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Instinctive behaviour (behaviour in the absence of learning) expresses an innate inclination toward a complex behaviour or pattern. Newly hatched sea turtles automatically move on the beach toward the ocean; honeybees communicate by dancing in the direction of a food source without prior instruction; a marsupial, once born, climbs into its mother’s pouch. Imprinting is another instinctive behaviour. Shaking water off fur is an instinctive action. Other examples of instinct include animal fighting, animal courtship behaviour, internal escape functions, and building nests.

Psychologist Michael McCollough argues that environment plays a key role in human behaviors, such as forgiveness and revenge. He theorizes that various social environments 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 smell.2

Old growth eastern hemlock forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The world of fairy tales and myth (which most stories use in some form) is peopled with recurring character types and relationships. Heroes on a quest, heralds and wise old men or women who provide them with “gifts”, shady fellow-travelers—threshold guardians—who may “block” the path, tricksters who confuse and complicate things and evil villains who simply want to destroy our hero. Jung adopted the term archetypes, which means ancient patterns of personality shared by humanity, to describe these as a collective unconscious. This is what makes these archetypes, or symbols, so important to the storyteller. Assigning an archetype to a character allows the writer to clarify that character’s role in the story as well as to determine the overall theme of the story itself. Archetypes are therefore an important tool in the universal language of storytelling, just as myth serves the overall purpose of supplying “the symbols that carry the human spirit forward.” (Joseph Campbell).1

Given their relationship to the “story” of a whole system, Nature’s ecosystem components may correspond loosely to archetype in story. We already use some of these in classic stereotyping, based on habits and general qualities we’ve (often erroneously and ignorantly) assigned to representative species. For instance, pigs are associated with slovenly behaviour, sharks with sociopathic predation, horses with unquestioning service, foxes with clever and crafty manipulation, and sheep with gullibility. George Orwell used animal stereotypes to create archetypal characters in his allegorical satire, Animal Farm.2 

Scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell drew on Jung’s archetypes to provide seven main archetypes in the mythic hero’s journey. These include: hero, herald, threshold guardian, mentor, shape-shifter, trickster, and shadow. The journey acknowledges archetypes in story and embedded within each archetype is a role in moving the story toward its inevitable conclusion. In this way we see how important world and place are. They too can serve as archetypes in story, particularly if personified.2 The most powerful of these are always drawn from Nature.

Nature’s archetypes in story express metaphorically and literally through functions and niches. An example is the strong solitary oak versus a young social stand of beech. The oak honestly comes by its iconic symbol of solitary strength, resistance, and knowledge.

Oak wood is very dense (about 0.75 g/cm3), providing great strength and hardness. Its wood resists insect and fungal attack because of its high tannin content. Its bark is strong and coarse, easily withstanding outer wounds, such as lightning strikes. “Whereas beeches last barely more than two hundred years outside the cozy atmosphere of their native forests, oaks growing near old farmyards or out in pastures easily live for more than five hundred,” writes forester Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees. “Even severely damaged [oak] trees with major branches broken off can grow replacement crowns and live for a few hundred years longer … a storm-battered beech is able to hang on for no more than a couple of decades.” 

Alan Bates plays stalwart Gabriel Oak in Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd”

Metaphoric “roles” may provide an allegorical association with a major character in something as simple as a name: the solitary strong-minded shepherd Gabriel Oak in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. Gabriel Oak not only embodies the metaphoric characteristics of an oak; he is also, like the oak, strongly connected to the land. The metaphor may carry through into a character’s very nature and journey: in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, Dellarobia Turnbow reflects the title on several layers, from her own “flight” to her discovery and connection with the flight of the monarch related to climate change.2 

Monarch butterfly (photo by Merridy Cox)

A small shift between cloud and sun altered the daylight, and the whole landscape intensified, brightening before her eyes. The forest blazed with its own internal flame. “Jesus,” she said, not calling for help, she and Jesus weren’t that close, but putting her voice in the world because nothing else present made sense … The mountain seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave. Like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze. “Jesus God,” she said again … Trees turned to fire … The flame now appeared to lift from individual treetops in shows of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it’s poked. The sparks spiraled upwards in swirls like funnel clouds … It was a lake of fire, something far more fierce and wondrous than either of those elements alone … She was on her own here, staring at glowing trees. Fascination curled itself around her fright. This was no forest fire. She was pressed by the quiet elation of escape and knowing better and seeing straight through to the back of herself, in solitude. She couldn’t remember when she’d had such room for being … Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. For her alone these orange boughs lifted, these long shadows became brightness rising.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
Eastern hemlock forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Herald as Catalyst

The herald brings in a new force, usually in Act One of the story. This force is usually a challenge for change. Heralds announce the coming of significant change, whether the hero likes it or not (and usually s/he doesn’t).

In Act One, we usually find the hero struggling, getting by in her Ordinary World; yearning, like Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, for “more”. Often not even realizing it. The herald is a new energy, a catalyst that enters the story and makes it impossible for the hero to remain in status quo. The herald tips the scales, so to speak. This could be in the form of a person, an event, a condition or just information that shifts the hero’s balance and changes her world, as a result. It is a turning point, obvious or subtle. Nothing will ever be the same. The herald delivers the call to adventure. In Star Wars, Ben Kenobi, who also serves as Luke Skywalker’s mentor, issues the call when he invites Luke to join him on his mission to Alderaan. The herald also provides the hero with motivation. In Romancing the Stone, the herald for Joan Wilder comes in the form of a treasure map in the mail, and a distressed phone call from her sister.1

Nature’s heralds can be as subtle or as wild and brash as Nature herself; this will depend on the plot and theme of the story. How the writer weaves in the natural elements in storytelling depends on the type of story and the role Nature plays. Nature’s heralds may brood and simmer in dramatic irony like Egdon Heath and its microclimates in Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native or the giant Douglas firs in Richard Power’s The Overstory. Or they may descend in a bluster of violence as in Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood or in startling beauty like the sea of monarch butterflies in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.

The opening of Annie Proulx’s Barkskins combines subtle to obvious images of an ‘unwelcoming’ wilderness—as dark behemoth—to foreshadow (herald) the forest’s eventual destruction by settlers intent on conquering Nature. The forest is a potent character.

Within the first ten pages we gain a rich and potent collage of first impressions by the settlers of “the moody darkness” of the New France forest, previously only seen by the “sauvages.” The barkskins “tramped up the muddy path toward a line of black mist … In a few hours the sodden leaf mold gave way to pine duff. Fallen needles muted their passage, the interlaced branches absorbed their panting breaths … evergreens larger than cathedrals, cloud-piercing spruce and hemlock. The monstrous deciduous trees stood distant from each other, but overhead their leaf-choked branches merged into a false sky, dark and savage …They walked on through the dim woods, climbing over mossy humps, passing under branches drooping like funeral swags,” hearing pines hissing in the wind,” and crossing “snarling water,” and “swarms of mosquitoes in such millions that their shrill keening was the sound of the woods.” These bleak impressions of a harsh environment crawling with pests such as bébites and moustiques underlie the combative mindset of the settlers to conquer and seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource. By page seventeen, we know that mindset well. René asks why they must cut so much forest when it would be easier to use the many adequate clearings to build their houses and settlements. Trépagny fulminates: “Easier? Yes, easier, but we are here to clear the forest, to subdue this evil wilderness.”2  

Rachel Carson and her iconic book Silent Spring

In Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem, a herald for main character Ye Wenji was not so much Nature as a book on Nature: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Ye Wenjie is already cynical about human behaviour from the violence and destruction of the Cultural Revolution. Yet, it is a contraband copy of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring and its revelations that set in motion the pivotal shift in her life trajectory: 

More than four decades later, in her last moments, Ye Wenjie would recall the influence Silent Spring had on her life. The book dealt only with a limited subject: the negative environmental effects of excessive pesticide use. But the perspective taken by the author shook Ye to the core. The use of pesticides had seemed to Ye just a normal, proper—or, at least, neutral—act, but Carson’s book allowed Ye to see that, from Nature’s perspective, their use was indistinguishable from the Cultural Revolution, and equally destructive to our world. If this was so, then how many other acts of humankind that had seemed normal or even righteous were, in reality, evil? 

As she continued to mull over these thoughts, a deduction made her shudder: Is it possible that the relationship between humanity and evil is similar to the relationship between the ocean and an iceberg floating on its surface? Both the ocean and the iceberg are made of the same material. That the iceberg seems separate is only because it is in a different form. In reality, it is but a part of the vast ocean … It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race. 

This thought determined the entire direction of Ye’s life.

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu
Apex Issue #128 and 2021 anthology

A profoundly terrifying herald from nature in my short story Robin’s Last Song occurred when the birds suddenly began falling from the sky.

Robin’s Last Song first appeared in the #128 Issue of Apex Magazine in 2021. It tells the story of Robin, a blind elder whose digital app failed to warn the world of the sudden global loss of birds with disastrous ecological consequences. After years of living in self-exile and getting around poorly on sight-enhancing technology, a discovery gives her new hope in rekindling her talents in the field of Soundscape Ecology:

May, 2071

I rock on the cedar swing on my veranda and hear the wind rustling through the gaunt forest. An abandoned nest, the forest sighs in low ponderous notes. It sighs of a gentler time. A time when birds filled it with song. A time when large and small creatures — unconcerned with the distant thrum and roar of diggers and logging trucks — roamed the thick second-growth forest. The discord was still too far away to bother the wildlife. But their killer lurked far closer in deadly silence. And it caught the birds in the bliss of ignorance. The human-made scourge came like a thief in the night and quietly strangled all the birds in the name of progress.

Robin’s Last Song by Nina Munteanu

Resources:

  1. Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” Starfire World Syndicate, Louisville, KY. 266pp.
  2. Munteanu, Nina. 2019. The Ecology of Story: World as Character Pixl Press, Vancouver, B.C. 200pp.

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.

Taking Photographs That Match Your Mind

Nina scoping her shot with her iPhone (photo by Merridy Cox)

You see something breathtaking and say to yourself: I have to take a picture of that! You snap it with your camera or phone, happy that you’ve captured the moment. When you return home and review your shots on the computer to share, you get to that breathtaking scene and your first thought is: why on Earth did I take a picture of that?!

The shot is nothing like what you remembered. That dull and lifeless scene is the farthest thing from breathtaking. What happened?

Nina checks her photo on her iPhone (photo by Merridy Cox)

When Your Mind and Your Camera Don’t Agree

We see with our eyes, but we feel and process meaning with our brain. And it’s the brain that determines what we finally see. What we see is our brain’s interpretation of the scene. We adjust what we see with meaning.

The camera doesn’t interpret. It is a tool that works based on principles of light, focus, depth of field, breadth of field, and resolution & detail. What a DSLR camera set on automatic, a compact camera and a smartphone have in common is that they are all set to capture the best shot, given the right conditions of light, contrast and motion. If you shoot with a camera set on automatic, it is acting as your brain, but without the interpretation of meaning. You’ve given away that power. Like a benevolent dictator, the camera/phone is boss of your shots, dictating what it was designed to do to get the best shot in those particular conditions. The trouble with that is the camera doesn’t see with your brain. It’s idea of the ‘best shot’ is based on a set of criteria created by a manufacturer. It works great only in certain conditions—those best anticipated by the manufacturer (e.g. optimum light and distance). But, make no mistake: you will not get what your brain sees. You might think so, but you won’t.

A short while ago, when I was visiting a good friend in British Columbia, we got into talking about photography and I mentioned how I had returned from using a tablet and phone (for convenience) to my Canon DSLR camera (for quality); I’d ditched the camera in favour of the light convenient iPhone, which I found easy, particularly when travelling. But I soon became frustrated and disappointed at not achieving what my brain saw. Returning to the DSLR camera allowed me to significantly improve my shots. My friend’s daughter—an avid picture taker with her mobile phone—challenged me: “Are you sure your camera takes better pictures?” I wanted to laugh, but then I realized that she was serious, born from the confidence of her own pictures—which I’d seen and must acknowledge are very good for composition and sharpness. Closer inspection reveals that these were all achieved within a boundary of conditions. The lighting was optimal, the distance was good, the composition sufficiently simple to accommodate the camera’s limitations; so what her brain saw, the camera reflected, at least fairly well.

Nina (decades ago) with her Minolta SLR and long lens (photo by H. Klassen)

But it is impossible for a smartphone or any automatic camera to achieve certain effects that only my DSLR camera set on manual or semi-manual can provide (e.g. setting my depth of field, adjusting for that right bokeh, playing with exposure, achieving natural light and a high resolution image in a low-light situation, getting very close or zooming far away with a dedicated lens). In addition, DSLR cameras outperform smartphone cameras because their sensors are much larger, let in more light, and produce more dynamic range in low-light scenarios. This allows them to capture greater detail than smartphone cameras or compact cameras. Ultimately, as Smartframe acknowledges, “the gap between what’s possible on the smartphones and dedicated cameras remains significant.” The argument is similar for a regular camera set on automatic vs one set on manual or semi-manual.   

I’ve been there. Automatic settings on a camera and smartphone (which is basically like a camera on automatic) can only do so much to match what your brain sees. And they can be mighty annoying—particularly when the camera’s brain prefers to focus on the wrong thing.

Above: automatic setting went for background focus; below, setting corrected for foreground focus (photos of Earthstars in a cedar forest by Nina Munteanu)

If you truly want to get what your brain sees, you have to take over the brainpower of the camera. That means either tricking the automatic setting or going off automatic to manual or semi-manual on a camera (no smartphones currently come with manual settings, nor will they; although they may have some correcting software, which isn’t the same thing.) For the past decade the market is changing for phone cameras and compact cameras—there is Nikon’s Coolpix S800c, which combines an Android OS with a long zoom lens and touchscreen-based interface and Panasonic’s Lumix CM1 blends a traditional smartphone with a 1-inch sensor. Samsung’s Galaxy Camera 2 integrates an Android OS with 3G capabilities and a 21x optical zoom. They all remain limited with respect to matching what your brain sees to what your camera takes.

Getting Your Camera To Agree with Your Brain

Successfully getting your camera (or smartphone) to match your brain-sight starts with recognizing the various aspects of a captured image. These include:

  • focus (sharp or soft): what’s in focus and what isn’t in focus
  • depth of field: how deep the focused region is
  • lighting: colour saturation and contrast
  • resolution (sharpness)
  • motion (or lack of it)
  • composition (what is in focus and what isn’t and where everything sits)
  • bokeh (the look of the unfocused part)

All of these, once recognized, can be manipulated on your camera. On a smartphone or auto-camera, most of these factors must be addressed as best as you can by shifting your position or aim, changing the time of day or lighting when you take your picture, or changing your subject and surroundings. In other words, by manipulating what your brain sees.

I won’t lie; it’s not easy to manipulate what the camera takes to match what your brain sees. It takes dedication and time. But it starts with recognizing what needs manipulating: training your eyes and brain to really see what you’re taking a photo of and understanding what your camera has to do to achieve it.

Nina photographing a tributary of the Otonabee River, ON, with her Canon DSLR (photo by Matthew P. Barker, Peterborough Examiner)

How Our Eyes and Brains See

It helps to understand how our eyes see and how our brains process what we see, particularly what is different from what a camera does. This includes angle of view; resolution and detail; and sensitivity and dynamic range. 

Angle of View: Our angle of view isn’t straightforward like a camera with a particular lens with set focal length (e.g. wide angle vs. telephoto lens). Cambridge in Colour tells us that “even though our eyes capture a distorted wide angle image, we reconstruct this to form a 3D mental image that is seemingly distortion-free.” Our central angle of view—around 40-60º—is what most impacts our perception. “Subjectively, this would correspond with the angle over which you could recall objects without moving your eyes,” says Cambridge in Colour.

Rendition of what eye / brain focuses on (image from Cambridge in Colour)

Resolution and Detail: Cambridge in Colour tells us that 20/20 vision is mostly restricted to our central vision; we never actually resolve that much detail in a single glance. Away from the centre, our visual ability decreases and at the periphery we only detect large-scale contrast and minimal colour. A single glance, therefore, mostly perceives the centre in resolution. Because our brain remembers memorable textures, colour and contrast (not pixel by pixel), our eyes focus on several regions of interest in rapid succession, which paints our perception. “The end result is a mental image whose detail has been prioritized based on interest.” It is our interest that dictates what we see and ultimately informs our memory of that image.

How our eye / brain integrates depth of field and exposure for background and foreground (image by Cambridge in Colour)

Sensitivity & Dynamic Range: According to Cambridge in Colour, our eyes have the equivalent of over 24 f-stops. This is because our brains integrate background and foreground to create a mental image that integrates these.

Matching the Camera to Our Brain

The next step is to learn how to manipulate the camera to achieve these. This means learning how to use the f-stop, how to manipulate the shutter speed, how to change the ISO setting, and what all these, in turn, produce in terms of focus, depth of field, lighting, exposure, saturation, resolution, bokeh and more. Taking a course in photography is a good way to start. Experiment with settings. Learn about the equipment. Lenses. Filters. Tripods. Go on a camera shoot with a photographer who knows about these. It promises to be ultimately rewarding and fulfilling.

I wanted the entire foreground group of Shaggy Main mushrooms to be in focus and the background less focused but recognizable; I therefore set my f-stop at 18, which gave me a slower shutter speed (and I had to stabilize my camera) with sufficient depth of field (photo by Nina Munteanu)
I used a higher speed and smaller f-stop of these cardamom pods and seeds to create a more shallow depth of field that focuses attention on a particular aspect of interest and keeps the image from looking flat (photo by Nina Munteanu)
A medium f-stop allowed me to freehold my camera and capture a crisp shot of the person and sled but a motion-blurred shot of the dog–achieving a sense of motion in the shot (photo by Nina Munteanu)
I oriented my camera for a portrait (vs landscape) shot to showcase the height and gigantic size of these red cedars in Lighthouse Park, Vancouver, and ensured a person was in the shot for perspective (photo by Nina Munteanu)
I used a low f-stop (which in good light does not appreciably reduce depth of field) to achieve high speed in capturing the three divers off the cliff (photo of ocean cliff in BC by Nina Munteanu)
I used a high f-stop and stabilized camera to achieve a softer look to the moving water and also get higher depth of field to see both stationary foreground and background (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I’ve been on my journey for over a decade and I’m still learning. From my son, from others, from my own experiences. That’s the fun part, after all. It’s an adventure of discovery…

My Canon camera on its tripod (photo taken with tablet 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.

Integrate Place in Fiction To Deepen Meaning

This past August, I participated in the When Words Collide Online 2022 Writing Festival.  one of Canada’s prime writing festivals in Calgary, Alberta. I was a featured writer, sitting on several panels and conducting presentations and lectures.

My presentation on the role of place in story kicked off the festival.

The role of place in story is a topic close to my heart and one I wrote an entire writing guidebook on: The Ecology of Story: World as Character. In my coaching sessions with writers and in my writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto, I’d observed in the novice writer a need for more effective integration of setting and place in story. All too often, the lack of meaningful integration translated into a lost opportunity to explore the POV character and the story’s theme.

The lack of meaningful use of place in story can result in a lacklustre story, overly vague characterizations and a story that lacks metaphoric depth and relevance.

Nina Munteanu

The presentation and following discussion drew from my guidebook Ecology of Story and was also featured in the WWC recorded panel called “What is Eco-Fiction and Why Should We Care?” The presentation overviewed topics covered in the book, such as:

  • Place as character & archetype
  • Place as metaphor (personification, symbols, allegory)
  • Place and first impressions (openings)
  • Place and emotion (over time and by POV)
  • Place through the senses
  • Place as environmental force (including climate change)

We also discussed how characters connect with their environment and I introduced the metaphoric connection between the white pine forests and the Mi’kmaq in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins. Both are exploited by the white settlers, with intentions to subdue and controll:

The Gatineau forest was noisy, echoing with ax blows and the rushing crackle of falling timber, with shouted warnings and orders. The axmen cut the great pines, but only a few in each plot were suitable for squaring. The rest were left to rot on the ground … unwanted trees lay prostrate, severed branches everywhere, heaps of bark and mountains of chips … There were so many trees, what did it matter? Maine men were used to waste—it was usual—but this was beyond anything even they had seen. 

In the Penobscot settlement, the trees fell, tracks inched through the forests, only one or two then seven, then webs of trails that over the decades widened into roads. The roads were muddy, sometimes like batter, sometimes thick and clutching until late summer; when they metamorphosed into choking dust so fine it hung in the air long after a horse and carriage passed, settling on the grass as the English people settled on the land … Fields of wheat and hay took the land, these fields enclosed by linked stumps, the root wads of the forest that had once stood there turned on their edges to bar the white man’s cows and sheep. 

I concluded the presentation with a writing exercise asking participants to write about the psychology of a place and how they related to it.

Writers attending the presentation / workshop eagerly participated and produced some evocative narrative that contained good metaphor and sensual writing. Here are a few:

Freyja on their high school gym: “I remember rallies and lectures and sweating, running in circles for an hour and a half. The gym stayed the same but the population of people got smaller and smaller over the years. One year a kid hit his head on the wall and went into a coma. Longest seven seconds in my life.”

Roma: “As soon as I get a whiff of old pages in a book, I am reminded of Uncle Leo. The coffee coloured leather jacket he always wore had seen better days and like him, still retained most of its luster. He was the youngest of my dad’s nine siblings, born during a storm and considered a tempestuous child. Our family just didn’t understand his passion.”

Angela: “I stood on the bridge in Moscow. My mother was talking with a friend. She couldn’t believe how lucky we were to be posted here. I looked down at the river. And at the bridge. It would be so easy to just jump over the fence and land in the water. It was a sunny day. The heat was oppressive. I wanted to do it. But I stood still.”

Kylie: “The stuffy air was full of the smell of bodies and heat. The din of laughing and talking, and yelling surrounded me.”

To find out more on how place can add depth and meaning to your writing, see my third writing guide, The Ecology of Story: Place as Character.

The Ecology of Story: World as Character is presented in two parts: Part 1 provides a comprehensive summary of the science of ecology, the study of relationships, and links to useful metaphor; Part 2 discusses world and place in story. Here I discuss how the great writers have successfully integrated place with theme, character and plot to create a multi-layered story with depth and meaning. Part 2 also contains several exercises and detailed case studies.

Boat dock at sunset, Ladner Slough of Fraser River, BC (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.

Interview with Author Simon Rose About His Latest Book “Royal Blood”

My guest today is Calgary author Simon Rose, who has published eighteen novels for children and young adults, eight guides for writers, more than a hundred nonfiction books, and many articles on a wide variety of topics. Today, we’re looking at his latest release, Royal Blood, the second novel in the Stone of the Seer series.

Remind us about the Stone of the Seer series. What’s it all about?

The Stone of the Seer is an exciting historical fantasy series for young adults, primarily set during the English Civil War in the mid-seventeenth century. The Stone of the Seer, is the first book in the series. At Habingdon House, Lady Elizabeth Usborne, Kate, and Tom discover a magical black stone, mysterious ancient manuscripts, and the tempus inpectoris, an incredible time viewing device. They are also in grave danger from Daniel Tombes, who has a fearsome reputation as a witchfinder.

And without giving too much away, what can readers look forward to in the second novel?

In Royal Blood, Lady Elizabeth, Kate, and Tom move to London in the middle of the Civil War, experiencing the great political changes taking place at the time, including the

trial and execution of Charles I. They are also still under threat from Tombes, who is also in the city. The story has many twists and turns, and I doubt if any of the readers will expect the novel’s cliffhanger ending.

And then they’ll have to wait for the third book?

Yes, they certainly will. I’m hoping that Revenge of the Witchfinder, the final novel and the conclusion of the story,will be published later this year. After that, people will be able to buy all three books in the series.

And what’s the story behind the story?

The story, main characters, and some of the settings in Royal Blood are fictional, but like in The Stone of the Seer, they’re based on real events and historical characters, such as King Charles I, appear in the story. The English Civil War broke out as a result of the struggle between Charles I and Parliament, regarding how the country should be governed. The king’s defeat in the war was followed by his trial and execution in January 1649. The monarchy was abolished and replaced first by the Commonwealth of England and then the Protectorate. However, although the monarchy was restored in 1660, in the person of Charles II, his father’s defeat confirmed that an English monarch couldn’t rule the country without the consent of Parliament. This was eventually legally established in 1688 after the Glorious Revolution.

Did you conduct extensive historical research for this book, as you did with the first one?

Although the English Civil War is a time period I’ve always been interested in, I still engaged in lots of research. I needed to study what life was like in seventeenth century London, the political and religious beliefs that were around at the time, the influence of real witchfinders such as Matthew Hopkins and others like him, and of course the trial and execution of Charles I. The trial itself was very well recorded and I was able to ensure that the words spoken by both the king and his accusers were accurate. There were also many witnesses to the execution, so I was able to include established facts about that aspect as well.

As I did in The Stone of the Seer, I’ve included a glossary at the end of Royal Blood, where readers can learn more about the events, settings, and leading characters from the era, locations that are mentioned in the text, life in the seventeenth century, and about other historical periods that are featured in the story. On my website, there’s also a page with details about the historical background behind the books, with links to online sources about the time period.

Do you have any current projects?

Right now I’m working on another historical fantasy novel series, this time set in the early years of World War II. I’m also working on another series of paranormal novels, in the same genre as my previously published series that includes Flashback, Twisted Fate, and Parallel Destiny. You can learn more about those books at www.simon-rose.com. In addition, I’m in the early stages of another couple of historical projects, and am also working on some screenplays, including adaptations of my Shadowzone series, and on several other topics.

Do you still work with other authors as well?

Yes, I offer coaching, editing, consulting, and mentoring services for writers of novels, short stories, fiction, nonfiction, biographies, inspirational books, and in many other genres, plus work with writers of scripts and screenplays. I’m also a writing instructor at the University of Calgary and served as the Writer-in-Residence with the Canadian Authors Association. You can find details of some of the projects I’ve worked on with other authors, along with references and recommendations, at www.simon-rose.com.

Where can people buy Royal Blood and The Stone of the Seer?

The novel can be purchased at most of the usual places, as follows:

Royal Blood

Ebook: Amazon CanadaAmazon USA, Kobo, iBooks, Barnes and NobleSmashwords

Paperback: Amazon Canada, Amazon USA

The Stone of the Seer

Ebook: Amazon CanadaAmazon USAKoboiBooksBarnes and NobleSmashwords 

Paperback: Amazon Canada, Amazon USA

Thanks Simon, for being my guest here today and the very best of luck with Royal Blood and the Stone of the Seer series. I hope the books sell thousands and thousands of copies in the coming weeks and months.

You can learn more about Simon and his work on his website at www.simon-rose.com, where you can also link to his social media sites and other locations online.

Tangle of roots of an old yellow birch tree, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)