Karen McCullough’s wide-ranging imagination makes her incapable of sticking to one genre for her storytelling. As a result, she’s the author of more than a dozen published novels and novellas, which span the mystery, fantasy, paranormal, and romantic suspense genres. A former computer programmer who made a career change into being an editor with an international trade publishing company for many years, she now runs her own web design business to support her writing habit. Awards she’s won include an Eppie Award for fantasy; three other Eppie finals; Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards, and an Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future contest. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.
I recently wrote an essay about a trip my family took a few years ago to The Grand Canyon, which was occasion enough to pull out some of the photos from that trip. I took lots of pictures, and some of them even came out pretty well. There are plenty of panoramas of the amazing views of the canyon. Unfortunately even the best of the photos don’t really do it justice.
It was disappointing, but then I looked at other photos of the canyon, many professionally done, and realized that none of them captured the experience, either. You can get a better feel for it with certain kinds of lights and angles, but it still falls flat. And that is exactly the problem. Seeing it flat.
The Grand Canyon isn’t flat. Its massive depth is one of the things that makes it so awesome. And it requires our extraordinarily finely tuned vision and the brain power behind it to understand the scale and see the magnificence.
I sometimes feel like I’m confronting the same problem when writing a novel. I’m taking events that should be experienced live and conveying them in words that can’t fully communicate what’s happening and what it all looks like. Movies have some advantage here in that they can actually show the things the author is trying to describe. (They have disadvantages, compared to novels, too, but that’s an essay for another time.)
When I’m writing I feel like I’m seeing a movie playing in my head, showing me exactly what happens in the story. I translate those moving images into words on the page and hope that what I’m writing is adequate to let the reader see the same thing (or at least something similar) in her mind.
How do I describe the experience of The Grand Canyon in words? To say that it is a massively huge hole in the ground tells nothing important about it, though objectively speaking, it’s quite accurate. Adding detail, by describing the immense rock formations that comprise it, which are striped with lines of red, orange, gold and white, and littered with trees that appear tiny when looking down, draws a sharper, clearer picture but still fails utterly to share the experience of it.
Seeing The Grand Canyon involves something that goes beyond just the physical details of the landscape. There’s a spiritual dimension that transcends the actual present reality of it because the scale is so far beyond what human beings normally deal with. It requires more than just the physical detail to share that level of difference.
Metaphor can help. When I call it a huge gash in the crust of the earth, carved by a river so dwarfed by the walls of rock above that it might as well be a trickle in comparison, I’m getting closer, I think. Perhaps I can convey it better thus: a palace for giants, carved from the earth itself, featuring pillars that reach for the sky, dappled with all the glorious warm shades of red, orange and gold glowing in the sunlight, decorated with green trees springing out of cracks and crevices, and floored with a sandy plain through which a trickle of silvery water gurgles.
Or maybe I’m just dipping into purple prose that overblows the whole thing. That’s the difficulty of being an author and why I need critique partners and beta readers and editors. I don’t know. I’m too deeply into it.
So…how can I know that what the reader sees is what I want them to see? I can’t.
I’m quite sure no two readers live quite the same story, though they read the same words. Each person brings their own background, experience, knowledge, and expectations, and to the words I’ve written. I can only hope that I’ve described the people, the actions, and the environment in a way that rings true to them, that draws on some commonalities so that the story draws them into a reality they sink into and feel at home.
When Cathy Bennett agrees to attend an important party as a favor for her boss, she knows she won’t enjoy it. But she doesn’t expect to end up holding a dying man in her arms and becoming the recipient of his last message. Bobby Stark has evidence that will prove his younger brother has been framed for arson and murder. He wants that evidence to get to his brother’s lawyer, and he tries to tell Cathy where he’s hidden it. But he dies before he can give her more than a cryptic piece of the location.
The man who killed Bobby saw him talking to her and assumes she knows where the evidence is hidden. He wants it back and he’ll do whatever it takes to get it, including following her and trying to kidnap her.
Cathy enlists the aid of attorney Peter Lowell and Danny Stark, Bobby’s prickly, difficult younger brother, as well as a handsome private detective to help her find the evidence before the killers do.