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Emily Brewster is an angel. Ask anyone she reads to at the hospice. When she’s arrested for murder, it should be easy to clear her name. The only problem is, she thinks she might be guilty.
But what if death isn't The End?
A couple of years ago, I made an incredible discovery. People see pictures inside their heads! They close their eyes and visualise places and people they’ve known. If they practice and focus, they can find peace in their happy place. When they count sheep, they’re actually counting actual (though probably imaginary) sheep. On a more negative note, when they get flashbacks to traumatic events, they really do see it all again, and when they’re visualising me in my underwear, they’re definitely crossing a line.
This was astonishing to me. I don’t visualise and never have. It’s never stopped me doing anything I needed or wanted to do, so I had no idea other people were different. I’d understood all the phrases in the last paragraph as metaphors for other kinds of imagining.
For me, this is just an interesting fact about mental diversity, and I don’t mind being in the minority (up to 5% of the population, though estimates vary). It bothers me to see it described as a defect or disability. What scientific studies there are of aphantasia or mind-blindness mostly approach it as an abnormality and ask questions like ‘What do you see when you imagine an apple?’ Answer: ‘Nothing. I see nothing. Don’t you get it?’ This doesn’t mean that every apple I meet surprises me.
Plenty of people are upset when they realize they’re in this minority. They burst into the Facebook groups saying ‘I’m anywhere between 20 and 90 years old, and I’ve only just realised I have aphantasia. Do you think it’s why I’m no good at mental arithmetic/recognising faces/reading fiction/playing sport/dreaming/making art/remembering where I left my keys?’ The responses will usually be from aphantastics (that’s my word, that is), who are great at whatever the poster finds difficult.
Personally, while I don’t believe aphantasia is a defect, I will use it as an excuse for my poor navigation and parking skills (the solution is Google maps and a reversing camera) and my very poor artistic ability (the solution would be to work at it, but you know how it is). It might also explain why I tend to understand the literal meanings of figurative language first, but when it comes down to it, I’m a human being and we're all different.
I’ve always been a reader, and although I don’t visualise settings or characters, I do enter the world of a great book and feel how it is to be those characters in those situations. I often skim or skip descriptive passages, and I think aphantasia probably explains why poetry leaves me cold unless it’s building a soundscape or expressing emotion.
So, what about writing fiction with aphantasia? If I’d known upfront, I might have wondered if it was capable of it, so it was lucky I didn’t. When my husband read an early draft of my first book, he told me I hadn’t described the characters enough for him to picture them, and this led to a conversation along the lines of ‘Wait, when you say you can’t picture the characters, do you actually mean picture the characters? Like, literally see them? What’s that about?’
Not all readers visualise and not all readers enjoy the same style of writing. My books are character- and plot-driven, with lots of dialogue, and that works for plenty of readers, visualisers or not. Nowadays, I sketch how characters look when they first appear, so that readers who want to picture them have something to work with. My characters won’t be tossing back their raven locks or flashing their cerulean eyes later on though, largely because I’d have to go back and check it shouldn’t be tawny and hazel or mousey and piggy. Readers who visualise won’t need reminding and readers who don’t won’t care.
Oddly, I find it easier to remember how tall each character is, which I think is because it affects how they interact with their surroundings and each other. Short people walk faster to keep up and stand on chairs to reach unnecessarily high shelves. Life is so very unfair.
Because how characters look doesn’t work for me, I individualise them by their speech, behaviour, back story and motivations. I know my characters from the inside, and I hope that’s how readers get to know them.
I usually base my settings on places I’ve known. The layout of a building will be the same as one I’ve lived in or visited. I wouldn’t notice if a character turned left at the top of the stairs instead of right, but this would drive some readers madder than a misplaced apostrophe. If I need a bookshop where there isn’t a bookshop or a dilapidated medieval cottage in the middle of a modern housing estate, I’ll superimpose it on a real place, so I don’t have to worry about where it is in relation to other things. If I describe a place in any detail, it’ll be because I want to create an atmosphere, tell you something about a character, or sneak in an object that’s going to be useful later.
Bibliomancer, my latest book, is a contemporary, real-world fantasy about books and readers who love them. The Changeling Tree series (four books so far, and a fifth in the pipeline) combines time-travel, Faerie intrigue, and family saga with some damn fine word play.
4 out of 5 (very good)
Independent Reviewer for Archaeolibrarian - I Dig Good Books!
The first few chapters threw me. We're led through different times and it took me a while to adjust and understand... totally worth it!
Going alongside Emily in her journey of self discovery was definitely like being in a different world. It was quite immersive and so bittersweet and heart-breaking, yet it filled me with warmth. I won't go into any details about why it made me feel this, I want you to experience this for yourselves.
Each character had a good solid personality and the interactions between them were well written.
** same worded review will appear elsewhere **
* A copy of this book was provided to me with no requirements for a review. I voluntarily read this book, and the comments here are my honest opinion. *
Frances Evelyn writes contemporary real-world fantasy for readers who like to think and feel.
Her readers enjoy rounded characters, unpredictable plots, realistic dialogue, and unexpected laughter.
The Changeling Tree series sees three generations of the same family living their lives out of synch as pawns in a Faerie game of time travel and treachery. The fifth instalment, The Last Time, will be published later this year.
Bibliomanceris a standalone, exploring the joy of escaping into books, the pleasure of sharing them, and the danger of letting them go.
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