Every story can be a wonderful opportunity for the writer to learn. I have learned a lot in the course of writing—and rewriting—"Dowse and Bleed." When I first shipped the 7600 word monster to my beta, she came back with tons of helpful advice, which happened to include this snippet here:
Have you ever read the book Perfume by Patrick Suskind? I don't mean seen the movie, but read the book? It's a murder mystery told from the POV of someone with an amazing sense of smell. That sense of smell absolutely permeates the story. Everything is described with such attention to scent, because that's the predominant sense for the narrator.
I haven't read the book, but I got the point. Immersing inside the character meant taking on the way that character perceived the world. And I finally understand the reflexive reaction my main character, Rachelle aka the Database, has to her world. She holds everything and everyone at bay as much as she can. Why? Because everything in her world is steeped in connections, in unavoidable knowledge of others and her environment, and in pain. It hurts her when she senses too much. In this story, she almost always senses too much.
"Thank you," Killinger said as they stepped through the door onto threadbare carpet in a small square of a studio apartment.
It was crawling with black coats, Core law enforcement officers in traditional garb. The team wasn't one Rachelle recognized: a clean-cut early-thirties detective in the middle of the apartment looking up with a surprised frown at the pair of them and surrounded by five or six male officers and a forensic tech, also male. Killinger's computer tech, Jarod, hunched over his portable on the tiny rectangle of kitchen counter, oblivious to their arrival.
Rachelle handed her coffee to Killinger, who took it, then pulled off her denim jacket to hand that over as well and unbuttoned her overshirt. She curled her lip at how thick the air was with pathogens—influenzas, autoimmune viruses, sewer's plague, and a host of lesser infections.
"Killinger. Who is she?" the detective demanded, his white rank star almost glowing in the meager light of the one naked lightbulb overhead.
Killinger had a badge; Rachelle had a history. She let Killinger walk over to explain in hushed tones the way things worked.
Rachelle went to circle the apartment, sticking close to the walls. Leftways ran the tiny kitchen, all appliances and appliance tops and bottoms for laundry and cooking, sanitizing and incinerating, then that tiny bit of counter. Food and food-related bacteria seemed to stick to her skin where it hit her. "It's a wonder he's not sick and retching," she muttered. Incredible how immune systems in the Squares could be so hardy.
Past the kitchen, the corner and back wall of the apartment were packed with the sorts of necessities that closets and pantries were designed to hold, neatly stacked but overflowing. She imagined thumbprints over all those papers and clothes and bottles of food and dishes and almost curled up on herself at all the human traffic that had marked them with genetic material. Animal entries could have been meat, strays, or pets—no telling.
She moved on in the direction of the bed and a knot of three black coats. One glanced over his shoulder and frowned before hunching his shoulders against her. She almost brushed past the other forensic tech, avoiding him by centimeters and absorbing another smattering of entries with distaste.
Writing the world through genetic material is... strange. I had to stop and research melanin-producing genes to figure out how she worked with that. I have to think about the terms of what she knows about people. She observes as frequently with her eyes closed as open, registering what people could be—and nurture's room for variation—before evaluating what they are. There is no off-switch, only things that help her move through the data faster or seclusion, which reduces the number of new things she encounters.
What happens to a character when simply experiencing the world around them causes pain? It's never explicitly stated in this story—at least not in no uncertain terms—but Rachelle's body is essentially a storage device that's running out of space. What used to be a temporary predicament for her, a need to archive and compress data, is now entering a permanent downward spiral. She flinches from physical contact with anyone new but registers everything that much faster, that much more intently, in an effort to get rid of it as soon as she can.
I've never written a story from inside a sense I didn't have before, but it means that every moment I write a new sequence of paragraphs, I have to stop, think, query her body for what it's up to and what she's feeling. I understand now why she numbs herself out to it when she can, backburners it, reacts by lashing out when she can't. Too bad for Jarod he makes a really good target.
Have you ever had a character with another sense besides the usual five or one who viewed the world through a different sensory lens than yours? Anything you had to keep in mind to make it work?