Light and the Writer

This is a quintessential summer night. The moon is just past full, and my electric fan is humming away, and I’m sticking to everything I touch. This is the sort of night for reading Millhauser’s Enchanted Night — just reminding you all. If you haven’t done so, that’s your homework — before the end of August. And read him at night. And read his story “Clair de Lune” from The Knife-Thrower and Other Stories. But seriously, seasons just don’t get any better than this. When people talk of severe weather in the winter — deep snow, record low temperatures, etc. — it’s just dismal and dismaying. But when people complain about the summer heat, about how they can’t sleep, about how plastic containers in their kitchens are melting and all, I get an excited tingle in my stomach. Yesss! This is the season. THE season. The imagination boils over, and dreams are born. The nights are electric, with whole worlds crackling in that residual heat. I LOVE the feeling of lying in bed when it’s far too hot for most mortals to sleep — you lie there as if in a frying pan, sizzling away, as outside the moon rides in all that velvet sky, and the wings of insects hum in the dark. Oh, read Enchanted Night! Read Lud-in-the-Mist and The Hobbit and . . . what else? Tell me your summer books! What else should we be reading in this most excellent of all seasons? It’s a good time to catch up on H.P. Lovecraft, if you like that sort of thing.

Also, just in case anyone is missing out, I invite you to look at the comments posted after the previous entry on this blog, where you’ll find the vindication of my Tolkien tantrum and the verdict on Cymbril.

But anyway, to the nitty-gritty of this posting — I came across the following quote earlier this evening. It’s talking about the cathedrals of Europe:

“The divine presence lives in nature, in space, and in light, and the cathedrals brought these elements together in such a magnificent way that even today modern man, so cut off from his own divine nature, can still feel them.” — Janet Brennan, “The Cathedral Code,” Fate, December 2006

When I read those lines, they resonated with me. I felt they provided a clear elucidation of the reason I love caves and caverns so much. Nature, space, and light. When I think of the most holy places I’ve ever seen (churches aside), I have to nod in acknowledgment. Those three elements are always present. The barn I played in as a child: a lofty, dusky space, scented with fragrant hay and old wood, suffused with the green glow of light falling through Virginia creeper leaves. The barn was built by man, but nature had embraced it and encroached upon it, peeking in at all its windows, skittering across its plant-sprouting floors. And then caves: Grand Central Station in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky — a place where soaring passages come together, an enormous space in the deep Earth, with towering boulders dim in the distance, a shadowed ceiling high above — a place made by the hand of God. Nature, space, and light. Some of my favorite places in Mammoth Cave are the grand stairways, where the path ascends flight after flight of stairs, all within a gargantuan chamber.

In The Lord of the Rings, my favorite setting by far is the mines of Moria. How I would love to have seen it when it was Khazad-dum, during the noontide of Dwarrowdelf, before Durin’s folk disturbed the Balrog! Nature, space . . . and light — for it’s the dim lighting that makes the place so alluring. The Chamber of Mazarbul: we’ve got indirect lighting filtering in from outside. That was an ideal I strove for in my years of designing dungeon for my Verralton campaign: echoing halls in the Earth, dimly-lit by filtered sunlight through fissures or from various haunting sources of light. (For anyone who may be going “Huh?!” right about now, I’m talking about Dungeons & Dragons.)

That got me to thinking about my writing. Dragonfly was written when I was in my early twenties, and (I’d like to believe) it still holds up pretty well. My second novel, called (in various drafts) Lachii or The Fires of the Deep, was an absolute disaster. I labored away on it for five years before I ever showed it to anyone. When an editor and two agents rejected it, I went on laboring away on it in isolation, striving to bring it to “perfection” before I ever let it out of the nest again. And it became, as I later described it, “like a clan of inbred hillbillies” — worked over, re-worked, and re-worked so many times, with no input from anyone but me, that it got to the point where I couldn’t even see it anymore. The world in which it’s set had become intimately familiar to me. But that world is vastly different from our own, and the more I lived in it, the less capable I became of communicating it to people who didn’t live there. In the draft I eventually let some friends read, I realized that, in a single sentence, there might be four or five specialized terms of which only I knew the meaning. Oh, I provided a glossary, yes indeed, a magnificent opus that I worked on night and day. But as one friend commented, “Do you realize that a third of this book is glossary?” Um, oops.

What was missing from the book, I now know, was light. The “nature” was there: a subterranean world, echoing and epic in every way, built directly upon my childhood love of caves. The “space” was there: endless, miles-wide corridors called dulons, large enough to fly airships through without getting anywhere near the world-walls (Shur) or the ceiling (Ra). The world was built — elaborately built. Just as Inuits have all those words for different kinds of snow, my Hurlim people have many different words for stone: lodin are the dry boulder fields; kalodin are the huge, dry boulders; lys is wet, living stone; lysshur is a wet, living stone wall; losshur is a dry wall; los is dead, dry stone. There were abundant folk sayings that made sense in the context of the Hurlim world: “He’s on a skurl under the needles.” “That’ll happen when los becomes lys.” “Hey there, all! What’s in the bucket?”

Yes, the world was painstakingly built. Yet it still didn’t feel alive. Somehow, it seemed all merely academic — a theory.

I know now what was missing.


I’m not saying this is true for all fantasy writers, but what’s revealed in that Janet Brennan quote above is certainly true for me. The triangular equation is nature, space, and light. When the three are present, I can build a setting that feels real, that invites the reader to come in. (The hot Orcharan sands of the Arena seem to work for test readers of “Here About to Die.”) But in my Hurlim world of Ama, I was trying to manage without light. The Hurlim people rely on a sense called yla, which is also an energy that flows through the Earth, emanating from the core. It passes through all spaces and solid objects, bearing a record of all it has passed through. Hurlim eyes, attuned to the yla, can read in it the distances and the surface textures, but it is a sense wholly apart from color. Water appears opaque: if calm, it appears as a flat surface; if rippling, it appears to ripple — but nothing can be seen beneath the surface; hence, the Hurlim fear of water, which seems solid, but which can swallow the unwary traveler who sets foot on it.

In contrast, look at Dragonfly — also set in a subterranean world — yet one in which the descriptions (though often horribly overdone — hey, I was a kid, cut me some slack) are vivid. Dragonfly, for all its dimness, is full of light: torchlight, jack-o’-lantern light, firelight, balloon-light, moonlight, starlight. . . .

The lesson to be learned is this: when a writer doesn’t have light to work with, his/her hands are tied. Imagine an artist trying to paint a picture of a landscape without light! Take any book in which the settings are vibrant, in which you can picture everything so clearly that you feel you’re there, living inside the scene — and then notice how light makes those descriptions possible. See what I mean?

Maybe it seems elementary to you, a principle that we wouldn’t need all these words to arrive at. But for me to realize it, I had to write draft after draft of an enormous novel. The hardest thing I’ve ever done as a writer was trying to tell a story without light. In the next draft of The Fires of the Deep, you can be sure I will have found a way to introduce light into the Hurlim world — and we’ll have the shadows and the dimness and the glimmers and the silhouettes — to give the characters a vivid setting in which to live and breathe.

The act of writing any story, to use Tolkien’s term again, is an act of sub-creation. We rearrange elements God has provided and stack them up in our own way, in our own tiny corner of the universe. Looking back to our prime model, the original Creation: it began with “Let there be light.” Seems to me that’s the way to begin.


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14 Responses to “Light and the Writer”

  1. John Says:

    “The Hurlim people rely on a sense called yla, which is also an energy that flows through the Earth, emanating from the core.”
    That sounds like a very cool concept. I hope we get to read something set in this world someday. Maybe you just need to send in some light dependent outsiders to be the readers’ eyes (sorry) for this wonderous realm.

  2. fsdthreshold Says:

    Thanks, John, for the vote of confidence! Yes, I think that is _exactly_ what is needed. Most of the characters don’t need to be seeing light as long as the POV character is/does. And yes–I will make every effort to bring this book out into the light. (Sorry, too!)

  3. Baron Thredkil Says:

    How ironic to build your triangle of nature, light and space and then spend time discussing caves, which if memory serves, lack light thereby hiding said nature and space from our photoreceptive sight organs. 🙂

    Speaking of light and perception, there’s a whole field of science related to not only building “light” to match natural light (based on the “power spectrum” of various wavelengths), but also it’s “perception” and how we perceive color (called, interestingly enough, “colorimetry”, as opposed to “calorimetry” which is the study of heat from reactions).

    If you want to see where philosophy, art and science meet in a 3-way head-on collision, try reading a book on colorimetry. Make sure to keep the airbags activated.

    (I work with a bunch of image quality engineers here who obsess over this sort of thing and I can stand to deal with a bit once in a while, but by-and-large I try to avoid the topic except for its most rudimentary aspects.)

    /end science discussion
    (PS: You arts people really need to see how scientists can molest art more often)

  4. Baron Thredkil Says:


    OK, so I can’t resist. In geology they can measure “gravity anomalies” and map out the gravitational variability in the earth from high above. In many cases they fly planes over with instruments called “gravimeters” (another inspired science name). The view lets us see into solid rock. In fact seeing how gravity changes over the surface of the earth lets us see the fact that mountains literally have “roots” which extend down into the earth, a mirror of the mountain to a kind of rough approximation.

    What could be more accurately described as “emanating” from the core? Probably not gravity. (Maybe magnetism, which also is measured.) Gravity, as you may recall from your college science classes doesn’t really emanate from the core, it is inherent in the mass of all things. A truly mysterious “force”, but simply modelled F=Gmm/r^2. What could be easier? But, again, try reading some of the physics around this mysterious force and see if you don’t walk away just throwing up your hands and calling it “yla”.

  5. fsdthreshold Says:

    Hey, Baron T.! In response to your first paragraph of your first comment: I’m sure my delivery was clumsy, but the point I was making was that both caverns-as-perceivable-by-me — and the great medieval cathedrals — make use of highly-controlled light. You’ve seen cathedrals firsthand, I haven’t — but I know the builders did all sorts of clever things like arranging windows so that the sun, at a particular hour of a particular day in the year, would shine directly on a particular feature of the floor or elsewhere in the building. And the windows (at Chartres, the height of a six-story building) are so tall that the details of their higher panes can’t possibly be seen by viewers on the floor; their purpose was chiefly to fill the interior space with beautifully-colored light: to bathe the faithful in the colors of the things of Heaven, the stories told in the stained glass.
    It’s the lighting in caves that makes them so incredibly wondrous to me as a writer — the shining minerals, the dim depths, the shadows implying passages to another world: without the lighting, they’re still wondrous to you, the geologist. But as art, _The Fires of the Deep_ falls flat for precisely the reason you re-emphasized: it’s set in a big, lightless world where there are no colors. As John said back in his comment, we need a human interface. We need a pair of human, photoreceptive eyes to bring this world into the realm of our own perception and experience.
    It’s very cool that mountains really do have roots! So Tolkien was (probably unwittingly) reaching into the realm of science with such lines as, “As well set your boot to the mountain’s root, / For the seat of a troll don’t feel it!”
    And as to your P.S. about how scientists can “molest art”–no doubt, no doubt! We writers of speculative fiction have been “molesting” science since the dawn of our genre, so if you mean that science feels free to suspend the laws of art, that’s only fair. 🙂

  6. Catherine Says:

    YES–I read this post and walked away; then I suddenly remembered what made me start getting description-heavy in the last story I wrote. And it WAS light. I was trying to describe the way the light gets just before sunset on a late-summer afternoon, when it turns everything to a tired gold–grass, wood flooring, brown hair…the like. And then I was trying to describe the way a single lamp in a very dark winter night is very pale and wan and lonely. Just now, I was thinking about a church at night with the lights off in the sanctuary, with a single stained-glass window shining dimly in the light from the streetlights outside, a pale, faintly-colored shadow of what shines in all its brilliance on a sunny morning with the sun streaming in. The light is so dim that you can barely see the pews or anything else, but what you can see is bathed in purple, blue and red, rather than plain white. It gives a very sacred feeling.

    Oh, no–now you’ve got me started…

  7. fsdthreshold Says:

    You go, Catherine! Write, write, write! Yes–see what I mean? Light tends to be the single most powerful force for bringing writing to life. If you’re writing a story, and a scene just seems static or doesn’t feel engaging, more often than not, you just have to ask yourself, “What’s the light doing?” And suddenly your description is crackling with vividness and life again.

    That having been said, it’s interesting to consider: two of the most enduring works in Western culture are the Iliad and the Odyssey. IF Homer was one single person (which, I know, is a debatable fact), then according to tradition, he was blind. And John Milton went blind before he had written some of his greatest work (“When I consider that my light is spent / Ere half my days in this dark world and wide. . . .”). Which goes to show, I suppose, that there are no absolutes in writing, except that you have to write. (In that same poem, Milton called writing “that one talent which is death to hide”!) If you no longer have light and colors at your disposal, it’s not necessarily the end of the world. Beethoven went on writing music after he was deaf. But as long as we have sight, it seems good and wise to make the absolute most of it. (Not that we should neglect the other senses. I do some exercises in my writing classes to get students to focus more on their senses _other_ than sight, which also really helps to bring writing to life.)

  8. I experienced Verralton Says:

    Ahh my friend, the dust you have kicked up! I recall with joy havig your imagination unfold before us and inviting the members of the Flail to flesh out the masterpiece, the grand mystery of Verralton. From the splendor of Ekkadhim’s Chamber to the love the Breve Elliott and Sarano had for their valley to the ‘water always being up’ … the immense scope involved was appreciated deeply, at least by those of us willing to step, heart and soul, into your creation and not just idly feed Hooper fig newtons.

    For those of you going ‘huh?’ I can testify to Fred’s deep love for Mammoth Cave (and for others as well). Tolkien once called himself a hobbit — Fred is definitely one of his dwarves! “A little tap here or there, maybe, in whole anxious day” as Gimli said.
    I was always in love with the elves, identifying with their downfall, their broken nature. In was also in love with the Dunedain of Arnor, silently fighting on from the shadows.

    As for Mr. Durbin’s (and so many fellow entrants’) love of summer, I can only say “are you nuts?”
    So hot you stick to the sheets? Not in my apartment, where the AC kicks on whenever the mercury tops 80. And in the winter the heat barely comes on. I live in a quite large unit in the basement of an old college building, so it stays warm.
    Dearest Fred, those cold winter nights are THE nights for reading! For snuggling into a blanket. For midnight strolls on freshly fallen snow when it is 10 degrees F and the earth is illuminated in the beautiful silvery bath of moonlight on argent! When the breath you have unknowingly been quieting rolls forth like the blast of some mighty ice dragon.
    The stars sparkle in a clear, cold sky while the gift of the clouds lie glittlering on terra. The air is hushed, the crunch of your boots sounding impossibly loud, as if to be heard a mile off. The beauty in the stark, twisted branches of the trees, when all is quiet … ahhh!

  9. Preacher Says:

    “are you nuts?”
    I would ask that question too. I can’t STAND summer heat and humidity. And reading is a crime in sticky weather as you might do damage to the pages of a precious book. Fall is the best season, winter is next. After all–if you’re cold you can put on a blanket or a jacket to warm up. But when you’re hot, there’s nothing you can do but suffer. Fred, you are brilliant and artistic and a wizard with words. But you’re so WRONG on this one! 🙂 (My air-conditioning is set on 72!)

  10. Nick dropped in Says:

    I am the one here who can make the claim to being a desert native: my birth and first twenty-two sweltering years of life were lived in Phoenix, AZ. And I, too, must confess that I am no fan of the heat. When I moved to the midwest, I first stayed in houses that did not have central air. I discovered that without it, I could not sleep. If anyone calls me a “wuss” for this, I’ll kindly remind him/her that I have spent many hours tramping through the desert when it was 118 degrees Farenheit. The day in the ’80s that set the record topping out at 120? I spent most of it outdoors (tubing down the Verde River and getting burnt to a crisp). I dislike hot, humid days; I loathe winter weather. Give me Spring and Autumn!

  11. I experienced Verralton Says:

    Nick nailed it — humidity is a tool of the devil. The great thing about winter snow is it dries out the air. Of course, desert air is TOO dry … we are talking everything in moderation, folks!
    I always loved late September and early October, when the leaves first begin to turn and the air is crisp. Daytime high 65, overnight low 50 — in other words, a sweatshirt later in the day but no jacket. Now we are talking! And clear, cloudless blue skies made ever so bright by the axis of the earth.
    This is when to read outdoors, with your back to a tree as the leaves rustle and fall, spinning in the soft breeze. Ahh the earthy smell, the slight tingle on your cheeks from the cool air, the gentle scratching of squirrels busily hunting acorns. Oh the colors of autumn, the dappled sunlight under the eaves, the golds and reds and browns and ten shades of orange.
    Nature is busy reaping the fall harvest in preparation for winter — and the mosquitoes are dead.

  12. fsdthreshold Says:

    “To the beeches of Neldoreth I came in the Autumn;
    Ah! The gold and the red and the sighing of leaves
    In the Autumn in Taur-na-Neldor!
    It was more than my desire….”
    –from Treebeard’s song

    Heh, heh! I sang that song, with music composed by Donald Swann, for a solo & ensemble contest in high school. For those of you who recall those days and might be interested, Lori M. played the piano to accompany me. I remember the challenge of explaining to the audience, “This song was sung by an Ent….”

    Okay, several of youse guys clearly love autumn, and you’ve made the argument eloquently. Obviously I share your enthusiasm for the season–my one book that’s actually seen print so far is all about autumn, right?

    But see, here’s the thing: we form our seasonal loves in our childhoods, don’t we? And the world of a child is inextricably bound to the school year. And I absolutely despised school, with its insistence on dictating how I should spend my time, with its misguided emphasis on all sorts of ridiculous stuff that was not books and stories and adventures. So it’s a very simple correlation: summer = summer vacation. Hot, humid weather = the time of freedom. Heat and humidity = books, stories, and adventures. That’s the whole thing. I’m like one of Pavlov’s dogs–give me sunshine and heat, and I wag my tail.

    Autumn is very nice, to be sure–but autumn means “back to school,” which was always like a shadow falling across my heart. Spring is wonderful, too, but spring is “still in school when you ought to be out, already–will June never come?” Winter is . . . just plain awful. Deep in the depths of the school year, and miserable weather to boot.

    And, folks–“air conditioning”? [Raises an eyebrow.] Oh, yes–that thing they have in movie theaters, supermarkets, and hotels/motels–that “imitation cave air”–yes, that’s pretty cool! Heh, heh.

    By the way, I’ll say this just in case: I don’t mean to be a rude jerk here. I value every single one of your comments, and my tone in this one is meant in the spirit of passionately defending our favorite seasons. Hee, hee!

    This has been a busy week, but I fully intend to write a proper post again tomorrow! (Oops!–I mean “later today”–I SERIOUSLY ought to be in bed!)

  13. Tandemcat Says:

    “And the mosquitoes are dead”–yes, I hear you, Verralton! For myself, I like seasons when one of two things is true: either the leaves are green, or everything is white. I don’t mind the various colors of leaves in the fall, but they are all too soon gone–I just don’t care for bare branches. I’m also one of those who can’t sleep in hot weather, and the noise of an air conditioner tends to be as bad as the heat in terms of dropping off.

    As for _Fires of the Deep_, I have a divergent view. I’m not arguing against people who want to see more light down there, but when I was one of the fortunate few to read the book, that wasn’t one of my problems (and I did share my thoughts with Fred). I assumed at that point that hard-core fantasy fans had no problem with a world having no light, not to mention learning a new vocabulary–to me, that’s part of the charm. OTOH, I don’t consider myself to be a hard-core fantasy fan as such, although I have started a fantasy novel myself, which may never see the light of day (no pun intended!). 🙂 The world I created is different from the one we live in today, but not so different as Middle Earth or Narnia (which are, after all, pretty much just our world in medieval times, except for things like elves, dwarfs, and magic).

  14. fsdthreshold Says:

    To clarify a little: I agree, Tandemcat, that fantasy fans would have no trouble at all with a world devoid of light–IF that world were brought to vivid life in the text. The lack of light in _The Fires of the Deep_ isn’t a problem inherent for potential readers; it’s a problem for ME, the writer. Without light on my palette, I found myself unable to paint the Hurlim world in any kind of captivating or attractive way.

    New vocabulary isn’t a problem, except that there are limits, and I’m quite sure _Fires_ exceeded them. Tolkien once remarked that he wished he could have published _The Lord of the Rings_ entirely in Elvish. By writing the book in English, he was (very wisely) making a concession to the human, mortal, English-speaking readers who did not yet know Middle-earth, but who soon came to know it intimately and to cherish it.

    So for me, I’ve got to write _Fires_ in English and remember that my readers have light-perceiving eyes. When they can clearly see and understand, then I can risk getting a bit exotic.

    I would strongly encourage you to bring your fantasy novel into the light (no pun intended here, either)!

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