Today we have the ultimate totally-kick-ass writing duo, Ilona Andrews. Ilona Andrews are the authors of the Kate Daniel series and The Edge series. If you’re not read either, we IMPLORE you to so…like now. To learn more about Ilona Andrews and their books, click here.
Writing fantasy is an interesting adventure. Writing fantasy romance is an even bigger adventure, primarily because creatures with strange powers get involved.
It just so happens that a lot of the books we write feature shapeshifters, creatures that hold a particular fascination for many readers. They are vicious predators who prowl the night, and we, despite all of our technological progress and centuries of civilization, still fear the darkness. It takes so little to awaken that fear – a hint of movement on the night street, a strange noise in the middle of the night in your own house and your mind conjures up all sorts of frightening possibilities. Humanity deals with danger in one of two ways: we kill it or tame it. Taming a vicious predator is appealing.
But the shapeshifters are interesting on many other levels as well. They serve as an allegory of the duality of man, a battle between our morality and our self-serving instincts. They even offer a little nostalgia, an echo of a simpler life, where mundane concerns of mind-numbing jobs, debts, and illness melt away in the forest chase under the moonlight.
Because of the shapeshifter popularity, people often ask what’s the most difficult part about writing someone who sprouts fur and grows claws the size of dinner forks. I can tell you right now: it’s not the slightly alien mindset, it’s not the balance of violence and reason, it’s the scents.
An average lupine nose has twenty five times as many olfactory receptors and fourteen times larger scent receptive area than a human. When a shapeshifter enters an unfamiliar area, he is likely to immediately evaluate its scents. Unfortunately, we’re so deficient in the scent department, we actually don’t have that many words to describe what we smell. We have to borrow adjectives from other senses.
An odor can be salty, sweet, sour, spicy – those are flavors. A fragrance can be warm, sharp, or refreshing – that’s tactile sense. A reek can be loud, although that’s really pushing it. We even steal from vision – a vibrant scent. How exactly can a scent be vibrant, I ask you? A stench can be described as revolting, but again doesn’t exactly specify what the odor smells like. We’re describing an individual reaction to the scent (and even that has tasting overtone to it) – we might as well say the scent is scary or happy.
One of the favorite tactics is to compare the scent to something else. The perfume reviewers carry this tactic to the point of ridiculous.
Perfume.com takes it a step further:
“Paul Sebastian stops just short of the haunting dark intentions engulfing you with his Design, adding a garland of tempering elements with a soapy vibe (orange blossom, rose and jasmine) and some spice (carnation’s clove-y hint) for good balance. The insinuating base, though, full of animalistic civet, recalls vintage perfumes of yore, when women were real women and had men for breakfast.”
So you can see how many of my writing sessions go something like this:
“He (or she) entered the room. A cascade of scents washed over him…”
And… And… He smelled something. What the devil did he smell? He’s supposed to be fighting giant spider. What do spiders smell like? Google-google… No, I don’t want to know how spiders accomplish their smelling, I want to know what is their scent.
Scent of a spider: sex pheromone of a wasp spider identified.
Okay, I’ll take that. What does it smell like? It smells like methylcitric acid trimethyl ester. Ummm. Okay, well that wasn’t helpful at all.
In the investigators’ experiments, whenever male desert spiders were presented with a pheromone-soaked paper disk, male desert spiders waggled, vibrated and preened.
Well, that’s wonderful, I’m glad they’re doing their sexy hey-baby dance, but it still doesn’t tell me what it smells like. Aaargh!
Okay. It’s been an hour, and I still don’t know how spiders smell. Spiders. What do we associate with spiders? Dust, web, dead insects?
“A cascade of scents washed over him… … a dry disturbing odor, choking with dust and redolent of death.” Ooo, used a big word, I’m so awesome.
And that’s what it’s like to write fantasy romance with shapeshifters. Aren’t you glad you asked?