guest post from icy sedgwick: visuals in fiction

It can be easy when writing to sometimes fall into the trap of reducing visuals to personal appearance, or a vague nod in the direction of setting. Literary fiction conditions us to primarily consider feelings or moods, and genre fiction devolves into a collection of stereotypes. Some writers use visuals purely to repeatedly tell us how attractive a character is, and other visuals end up standing in for an archetype – witness the number of beefy barbarians or aristocratic vampires. But can visuals play a bigger role, particularly in world building, and help transport a reader into the setting that you’ve imagined, rather than into their own interpretation?
I’m a big fan of set design within films, and I think there is real potential to use set design within novellas too – you’re not just ‘writing’ the setting, you’re ‘designing’ the setting. It involves a little more conscious thought and planning about how rooms or settings will look, and what impact those visuals will have on the reader. Consider the way JK Rowling depicted Dolores Umbridge’s office in Hogwarts – her cutesy obsession with pink and kittens was possibly more monstrous even than her behaviour, but it was a deft touch that helped to make Umbridge even more detestable.
Obviously you don’t want to get carried away with the visuals. If you start describing every single stick of furniture in the room, a reader isn’t going to know what’s pertinent to the story, and they’re also going to switch off from the story after being bombarded with description. Anton Chekov came up with the idea, now known as Chekov’s Gun, that if you hang a gun on a wall in act one, you’d better use it by act three, or audiences (readers in this case) will wonder why it’s there. You want to paint a broad enough picture that readers can ‘see’ the setting, but include enough details to foreshadow future events and give away details about characterisation that’ll save you from having to artificially describe them yourself. A room with peeling wallpaper and damp patches on the ceiling lets us know the inhabitant is slovenly and disinterested in his environment without us having to ever say as much.
The visuals of The Necromancer’s Apprentice are a bit of a mixed bag. The Underground City, where we first meet Jyx, was based very heavily on Mary King Close and the Blair Street vaults of Edinburgh. Picture dank spaces, devoid of natural light, where the air is clogged by the soot from gas lamps and the tall, narrow tenement buildings stretch up into darkness. It’s a Victorian slum, inspired in part by Gustav Doré’s nineteenth-century engravings of Whitechapel, where the alleys are called ‘closes’ because they’re so crammed together. By contrast, the part of the City Above that we get to see as Jyx travels to the Academy is based on Venice, all quiet canals and buildings with white shutters and delicate balconies, where Jyx can see the sky. It seemed a good way to set the two spaces up in contrast with each other, demonstrating the affluence and clean air of one, and the poverty of the other.
Yet that’s not all the visuals are for. True, they make good scene-setting, and people can quickly ‘see’ what sort of locations these are, and they can compare these imaginary locations with ones that they know in order to form connections or draw conclusions. You can also hide clues in the set design that like-minded people will pick up on, giving them a satisfactory ‘a-ha!’ moment when they recognise something in your design. When Jyx reaches the House of the Long Dead where he’ll be working for the necromancer general, he finds a lot of the art painted on the walls features figures drawn flat, in profile, which was my way of referencing Egyptian art. The Wolfkin are descended from Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead, and he later discovers a statue of a man with the head of an ibis in my nod to Thoth, the god of knowledge. On their own, they just add to the set-dressing and help to build an atmosphere, but anyone who shares these interests will spot the references, and it should hopefully enhance their enjoyment of the story.
What about you? What kind of visuals do you like in your stories?

Icy Sedgwick was born in the North East of England, and lives and works in Newcastle. She has been writing with a view to doing so professionally for over ten years, and has had several stories included in anthologies, including Short Stack and Bloody Parchment: The Root Cellar & Other Stories.
She spends her non-writing time working on a PhD in Film Studies, considering the use of set design in contemporary horror. Icy had her first book, a pulp Western named The Guns of Retribution, published in 2011, and her horror fantasy, The Necromancer’s Apprentice, was released in March 2014.

if you or someone you love might be a zombie...

Welcome to the second stop of the Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies Hallowe'en blog tour! Today's entry is a public service announcement brought to you courtesy of Victoria Dunn, The Workshorsery, and Odyssey International. Don't forget to enter the contest listed at the end of this post!

Welcome to Zombiehood!

Stage 1: Infection

Life is a joy filled with tasty surprises.

Zombie movies, TV shows, and popular books all say that zombies lead short, brutal lives obsessed with chewing through people’s craniums. Not true! With proper medical care and a positive attitude, people of decomposition can now look forward to years of slow-paced, anxiety-free living.

You wouldn’t even know you were infected, if not for the dizziness, confusion, and the open bite wound. Don’t worry, it’s not going to hurt for long!

Stage 2: Borderline Zombism

Let the zombies wrap you in their love.

You’ve fainted, and woken up scared. Don’t be alarmed, low blood pressure is common at this stage and that’s why you passed out. It’s important to remain level-headed, as the virus and oxygen deprivation damage your brain tissues. Once again, remain calm. Remember, high IQs never made anyone happy.

If you become obsessed with daily routines and repetitive phrases, feel free to indulge yourself. You’re worth it! However, engaging in stereotypical zombie behaviour, such as home renovation while droning “brains, brains, brains...,” can alienate your friends and family.

You’re virally-abled now, which means you can infect other people with your bodily fluids. Therefore, it is vitally important to practice safe sex.

Stage 3: Zombism

I am a putrefied blessing to the world.

Subtle clues such as increased gaseous emissions, bloating, and generalized rotting indicate that you’re a full-fledged zombie now! Soft tissues are especially vulnerable to damage or even detachment during this stage, but don’t despair. Five fingers per hand is an extravagance in this modern age of touch screens. Think of decomposing as extreme composting, and congratulate yourself for your wholehearted dedication to going green.

If there is a body part you feel especially attached to, duct tape is an excellent adhesive which does not damage delicate zombie skin (unlike staples). In cases of permanent loss, you’re just as much of a man, woman, or transgendered person as you’ve always been regardless of how many reproductive organs you’ve retained.

Stage 4: Mummification

I am at the perfect level of decay for me.

Putrefying doesn’t last forever, so ignore your neighbour’s complaints. Eventually, your remaining tissue will dry out. As your digestive system has slowed to almost nil, sports drinks are not a reliable solution. Instead, get a friend to help you apply vitamin E and aloe enriched body lotions. Also, stay clear of museums, as an afternoon’s nap could result in you being put on permanent display on the Egyptology floor.

Zombies frequently report heartbreaking hazing and cruel discrimination during Stages 3 and 4. Just because you’re differently-living, doesn’t mean you’re not human! Therefore, the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights still protects your access to employment, voting, and a public trial should you foolishly fall in with a bad crowd. Local law enforcement officers, especially small town sheriffs, do not have the legal right to shoot you in the head. Not even once, let alone twice.

Stage 5: Death

I release all my decaying body parts and allow life to find me.

Unfortunately, until there is a cure, zombies will sadly suffer from shortened life expectancies. Severe decay, hostile populations, and traffic lights that change too quickly all take their toll. However, you’re not dead yet. In fact, you’re UNdead! So embrace the many unexpected blessings of your viral years. No more flu shots, no more diets, and best of all, no more noisy neighbours.

And if you’re feeling down because your neighbours have all fled or been consumed, just repeat any one of the helpful zombie affirmations quoted throughout this brochure. Mental health is as important as physical health, even if you don’t have much left of either.

Zombism is good. I am at peace. Brains. Brains. Brains.
For the DVD, Welcome to Zombiehood, including closed captioning for zombies lacking ears, send $18.99 to Ken, Mailroom Chief c/o Odyssey International, Head Office, Indefinable Void Between Universes, Z0Z 0Z0.

Dragging yourself through your workday?
Wish your fellow employees would stop fleeing from you in terror?

Odyssey International has job openings for people of decomposition!

Work with your fellow zombies and pursue zombie hobbies in complete safety.

Speak to Dave,
Head of Mailroom Recruitment today!

No time wasters, please.

Learn more about zombie rights and employment, including the heroic efforts of one brave zombie to pilot a plane, in Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies by Victoria Dunn.

Enter the Zombie Rights Contest!

It's easy! Just answer the question "should zombies have human rights?" and send your response to the e-mail or Twitter addresses provided below. If your answer is selected as the winner, you'll receive a special Workhorsery prize pack including:
  • autographed copies of all three of our novels (Victoria Dunn's Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies; Derek Winkler's Pitouie; and Jocelyne Allen's You and the Pirates)!
  • a genuine zombie crochet doll, possibly from the book trailer itself, definitely specially-crafted by the author(s) herself/themselves!
  • some other secret stuff related to the novel that we're keeping top secret!
  • a hand-made, super-limited addition Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies Workhorsery tote bag to carry it all in!
Contest entries should be sent via email to:
or via Twitter to:

The winner will be selected at 11:59pm on 7 November!

Follow the Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies Hallowe'en Blog Tour!

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Next stop: Open Book Toronto (direct link will be added when the article posts!)