To wrap up my month on writing about the five senses, I have a link to a blog post by Heather Blanton on K.M. Weiland’s site, “Helping Writers Become Authors.” I enjoyed this post because Ms. Blanton uses Edgar Allan Poe as an example of how to describe sound effectively. I hope you enjoy it, too. Click here.
In the story “The Price of Light”, author Ellis Peters brings medieval England to life through the senses, and especially through texture.
Once I sat down to analyze touch, I realized it encompasses many different kinds of sensation.
Not only clothes, but everything we touch has some kind of texture, if we think about it. The table I’m eating on, the chair I’m sitting on, the jacket of the woman I brush up against in a crowded mall, the goop my kid just invented in the basement. If the point of view (POV) character is touching something, I can switch from sight to touch to give my description variety.
I’m sensitive to food textures. Regardless of how a food tastes, if the texture triggers my gag reflex, I’m done with it. In fact, I will soldier through food that doesn’t taste good but can’t choke it down if the texture is bad. Marshmallows and meringue are two foods with textures I literally can’t swallow.
The temperature and moisture of the air around us is sensed through our skin. So instead of limiting myself to how a snowy scene looks, I will add how the cold makes my POV character feel. Humidity can be described the same way. Instead of writing how the sweat glistens on someone’s face, I will write about how humidity wraps around my skin like a wet quilt. When describing wind, I can switch to how it feels, rather than the effects the character sees or hears.
Pressure on the skin signals all kinds of emotions. If you want large man to intimidate your small main character, he can press against her, crowding her, trapping her. A squeeze of the hand can mean reassurance, a slap on the back affection or anger, a handshake, depending upon the strength, friendship or fury.
I know I haven’t exhausted the possibilities. How would you write about the sense of touch?
“There are fragrances. Beyond fragrances are smells, beyond smells are odors, and beyond odors are stenches. Beyond stenches is what I am about to write here.” — “The Pasture” from Kerplunk! by Patrick F. McManus
These three sentences are some of the best writing about the sense of smell that I’ve read. Using the sense of smell in my writing is something I need to work on. It’s the last sense of I think of because I have such a poor sense of smell. Unless a scent is especially strong, I just don’t notice it.
One way I have noticed the power of smell is its ability to trigger memories. No other sense works as well to recall past events. When I smell cooking onions, I immediately think I’m back at my grandmother’s house. Even if the smell is coming from the basement cafeteria at an elementary school, I still think of grandma. A smokey fire in reminds me of the wood burning stove that my grandparents had. Sunscreen, especially when mixed with the scent of bug repellant, sends me back to high school when I attended camp for marching band.
This unique aspect of smell inspires me as a crime writer. What if something tragic happened to a character at a young age, and now that the person is grown up, she can barely remember it? But when she encounters the same unusual odor that she smelled at the time of the tragedy, her memories come into focus.
Or a man is attacked and never saw who it was but did notice a distinct scent about the attacker. Months later, the man meets someone who smells the same way. With only this clue to go on, he begins digging into this person’s background.
In a lighter vein, describing horrible smells lends itself to humorous writing. The quote above comes from a story about how a terrible stench prevents a young man from enjoying his favorite fishing hole.
For more on how to use the sense of smell in your writing, click here for a previous post on the subject.
How would you write about the sense of smell?
Sound may be the second most popular sense writers evoke. Below are three ways to enhance your writing about the sense of sound.
I love it when an author describes how a character sounds. Dr. Watson often stated that the voice of Sherlock Holmes was strident. Is the voice high-pitched? A scratchy bass? Carries a heavy accent? Does the character talk fast or drawl? It’s now considered amateurish to have a line of dialogue and accompany it with a tag, such as “he roared”, “she squeaked”, or “he snarled.” So I have to get creative to let my readers know how a character sounds.
- “His snarl forced the other man to rear back.”
- “His roar would have done ten lions proud.”
- “He talked as fast as a flock of woodpeckers at work.”
If you have a character who loves music, you can have songs or tunes running through her mind to reveal her feelings about other characters and situations. By the way, you can use the titles of songs but you can not use the lyrics of copyrighted songs. You can get inventive and have your character create her own lyrics to fit familiar tunes. A few years ago, my kids loved the middle grade mystery series Jigsaw Jones. Jigsaw’s partner Mila would make up lyrics appropriate to the story, using tunes of well-known children’s songs.
A character with musical talent could also describe sounds in musical terms.
- Her staccato, piccolo voice clashed with her husband’s mellow cello.
- The gate squeaked like a first-grader’s first stroke on a violin.
All my stories, so far, have significant sections set in rural areas. Working in the sounds is important because nature is never quiet. In face, when nature gets quiet, something strange is going on ( Speculative fiction, anyone?) Bird songs signal what season a story is taking place. My backyard is home to many mourning doves. Their plaintive call would work well in a scene if I wanted to underline a melancholy tone. I often write about the sound of the wind. Where I live, the air is rarely still.
How do you use sound in your writing?
Most writers write by sight. And most readers think by sight, so the sense of sight is the easiest way to connect with readers. Poor or cliched descriptions using sight is the easiest way to lose them. The three tips for using the sense of sight in your writing will help you dig deep to construct descriptions that are original but relatable to the reader.
I love to use color to describe characters. But I have to be careful not to overuse it. So When I first describe a character, I try to come up with a vivid description that makes an impact. Then as the story continues, I touch on that initial description to keep it in the reader’s mind. But I touch on it. I don’t dwell on it. I don’t want description to dam up the flow of the story.
- Hair as black as a new moon night
- Hair as red as sunup
- Skin tanned to “a baked bread brown.”
The colors of interiors set the mood for your interior scenes. My youngest and I visited a local art museum. The children’s room had been repainted a deep purple. It was so dark in a room with no natural lighting, that I grew depressed and could barely stand to stay in it. I could use that strong reaction for a character who is uncomfortable in a setting.
In a previous post on color, I write about how I gave one of the characters in my YA novel the medical condition synesthesia and it reveals how she perceives the other people.
While reading Writing from the Senses by Laura Deutsch, I was reminded of how much motion is a part of sight. How characters move in a scene anchors readers in it and also reveals qualities about those characters.
- Shifting feet show anxiety
- Long strides show confidence
- Flipping hair shows flirtation
- Raking back hair shows irritation
Movement of animals, the wind, and machinery all depend on sight descriptions. Sound plays a part too, but that’s another post.
Light, whether exterior or interior, has a profound affect on my mood, so I work it into my writing.
- Golden summer evenings seem perfect wrap-ups to stories.
- Harsh overhead lighting for a scene in which the main character is uneasy or irritated.
- Low lighting, like a fire in a fireplace, throws up big shadows creating a mysterious atmosphere.
How do you use the sense of sight in your writing?
This is the last post in the series by Cyle Young on exploring the five sense in writing and concerns the sense of taste. He provides an exercise to test your descriptive muscles.
Using the sense of taste has limits. While your characters are always seeing and hearing and touching, taste can only be used in certain settings. But if you are able to creatively evoke that sense for your readers, then a scene with taste in it will stand apart from the usual ones employing sight, sound, and touch.
As I mentioned in my post about smell, my main character Junior comes from a poor family and often goest hungry. When he finally gets to sit down to Sunday lunch, biscuits and chicken noodle soup, he thinks it tastes as good as “wild blueberry pie.” When he is battling insomnia, he thinks of his favorite foods, instead of counting sheep. I will revisit that scene to make sure I maximize my taste descriptions. In both scenes, the reader learns about what foods Junior likes, making him seem real.
I can also use food to make my setting seem real. My characters eat pepperoni rolls for lunch. Simply slice or planks of pepperoni wrapped in bread dough, it was invented in West Virginia. Describing local food or food popular during a specific time can aid in imagining an unfamiliar world.
My friend Sandra Melville Hart writes historical romances set during the American Civil War. One her blog, “Historical Nibbles”, she posts about food from that time period and others and tries out recipes like “Mulled Buttermilk” and “Creole Soup.”
How would you use the sense of taste in your writing?
Cyle Young’s article on how to write using the sense of smell has a great exercise to practice this type of description.
Writing about smell might be the most difficult sense for me. I think that’s because, first, I have a very dull sense of smell. I’m sure a skunk could spray at my feet, and I ‘d only notice a slight change in the surrounding air. My youngest has a terrific sense of smell and lets me know with questions like “How come your car smells so bad, Mom?”
A second reason for my difficulty is that, as abundant as the English language is, we don’t have a lot of words to choose from that concern only smells. We have to describe it in other terms, like the physical reaction to a smell.
Mr. Young points out no sense can stir memories like smell. A smell can be a very natural and meaningful way to start a flashback because everyone has had this experience. When I smell onions cooking, no matter where, I grow very nostalgic because it reminds me of my grandmother’s house. The combination of sunscreen and bug spray immediately reminds me of marching band camp.
I am going to revisit my novel The Truth and Other Strangers and review how I have used the sense of smell in it. Here are some settings and other characteristics of my novel where I could use it:
- Mountains — My novel is set in the eastern mountains of West Virginia in July. The rhododendrons bloom in that month but don’t have much of a smell. I could use that, such as, “Funny, how something so pretty had no delicate scent to partner it.” Since my main character Junior loves being in the mountains, I would select only pleasant smells to support his feelings.
- Food — Because Junior’s family is poor, he often is hungry. So the odors of food means more to him than to well-fed characters. He has recently lost the aunt who raised him, so I could use a smell to bring back memories of her and underline how much he misses her.
- Vehicles — To me, vehicles have their own peculiar smells. Junior’s family has nine kids and owns a very old, battered van. All kinds of smells could be trapped in its abused interior.
- Bar — Junior visits a notoriously rough bar twice. Describing only bothersome smells, like cigarette smoke and alcohol, would show how uncomfortable Junior is in this setting.
The Absence of Smell
The lack of smell can also be used dramatically. If your characters are animals and lose their sense of smell, that would be traumatic. In a work of speculative fiction, an object’s or area’s lack of smell could be a signal to the characters that something is horribly wrong.
How do you use the sense of smell in your writing?
This sense is often underused because we are such sight-dependent beings. Unless you have a character who is blind, is in a dark setting, or is an animal or imaginary creature whose main sense is touch, this sense gets crowded out by sight and touch.
Reviewing my own book, I see I used the sense of touch to convey the humidity of its summer setting. Humidity forces me to explore the sense of touch because it is the only way to experience it.
When my main character works on a roof all through a humid July day, he says, “I felt like I’d gone swimming in tomato soup.” He describes a mist as “clinging to my skin like a fungus.”
When my main character is sneaking around his property in the West Virginia mountains in the dead of night, I will try to include some description of touch, Right now, I only mention the wind whipping around him and sweating.
If you want to practice your writing with touch, write a comment to Mr. Young’s post. Or use the above photo. What’s interesting about using this photo as a writing exercise is that there are at least two people touching the jellyfish and possibly three. Each character can experience the feel of the jellyfish in a unique way, and that way tells something about him or her.
For example, the hand coming from the left looks like a child’s and he can be thrilled with touching a live jellyfish while the hand hovering behind can belong to an adult who touched the creature and was revolted. (I might share that reaction).
How would you use the sense of touch in the photo above?
In my own writing, I often use color to describe characters. I have a lot of characters, and color is one way I can help readers keep them straight
In my novel The Truth and Other Strangers, I have several characters with brown eyes. To differentiate, I call some “hazel”, some “dark brown”, and some “almost black”. My main character Junior uses more precise colors for family members because he notices the subtle differences in their eye color.
On the other hand, when Junior runs into members of the Kimmel family, a family of crooks he doesn’t know well, he sees that many of them have pale-colored eyes, but he has never been close enough to discern the exact color.
At the end of my book, the head of the Kimmel family gets in Junior’s face to threaten him. Now Junior can see all too clearly that the man has light green eyes. I use Junior’s ability to discern the color to underline how uncomfortably close he is to the man threatening him.
Junior has a five-year-old sister Angel who has a medical condition called synthesia, an extra connection between senses. One of the most common forms is seeing a color specific to a number or letter when reading. Angel sees people in color. She sees an uncle as chocolate brown. This kind of synthesia is sometimes called seeing “auras”. I use the condition to enhance Angel’s otherworldly personality and to comment on characters’ personalities. Such as she see the sheriff who is threatening her family as puke green.
I need to work on studying scenes to mine them for their colors. In summer, nature wears green, but just describing a setting as green doesn’t begin to touch on all the variations of green that exist in summer. Like I said in the prompt on Monday, I should take time to really study a scene, either in person or in my head.