It’s November in New England. I love autumn walks, whether it’s on a trail through the woods or just around my neighborhood. I tend to spend a lot of time outside this time of year, not only because I relish the magnificence of fall, but also because I know a long winter is fast approaching. Any time the temperature reaches above forty, I want to take advantage of it.
As I stepped outside the other evening to go for a walk just before dusk, it wasn’t just the brilliant red maples that caught my attention. All five senses were engaged. Crows cawed overhead. I smelled the comforting smoke of a neighbor’s fireplace. I felt a chilly November breeze on my cheeks. I watched stray oak leaves waft to the ground from the branches they’d clung to. I could practically taste winter around the corner.
As a writer, it reminded me how using senses other than just the visual helps to fully capture a scene. We may even make a connection to readers’ own sense memories that will transport them right into the book alongside our characters.
Writing a cheese shop mystery series keeps me acutely aware to use the senses of taste and smell. I may rely on sound to pump up the suspense—the first sign that my protagonist isn’t alone. How something feels might help to convey the tone of the scene, like describing the prickly bush my amateur sleuth is hiding in or how that new sweater she’s wearing on her first date is impossibly itchy. Writing in the first-person point of view allows me to naturally focus on only what my main character notices in the moment, so as not to slow the action with sensory overload. I also like to occasionally use that sixth sense—intuition!
What’s your strongest sense memory—one that can bring you immediately back to the place or time you first experienced it?
Touch: Specifically not being able to breathe. I was three or four and had fallen off a rope swing over a gully. (I had convinced the older kids I could hold on -- I couldn't.) The thump on the ground knocked the breath out of me and spasmed my muscles so I couldn't inhale.
Smell: the odor of a Cape Cod beach at low tide, the acrid smell of dry leaves, the almost overwhelming perfume of an old-fashioned rose, whiffs of camphor and mothballs in an old trunk.
Ooh -- I love how these sense memories are so vivid. Jim, that sounds scary! No wonder it's stuck with you!
Smell for me. It shows up a lot in my writing, too. When I was in college part of our tests and measures lab required us to blind smell, touch, and taste multiple items. It was an interesting experiment. The hardest part was not identifying the various items, but describing them without naming them.
I agree with smell, but wow it's hard to describe in my writing. Any hints?
I think of touch--a warm snuggly afghan as I dozed off to sleep in the back seat of a car, stuffed in with numerous siblings; the safe feel of my mother's winter coat as I grasped it while we switched subway trains and I was worried I would be left behind when the doors closed, the soothing, cool feel of waves washing over my feet at the ocean shore; the smooth feel of my baby's face against my cheek; the elastic softness of kneading bread dough.
I have to work on getting more of these things into my writing.
Kait: That would be a great exercise for writers!
Tammy: Smells are difficult to describe. With the cheese in my book, I'll use a couple of adjectives and then sometimes liken the smell to something else readers might be more familiar with so they get a better idea of it. As far as other smells, I usually talk about how they make my character feel or the memory it might evoke. It's sometimes more important that it helps to set the tone of the scene than what the thing actually smells like, so a simple adjective can often suffice if coupled with an emotion.
KM: I can practically feel your memories right along with you. How lovely.
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