Before I was a writer, I was an artist. The first thing my grandmother—an oil painter— taught me was to draw what I see. Easier said than done. As an artist, I needed to train myself to see everything, down to the tiniest detail. Lighting, colors, shadows. Where the ears are in proportion to the head? What angle do the shadows fall and how far? Which way does the fur around a cat’s face curve? What colors would I need to mix to create that shade of green? I learned to take apart what I saw with my eyes and reassemble it on paper.
When I became a writer, I expanded my senses. What do I hear, smell, taste, and touch? And how would I write that? I needed to become a student of my world (both the one I actually live in and the one I was writing) in order to flesh out my story.
Here are the exercises I used with my senses that eventually allowed me to capture the world in my story.
The last one I actually did. I have a scene where my characters are on a beach at night with a full moon. I lived on the Oregon coast at the time, so during a date night with my husband, I dragged him out on the beach where a full moon hung over the water and studied what the beach looked like. What could I see, what could I not see? Could I see colors with only the moon as light? The experience helped me write a more accurate scene (not to mention made for a romantic date night J).
Here is a helpful hint: you can use the Internet to find sound bites. This especially comes in handy when you can hear the sound in your head, but are having a hard time describing it.
For example, one of my characters heard a sound that reminded her of a bird that lived along the coast. But I wasn’t sure what descriptor to use: cry, shrill, etc… So I found a website that had all sorts of birdcalls on it and was divided by types of birds. I went to seashore birds and found the call I was looking for (it was a Sandpiper).
See how by describing these sensations, you start to feel them too, just by reading them? This is what you want for your reader, to be fully immersed in your story so that they can even feel it.
Taste fits in nicely with the other senses. To use the cheesecake analogy, you first see the cheesecake. White, pure decadence with plump red strawberries on the top, with shiny glaze slightly oozing off the side. Smell the sweet, slightly dairy scent. Feel how smooth the cheesecake feels on your tongue. Now describe the taste. Sweet, with the tangy burst of strawberry.
How do other things taste? Not everything is sweet, or even edible. The earthy flavor of black tea, the acrid taste of Tylenol, the slightly metallic flavor of a medium rare steak. Take time today and study what each thing you eat (or drink) tastes like.
Here are some things to think about: what does a forest smell like? In the spring? In the fall? What does your grandmother’s house smell like? A roast in the oven? Christmas time? An old high school gymnasium?
Unfortunately, you can’t look up smells on the Internet, so this is one you will need to go around and practice. Sniff your socks, the shower, your loved one’s hair. My husband loves the way my hair smells after I have been out in the sunshine. Also, candle stores like Yankee can be a great place to figure out smells (I visit candle shops all the time). Maybe even take some paper and write down how you would describe the different smells.
Smell can be the sense that ties all the other sense up and brings completion and fullness to a scene. So use it.
In conclusion, when you write, don’t just make a checklist of all your senses. We experience our world through all our senses at once. Do the same in your writing. Taste, smell, and touch can all go together. Sight and hearing and touch. Smell and sight. Use them together and create a 3-D world for your reader to experience.
So let me ask you, what sense do you find easiest to write? Which one to you find hardest to write? And which one do you want to go out and practice right now?
Thanks, Morgan, for writing for us today. Morgan's book, Daughter of Light, is a fantasy novel about a woman who sees visions when she touches another person. It's a great book. To learn more about it, check out the Amazon.com page!