Tweet chat 20th August 2021 Writing the Senses

Participants: Kathleen Marple Kalb, Marianne Scott, Beth Hudson, Gerald Hornsby, Anita Belli, Rik Lonsdale, Chris Towndrow, Andrew Roberts, Lynne Shelby, George Beckham, Jonathan Koven, Odessa Rose, Cheryl Whiting, Eva Seyler, Deborah Klée

Please introduce yourself and share some news. What was the highlight of your week?

Beth: Hi! I’m Beth Hudson, fantasy author from the American Midwest. Highlights of my week? Finding out the wedding venue for my son and future daughter-in-law, which is going to be a wonderful and unique place. I’m psyched!

Kathleen: Hey! I’m Kathleen. I write mysteries, historical and contemporary. Busy week — no major writing stuff, just work. The highlight was pulling a night shift with people I hadn’t seen in years — a real treat!

Cheryl: Hi everyone. Cheryl, freelance education consultant, and aspiring author. After a couple of weeks doing the day job, I’m back into writing, with some surprising discipline. Feels like #winningatlife

Jonathan: Hi Deborah and fellow authors! I’m Jonathan, based in Philadelphia, PA. A few highlights… I got an acceptance for a SUPER old poem and I finally received the hi-res artwork for my upcoming novella Below Torrential Hill, out this winter!

Karen: I’m Karen, from outside Philadelphia, and I write historical fiction. Highlights from the last week – finally getting back to work on my 1930s WIP after being hijacked by a Shiny New Idea, and my Castaway Books podcast with Deborah Klee, which was such a good time.

Gerald: Hi Deborah! I’m Gerald, currently in Essex, UK. Highlight of the week isn’t writing-related – it’s getting the windscreen (finally) replaced on the car! Also: big video edit job finished to rough cut.

Rik: Hi, I’m Rik in Dorset, UK. Since spending a week at Swanwick Summer School, I’ve written little, but have tested negative.

Marian: Hi, I’m Marian. I write – oh, I hate defining it – non-magical historical fantasy? Highlight this week – I got my paperback shipment of the new release, and an amazing review of my first book as part of #SPFBO

Anita: Hello, everyone. I am Anita and my news today is that I have begun the preliminary planning of my next novel.

Chris: Hi Deborah and all. I’m Chris, multi-genre author from near London. To be honest, it’s not been a stellar week from many perspectives, but work looks like it might be picking up after 18 months of slowdown. Sadly, that means less writing time!

Marianne: Marianne, here. It’s harvest season in Ontario (Canada) and I’m enjoying visiting our outdoor markets. There is nothing like the buttery taste of fresh locally grown corn.

Eva: Eva the Exhausted! The highlight of my week happened last evening—audible took only six days to approve and list the audiobook version of The War in Our Hearts and I am still super stoked.

Andy: I’m Andy, I write action/adventure in historical settings, and I sent off the outline for a sequel to a western novel I’ve been ghostwriting.

Odessa: Good Morning. I’m Odessa. The highlight of my week is that I ordered the proof for the re-release of my novel, Water In A Broken Glass

Lynne: Hello, everyone. I’m Lynne from England. The highlight of my week was the publication of my fifth book, Love On Location. It never gets any less exciting!

Annie: I’m Annie, I write historical fiction (and nonfiction history) and the highlight of this week was my new novel going up for preorder.

Which of the five senses do you most commonly use in your writing (after sight) and which ones are you less likely to include? Is this something you try to address?

Anita: We did a ‘grounding’ exercise at Swanwick Summer school which included: 5 things you can see; four things you can hear; three things you can smell: two touch and one taste. Interesting that the hierarchy of senses seems to be universal.

Beth: Sight is usually my go-to, since I’m a very visual person. I can think of a million visual descriptions. Probably the hardest one for me to include is taste: I have a keen sense of taste, but trying to figure out how to say what things taste like is complex. After sight, hearing is what I write best. My MC is a bard, and descriptions of music are one of the things I love about writing her.

Karen: It’s probably (1) sight, (2) hearing, (3) touch, (4) smell, (5) taste. I’m trying to get better about including the last two, because the first three are almost impossible to ignore, and scent, especially, can be really powerful.

Chris: After sight, probably hearing. I’m not sure we often talk about taste in much detail. I had a challenge in my #histfic writing deaf characters, with no frame of reference. In my #romcom I was able to play with sight, as the MC has monochromatic vision.

Kathleen: Hearing — in different ways for each of my MC’s. One is a singer, and one is a DJ, and both hear music and voices differently than most. I don’t use smell enough, and I do try to address that.

Odessa: Music plays an important role in all my novels, so I would say after sight, hearing is the sense I focus on. I love describing the sound of instruments, cars, people talking, the sound of voices, dogs. Just anything that makes noise. Taste might be the one I use least.

Rik: I always try to get smell in there somewhere. It’s such a primordial thing. How people smell has much more to do with a relationship’s success than any other facet of them.

Marian: Hearing is the next, then smell, then taste and then touch. I believe! I try to use them all, but my musician gets more hearing and touch (from the strings, etc) than another character, who might notice smell more because she’s an herbalist, for example.

Kathleen: I love the way each of your characters has different awareness of senses!

Marian: Thanks. It just made sense (ugh, didn’t mean the pun) to me – my fisherwoman, for example, is attuned to the feel of the wind, the proprioceptic sense of how her boat is rocking, the snap of the sail – she has to be, to survive.

Gerald: Hearing, mostly. Like vision, there’s nearly always something to hear in a given situation. Least likely? Taste and touch.

Anita: Sight is the most common followed by hearing. I tend to neglect taste and touch. Sometimes, smell put in an appearance where appropriate!

Eva: It kind of depends on the character. Leni from #UntitledPatagonianThing is incredibly fascinated with touching silky smooth soft things. George has gustatory synaesthesia so taste is a big deal for him.

Marianne: What a character hears if often what drives how they react, like a creaking door. or the sound of a gunshot. Lots of opportunity for suspense.

Andy: I make extensive use of smells in writing, and possibly taste if it fits with the scene.

Cheryl: My work is non-fiction, I tend to explore emotional feelings and responses more. For example, what it feels like to be let down and what it feels like when you let others down. Throughout my work I am trying to raise people’s consciousness of the impact of behaviour.

George: Probably hearing. I have tried to get over using sight as my characters had 20/20 vision and were always “looking.” I looked, she looked, I saw, looked up, looked back looked over grrr.

Jonathan: After sight, probably sound. I love music, especially textural music, and I have a lot of fun describing sounds with poetic language and words that FEEL and BEHAVE like what’s described. I could probably be better at incorporating taste without it dealing with food

Is there a scene in one of your books which evoked a lot of sensory description based on past experiences? 

Or a memorable description of a taste, smell, or sound that you have read or written that you could share with us?

Rik: I’m reading ‘Second Sleep’ by Robert Harris. A good description of the stench of death early on.

Beth: From Goldsong: She had no eyes but what the land saw, no ears but what the land heard. She touched earth, felt wind across her skin, smelled mold and woodsmoke and the musk of rabbit warrens, tasted pine resin and honey.

Karen: A favorite snippet from A Wider World, where Robin goes for an early-morning gondola ride with an old friend, Bianca, who is a Venetian native. The mist is her friend; he’s a bit freaked out by it all.

Gerald: From Body on the Beach: “She opened her window a tiny crack and enjoyed the freshness of the breeze filtering through. On the other side of the car, the harsh slap, slap, slap of rigging against aluminium masts provided an audio accompaniment.”

Eva: I’d say Leni’s obsession with touching things is pretty much based on me! I love dipping my hands into a bucket of silky dry beans, or feeling the tumble of wheat berries through my hands when I grind flour.

Chris: In my space opera, I wrote a passage about a couple of hair-raising short trips on a small shuttlecraft. I channelled my memories of flying – I’m not a great flyer – to convey the MC’s nerves and sensations.

Anita: Ruby Sixpence stands in the middle of the street absorbing its atmosphere. ‘I smell the earth like treacle and decay and the sweet smell of sugar in the haystacks which surround the village. The damp and mildew of a thousand generations; their debris and dust

Andy: Based on a night camping out by fire pits, I’m wanting to include a similar scene in one of my swashbuckler stories in which a a character is lying on his back on a hot beach, watching the stars while breathing in the smell of wood smoke.

Marianne: I’m editing a “who done it” novel. The setting is Cortes Island in BC so lots of opportunity to sensualize the ocean, mountains, and feasts of the caught in the seas. It’s a place I’ve visited several times as my sister lives there.

Odessa: There is a scene in my next novel that describes the sights, sounds, and smells of the house back in the 70’s when kids came in from playing and Mama was in the kitchen cooking dinner and talking with her best friend.

Kathleen: My MC has flashbacks to her mother: “Every night, we’d huddle together in the pile of blankets on the floor that passed for a bed, sharing what warmth there was. I would burrow into her embrace, willing myself to ignore how small and bony and fragile she felt…”

How do you describe a scene (using the senses) that is in an era, country, or world that you have not experienced?

Jonathan: I’ve done this recently with a short story that has a few scenes in atomic bomb-era Hiroshima, in a fictional greenhouse. I did a lot of research on the city and the period to get all that stuff accurate, and within the fiction setting I was free to dream the senses.

Beth: I feel like if I’ve done proper worldbuilding, I should know what it’s like to be immersed in the setting. If I don’t, it means I either need to figure out what it’s like, or I need to do research about something similar so that I can get the sensory images down.

Chris: I had to guess how a deaf character might ‘experience’ sound, like playing the piano, or a storm.

Karen: Knowing the setting very well. Indoors or out, weather, is there a fire on the hearth? Is someone cooking? Are there horses? Are they sweaty? Are the people? Do they mask it with perfume? The quality of light – candles, a crack in the shutters, a wave in the glass.

Marian: By finding a similar experience. I walked the medieval streets of Kings’ Lynn, listened to the market, the fishing boats, the gulls; did the same in York; read about the era, and combined book knowledge with sensory, substituting carts for cars, adding smells.

Kathleen: I extrapolate from what I DO know. I’ve worn corsets and long skirts in plays, for example, so I can use that to describe the feeling of wearing Gilded Age clothes.

Eva: I had to rely on the word of others to describe trench life in The World in our Hearts. I honestly can’t imagine the stench and the filth myself. For the Patagonian thing, I just channel the times I’ve been camping, since they’re living outdoors.

Deborah: I think that there is usually an experience or two we can use to help us imagine something we could never experience.

Kathleen: Very true! I’m not an opera singer, but I am a voice artist, and I use my experience to describe how singing feels to my MC.

Marianne: That’s a hard one. Here is where I do a bunch of research. Usually, the unknown is easiest to describe with sight. But, when you have not experienced a scene, I apply sensations from places that are similar i.e. the briny smell of the ocean.

Andy: Utilise similar experiences. For example, my characters often use black powder firearms, and I often associate the smell of fireworks with that.

What should new writers know about describing the senses? Have you any resources to share?

Beth: I don’t have any resources to recommend, but I do think that it’s important to think about how one would feel inside a situation. This applies to sight as well-it’s easy to fall into the trap of cinematic writing, but in fact, sight is 360 degrees, not a flat screen.

Marianne: New writers should keep their description simple i.e. The curtains smelled of a campfire, the flower garden exploded with yellow and red blossoms. It keeps it honest and that allows the reader to trust what you write. Every writer grows the more they write.

Karen: Any learning for me always comes first from reading. I’ll read something that has beautiful sensory description and it will make me more aware of my own surroundings, and in turn I’ll try to enhance that in my writing.

Odessa: The best thing new writers can do is be observant. Pay attention to everything around you. Then focus on one sense at a time and write it down. Open your eyes, your ears, your nose.

Rik: Use them all. (Maybe even six and seven)

Lynne: No resources, I’m afraid, but one of the best writing workshops I’ve ever attended had us walking through a lively market and describing our surroundings with all five senses – any place would do for this useful exercise.

Kathleen: Immerse yourself in the scene and period — if you feel like you’re there, you will be able to describe it for others.

Anita: Practice awareness of the senses. Think of ways to describe tastes and touch. I separate touch and ‘feel’. How you feel also matters. Mindfulness, as you go through the day, helps and building a memory for how things feel. This is how actors recreate characters

Beth: That’s a really good point. What something you touch feels like isn’t the same as what your body feels like from the inside.

Annie: Not resources, but think about certain characters. I have one character who has a keen nose – so he notices smells and scents, good and bad! Others might be touchy-feely people so show them reaching out, touching things/noticing how they feel.

Jonathan: I agree with what others have said! Mindfulness is massive in terms of accessing feeling/sensation. I would also recommend reading a lot of great nature poetry that hones in on the senses. Also, when describing, be unafraid of synesthesia! Get weird with it.

Which author(s) do you admire most for their use of description and why?

Gerald: I love Laurie Lee’s descriptions in Cider with Rosie and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. I could drink his writing style, and savour every mouthful.

Anita: Joanne Harris for me; especially in Chocolat and Lollipop Shoes. And as @AuthorGerald says; Laurie Lee is wonderful at setting scenes; you can taste and smell and feel the air around his characters. Oh, and Thomas Hardy. So evocative of the place you can imagine you are there

Kathleen: Alison Weir is one of my favorites for the Tudor period — she really takes you there, both in the sensory and the emotional vibe of the place.

Eva: Hannah Kent’s “Burial Rites” is what instantly comes to mind.

Lynne: Penelope Lively

Odessa: Toni Morrison

Karen: I’m going with one of our #FriSalon participants, because Marian Thorpe writes exceptional landscape and that’s my weakest point, so in addition to enjoying her books for their stories, I read them to learn how to better describe place in my own.

Jonathan: Too many to name! But I recently read this novel Balcony in the Forest by Julien Gracq. Completely blew me away. The description was transcendent, lush, glittering. Every sentence, my God! And the end sequence felt like a dream I’ve had, we’ve all had. Highly recommended!!

Beth: Charles de Lint. He uses fairly simple words, but they are such a clear depiction of the senses that I can feel like I’m there.

Marian: I read a lot of nature writing, so I’d have to say one of them. Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain comes to mind, as does Robert MacFarlane’s books.

Rik: Stuart Turton in ‘The 7 Deaths…’ describing each character from within. C J Sansom’s evocation of early London. Neill Gaiman’s everything he does.

I love the extracts from you own novels #FriSalon writers. What amazing talent! 

Deborah