Using your sense(s) and sensibilities.

8 Sep

Whenever I judge a writing contest, I almost always include these comments  along with the score sheet. I always try to find something encouraging to say to the author, but at times it’s really, really difficult! Sometimes the best thing I can say is that the manuscript is clean with no typos. No mis-spelled words or mis-placed punctuation.

If you read a book that really pulls you into it, chances are it’s either the characters or the setting that grab you and just won’t let go. A couple of months ago, I wrote about characters. Here’s how to make the setting very real and unforgettable.

Can you quickly name the five senses?

Touch. Taste.  Sight.  Sound.  Smell.

Imagine what it would be like to be without any of these, which we continually take for granted—until we meet someone who does not have one or the other. This is very real to me tonight, as I spent this afternoon with a friend who has been blind since birth. He has compensated so well; he’s very talented and very alert. He has a near-photographic memory and perfect pitch! And his other four senses are much stronger than those of most of us. It was an enjoyable and eye-opening experience.

(A brief side-trip here. The first time we met in person several years ago, I went to his apartment to pick him up so we could go to a meeting.  It was late afternoon, and the place was dark. I literally could not see my hand in front of my face, while he was as agile as a mountain goat, going here and there through his apartment. Finally, he called to me, but before I could answer, he laughed and said, “Oh, I forgot. You need to be able to see, don’t you?” He has since married and now lives in a beautiful home with a fabulous yard, lots of windows with light  streaming in, and splendid views of the trees and flowers in the yard. I didn’t need help to see where I was going – this time! – but I’ve never forgotten the lost feeling from that first visit. Someday that will make it into one of my books, I’m quite sure.)

Put yourself in that position, and think how such an action could impinge on your characters.

So, what do your characters look like, other than very beautiful and/or handsome? (And they shouldn’t be just that.) A flaw can sometimes be very attractive or enticing. (Think Alan Rickman’s crooked smile. Oh, yum.)

What are these characters wearing? Describe the color, style, or texture. Is it silk, satin, fur, leather? Is it appropriate for whatever their actions are? Does it restrict their movement? How? Why? Are they comfortable?

Is the weather warm, cool, windy, rainy? Is whatever it is ordinary for that time and/or place, or unusual? In what way? Does it impinge on the action of the story?

Is the language you use consistent with the time period about which you are writing? Modern language in a historical novel will suspend the reader’s disbelief, and jostle them right out of the story. (To be avoided at all costs!)

What kind of building are they in? Big, little, grand, a hovel? What colors are the furniture? What color and/or textures are the fabrics and drapes? Is it richly beautiful or rough-sawn, but functional? Are there carpets on the floor? Dirt? Tiles? Are there windows? How many? How big? Is it dark in there or light? Is it day or night? Are there paintings on the walls? Other hangings?

What country is your story set in? Could it take place anywhere else? If not, why not? Use this unique-ness to help set the stage for the action. (Same thing concerning the time-frame.)

What fragrance(s) permeates the scene? Cooking? Rotting vegetation? Horse? Spring flowers? Fish? Salt from the near-by ocean? Roses in a vase on an end-table? (What color are the roses?) If the people are near enough to smell the ocean, can they also hear it? Is it soothing or aggravating?

If they have to go to a different location, how do they get there? Is it a comfortable trip? Tedious? Awful? Dangerous? Boring?

Obviously, you don’t need to (and can’t) add these kinds of details to every sentence, nor should you, but a word or phrase here or there can greatly enhance your story, making it come alive to the reader.

Shed a little light on your subject, and we’ll all be the happier for it!

Happy writing! Please feel free to pass this along to your writing pals. And, if you have questions, please write to me at:


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