Jun 8, 2012

A Sixth Sense?

by Debra Erfert

As writers, we are aware of the sense of sight, sound, touch, taste, and of smell. If we're being honest with ourselves, we rarely, if ever, use all of these senses when we write. It's easy to have our characters see something, they might even hear a phone ring, or another character laugh or yell. I know in romances we often have our leading ladies inhale the intoxicating musky fragrances their heroes wear, but these descriptions rarely goes beyond that. 

I know we get told too much description slows down action. I've been on the receiving side of those critiques. And they would be correct—to a point, but there are times when a more in-depth picture is needed to give the reader a good sense of her surroundings that would make us more sympathetic to the characters, or the opposite—dislike the bad guy even more, if that was the goal.

Sol Stein says in his book, Sol Stein on Writing: “We take our senses for granted. When we let their use atrophy, it often takes conscious effort and exercise to restore our awareness of the ways in which we take in the world around us.”

He described fishing keys out of a pocket. Since we are women and don’t usually keep our keys in our pants, let’s try that exercise with something each and every woman is very familiar with: digging for our keys from the bottom of our purses.

Without looking inside your purse, can you touch your way to your keys if you can’t see them? I believe we’ve all had this experience in our lives—finding something without being able to see it. As soon as you touch that wallet, you remember what it looks like and can probably describe it—how it feels to your fingers, if it's leather then that earthy scent might briefly come to your nasal passages in a memory. Knowing that the wallet isn’t what you’re looking for, your hand pushes it aside. Your fingers touch something cool, flat, metallic. You pinch it between you index finger and thumb. There are ridges that bite into your skin. A key!

If you were able to imagine this, then you’ve experienced that 6th sense—the sense of awareness!

Now, all this description absolutely can’t take place if the character searching for her keys was at that moment being chased by a killer. It would be stupid. The reader would be incensed and most likely throw the book across the room never to pick it up again. 

As Sol Stein says, “For the writer, the sense of smell provides opportunity. It is important not only to be aware of and use smells, but to be accurate in rendering them. Rubber bands have a marked odor. And old book smells musty. Unseen winds has a smell. If you don’t smell anything, what might you smell? A single flower in an imagined vase on your desk?”

I have an excerpt from one of my very first manuscripts called Windows. It’s an unpublished paranormal that I will probably Indie-publish in the next couple of years. I have the main character using her sense of smell, touch, and taste all in one short paragralace where you can let your reader “take a breath” and relax before the next action scene. This, too, is very important.

I was brave enough to share with you a glimpse of my writing. Would you do the same with me—something with one of the 5 senses in it?

15 comments:

  1. Very interesting.
    What about this? -->
    Exhausted I sat on the edge of the bed and stared at my feet. I had not taken off my heels, and the pulsating of their pressure reminded me of the pain in my heart. I lay back on my bed forcing my eyes closed to prevent anymore tears. Although, I did not think it was possible to cry anymore, the week of constant ache and rivers of salty tears had made my eyes burn and creases in my face swell, yet the tears came again. This is a loss that I am not sure how to overcome.

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    1. I love it, Leesa! Thank you for sharing.

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  3. Hmm, senses. How about this:
    "The smell of the lather rose sharply to his nostrils, an odor that seemed as yellow as the bubbles."

    Or this:
    "James had felt a quickening of his pulse at the sight of her, a dryness of the throat, a quivering of the sinews that surprised him, as he hadn’t to then felt more than fondness for her."

    I'd wanted to use "the yellow odor of the lather," but it confused my beta readers, so I changed it. :-)

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    1. Yellow I interpret as bright and airy. Is this what you were going for, Marsha? Colors have meaning to me, being an artist. If you would've used a dark color, then it would've been, ummm, stinky. :)

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    2. I like the phrase "yellow odor of the lather". It seems a sharp, brisk, clean smell to me. Color is really important and evocative when talking about taste and smell. A more flowery lather would be pale blue or lavender, something musky brown or rust? I also use "odor" when I want something to smell nasty, while "scent" is more pleasant.

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    3. Debra, it depends on the color of the yellow whether it's bright and airy to me. That would be a pale to bright yellow. I envisioned the soap more on the order of gold/orange. Of course, old lye soap bars varied widely in color, depending on if the maker had anything to add to spice up the appearance. I always think of the color of Lifebuoy, or some generic with that color variation.

      Penny, thanks! That's exactly the sort of thing I had in mind. "Smell" and "fragrance" also hold different meanings for me.

      I will always flash back to an experience I had on my mission when I smell the scent of a particular brand of soap. It is embedded in all my memory cells, and there is definitely color involved, too.

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  4. Marsha, ah, I see (sense) this. I have more practice to do.

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    1. No, Leesa, yours was great! There isn't a set pattern we must follow. We all interpret senses differently.

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  5. This is only sight, but it still affects the character on a visceral level:

    Bright lamplight fought back the envelopment of night throughout the house, but Piper preferred candlelight in his father's bedchamber. He found comfort in the gentle puddles of light in a sea of shadows, a thick featherbed of darkness, protection from the harsh and glaring light of truth.

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    1. "puddles of light in a sea of shadows..." love it! Great visuals.

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    2. You have a great command of language, Penny. I can see this very well.

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  6. Oh, Penny, I love the "puddle of light" phrase. I want to know what he is finding comfort in the dark from.

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    1. I also like the "thick featherbed of darkness." That's very evocative, verging into an inclusion of the sense of touch, of being enveloped.

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  7. I enjoyed everyone's excerpts can't think of one from me t share just now but will work on it.

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