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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Stinky Writing: Using All Five Senses (Including Smell)

Writers often draw their readers into the imaginary world they've created through the use of descriptive language.  They do this by using sensory details, which should include all five of the senses:  sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.  I always thought that I had a tendency to focus solely on visual details, but in the past year I've realized something else.  I am obsessed with smells.

A description of the scent that wafts from a nearby bakery is included in the first paragraph of my contemporary YA novel, "The French Impressionist."  I discuss smell (or odors) quite often in my historical YA novel "The Digger," about a young boy who works digging up the recently dead to sell to medical schools.  And, in chapter one I include details regarding the odiferous properties of the slums where my protagonist is trapped in my latest historical "work in progress," (WIP,) which I call:  "Kenna's Close."

Hmmm...I suppose I am a bit obsessed with what my nose knows.

A while ago, a friend wrote about the use of sensory details in writing, as a prompt on her blog.  I wanted to try to include descriptions of all five senses in a writing exercise.  This is what I came up with:


“Bet you’re too scared to go in there.”

Addison’s words stung.  They rattled around in my brain and would pop up to hit me, hard, like those stupid brown grasshoppers that plonked against my legs as I crossed the dry grass out back.  All through breakfast my brother had whispered “coward,” so Mom wouldn’t hear.  I showed him a big mouthful of mushy, sugary, Fruit Loops to show I didn’t care, but I did.  He knew it.  Finally, when Mom left for work, I stuck my chin out and snuck out back to crawl through a gap in the fence that separates our house from the old Milford place.  If my big brother wasn’t too scared to go inside the town’s “haunted house,” I wouldn’t be either.  After all, I was nine years old.  I was too old to be scared.

The rusted knob rattled under my grasp but finally turned with a screech, like the old house was protesting against the intrusion.  The door opened toward me with a soft groan.   I felt like the house was breathing out its hot, stale breath all over me.  Old houses have a smell to them, and this place was no exception.  The odor of rotting wood and something almost sweet, like a summer garden filled with dying flowers, filled my nose and mouth, and I swear I tasted it.  Chewed on it.  I spat and shoved the neck of my Captain America t-shirt over my mouth and nose so all I could smell was the scent of Downey fabric softener and my own sweat.  Then, before I could change my mind, I hurtled inside, mega-fast, before ninety-seven year-old Mrs. Compton across the street could spy me through her lace curtains and call the cops.

This house was alive. 

 It creaked, it moaned, it popped and crackled, like Mrs. Compton when she tries to stand up in church.  What were all those sounds?  Was someone else in here?  After being out in the bright mid-summer sun, I was blind in this old, dim cave of a place.  My heart nearly pounded itself out of my chest, but after I blinked a few thousand times, I could finally see.  There was no one but me.  In fact, there wasn’t much at all to look at.  A front room with a low ceiling, an empty fireplace, pale circles and squares where pictures must have once hung on faded wallpaper that was printed with sickly-looking yellow roses.  Dust-covered floorboards displayed a set of footprints that led away from where I stood, on out into a hallway, where I spied a set of stairs.

“You gotta wave to me from THAT window,” Addison had told me with a sneer.  “If you don’t, I’ll know you’re chicken.”

The steps shivered under my bare feet.  I bounced up and down a bit to test them out, but they held my weight, so I crept upward, fast as I dared.  The treads were covered with threadbare carpet that may have been green at one time.  The carpet felt so gritty under my feet it was like walking on dirt.   Breathing harder, I got to the top where there was a small landing, and then another hallway stretched out in front of me.  Two doors on the left, one to my right, and one down at the end.  That was the room I needed to enter; the one that faced the back of our house and our kitchen window.  It’s where I’d find THAT window, the one where Addison insists he sees a face staring out sometimes, like a pale smudge on a sheet of black paper, at night when everyone else is asleep.

The knob was shiny.  I didn’t know why, but that kinda struck me as funny.  Everything else in this house is dusty or rusty, faded and ancient, but that doorknob was brand new. 

I swallowed and could still taste Fruit Loops.  

“Go on, Cam!  Get it over with!” I mumbled to myself, my mouth still muffled inside the neck of my shirt.  The hot, still air in this place was getting to me.  I wanted to leave as fast as I could and get back to the air-conditioned safety of my own room.  A trickle of sweat rolled down the side of my face, leaving a salty, itchy trail on my cheek.  Finally, pulling my shirt away from my face, I turned the knob and opened the door.

Then, I screamed and ran, blindly, stumbling my way down the stairs, through the front room and out onto the front porch. 

That was no empty room.


Well, that was fun.  :-)  As I was writing, I realized that I still tended to focus quite a bit on the visual properties of something, and then on the smell.  Old houses do have a particular odor, and true to my nature, I included descriptions of smell.

My new goal is to remember to include other sensory characteristics, including, in particular, touch and sound, when I write.  But I'll never forget to include how something smells, because for me, smell is where it's at.

Happy writing!

1 comment:

  1. All senses definitely on display in your last writing exercise. Such awesome descriptiveness! I can tell your writing awareness is improving. You know what you need to do and how to do it to make it better.
    Two posts in two days. That is a bit unusual for you. Generally, they are much longer and about 4-6 weeks apart. Just a bit surprised. Lastly, let me comment about the rejection.
    I'm truly sorry that it got you frustrated. I'm glad your pity party was brief. #Hugs# Any ordinary person, myself included, would just throw their hands in the air and give up on ever being published. Not you. Not the most extraordinary and resilient woman ever! You will prove all of those
    literary critics wrong. I can hear your keyboard from here:)
    Funny you should also mention crushes. I guess I still have that stubborn mustard stain on my shirt:) Happy holidays!