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Friday, July 3, 2009

Five on Friday: Sensory Details

"Stop, Keli!"

I came to an abrupt halt and turned to my husband with what must have been a startled look on my face. We'd just returned home from a walk to town this morning and were in the driveway in front of our house. Was something wrong?

"Listen," Gwynly said.

I did and smiled. We stood next to the grove of Aspens he planted several years ago, and they were quaking.

OK. Grove is a bit of an exaggeration, but those three threes are special to us.

Every summer for years, we took our daughter camping at Calaveras Big Trees state park, which is home to some of California's largest redwoods. Much as I love standing at the base of the massive trees and peering at their crowns several stories above, one of my fondest memories is walking around the meadow at the center of the campground. We would pause by a good-sized grove of Aspen and listen as the breeze rustled their heart-shaped leaves.

As I listened to the leaves dance in the breeze today, I was reminded of the importance of adding sounds to our stories.

Have you ever had a contest judge or critique partner say your manuscript would benefit from the inclusion of more sensory detail?

I remember the first time a judge made such a comment on one of my early manuscripts. After reading her remark, I was puzzled. In my newbie writer innocence, I recall turning to my husband, my brow creased. "Does she mean I'm supposed to put in smells, tastes and sounds?"

After doing a bit of research, I had my answer. A resounding yes.

I went back through some of the wonderful romances I'd read searching for sensory details. VoilĂ ! There they were, adding richness to a great read and bringing the author's story to life.

At first I felt a bit silly. Why hadn't I noticed them before?

After further examination, I figured out the reason. Because they were so well woven into the stories, they didn't draw attention to themselves but blended into a pleasing whole.

I tend to be a visual writer. By that I mean my strength is painting the picture for the eye to behold. While that's a large part of setting a scene, I was missing other elements that add depth.

I began asking questions as I wrote. What is my character smelling? Tasting? Feeling, in the tactile sense? Hearing, other than dialogue, of course.

By adding smells, sounds, tastes, etc. I give my readers a more complete picture, which engages their senses and enriches their experience.

Here are five sensory stimuli I enjoy:

1) Listening to Aspen leaves quake

Inhaling the dusty, musty smell after the first rain of the season

3) Tasting sweetened sun tea on a hot summer's day

4) The feel of satin between my fingers

5) Bending over the lilacs in our yard and taking a big whiff of their perfume

• • • • •

Does adding sensory details to your stories come naturally, or do you have to go back and add them during the editing phase?

What are some sounds, smells, tastes and textures you enjoy?


Eileen Astels Watson said...

Great post, Keli!

As I write some come right away to me, but I'm always adjusting and adding in revisions.

You're so right, incorporating all the senses adds majorly to a piece!

Jessica said...

I think I'm learning to do it in the first draft a little better, but I still look again as I edit.

Great post! :-) I would love to hear some Aspens quake. Sounds beautiful.

Happy 4th!

sherrinda said... brought back some wonderful memories of summer vacations in Colorado! Oh, the sound of the Aspens...there is nothing like it! I love the way their leaves shimmer when the sun filters through.

I hope to add ALOT more sensory detail on my next draft...which I hope to start within the next week!!!!! Yea!!!!

CandaceCalvert said...

Great post, Keli--I love your Aspens!
And agree whole-heartedly about sensory detail; its paramount to scene setting. The difference between seeing a lovely (flat) photograph of a place (or a still shot in a movie) and BEING there. I'm an imagery addict--wherever I go, I try to drink in the details of a place: scents, background sounds, textures, colors,even the feel of the air . . . with a crazy urge to re-create it. Tastes are especially challenging and fun as are scents, and sounds--I love to try to re-create those. Of course, in my medical dramas, some of the hospital scenes can be daunting for a reader--but I try to temper that with "away" scenes, like the visit to Daffodil Hill in CRITICAL CARE.
Writing without sensory detail is like visiting someplace wonderful while wearing earplugs, a blindfold, gloves . . . while having a cold that plugs up your nose. ;-)

C.J. Redwine said...

Ah yes, sensory details. I find I remember to include them the first time around about 50% of the time. The rest are inserted after the fact when I do a read-through and realize I've failed to encompass the reader with the entire experience. :) (And you always catch those moments for me. Yay you!)

Keli Gwyn said...

Eileen, Jessica, Sherrinda and CJ, it sounds like you face the same challenge I do in getting those sensory details into the story. When a story is flowing, they just aren't the first things that come to mind.

I think creating the first draft versus working on a revision is like the difference between a contractor and an interior decorator. A new house looks great when the builder is done, but it doesn't come to life until the furnishings, window coverings and artistic touches are added.

I enjoy my subsequent passes through my manuscripts when I add the sensory details that bring my story to life.

Keli Gwyn said...

Candace, it's great to have one of my new favorite authors stop by. Thanks!

I love your line, "Writing without sensory detail is like visiting someplace wonderful while wearing earplugs, a blindfold, gloves . . . while having a cold that plugs up your nose." I need to print that out and keep it on my computer.