Creative and Memoir Writing

Carol Brennan King   July 13, 2022

Using Your Senses as a Writing Tool to Bring Your Story to Life

This week we talked about how to bring your reader into the story by not just using your senses to paint a more vivid scene, but to enable your reader to feel with the characters.

Let me remind you of the five senses that we are talking about, just to get your mind stirred up a bit:

  1. Smell
  2. Sound
  3. Taste
  4. Touch
  5. Sight
  1. Let’s start with smell. You could say,” Something woke her up. Then she noticed a glow under the door and knew something was terribly wrong.” Not bad, but try the next one.

One minute Tammy slept heavy in her bed, the sleep of a woman who had spent the day washing, drying, and folding four loads of laundry, vacuuming and dusting through the seven-room house she cleaned weekly, and prepped seven meals for the elderly lady who lived in that house. Then she came home and did her own laundry, and finally fell into bed.

The next moment, tendrils of smoke slipped under her door, across the carpeted floor, and rose toward the ceiling, hot, acrid smoke showing up first in her dream. Then her dream screams became real life screams. The smoke filling her lungs, she coughed herself awake, and pushing the screen out of her bedroom window, she leaned out screaming, “Help, Fire, Help!” as she watched the flames licking their way into her room under her door.

How many senses can you identify here?

Which version of first lines in a story do you like best? And why?

Remember all of our conversations about showing, not telling. Well, here we are again, and we are honing in on using our senses to stir the reader’s own physical response to the events. We want to do more than show; we want to wake them right up, to help them feel what is going on.

One tool we can use to bring the reader right into the scene is to use a metaphor: a figure of speech that describes one thing by saying it is something else. It is an implied comparison.

An early bird normally, the familiar inviting fragrance of Sue’s fresh coffee brewing absent, David knew something was wrong.

Or we can use a simile: a figure of speech comparing two things using the words like or as.

Like clockwork, the fragrance of Sue’s coffee stirred David from his bed every single morning at 6 am. But this morning, the clock had stopped.

Do you see the difference and the power of using these tools??

The metaphors we use have the power to carry our readers wherever we want to take them, to places that stir up old memories and related feelings. Metaphors and similes also enable the reader to enter into the deeper connection made not only with the character(s) but for themselves with the characters.

Now back to using our senses: Generally we think of smells as either good or bad, but is that all that comes to your mind?

Come with me on a ride:

I remember visiting an old neighbor lady with my mother-in-law, both women having grown up on farms and still living on farmsteads. Only now, the trails of cow and pig manure had dried up, and the air barely echoed the crows and the cackles of the long dead chickens if you listened close of an evening. The chug-chug of tractors trailing black smoke on their way to the barns, the wagons piled high with the grassy fragrance of first cutting hay hanging in their air, now remembered only as the women went out to the small gardens they kept since their husbands passed, the women lost in memories that quick.

Letha guided us inside to show us her latest garden produce all jarred up for the winter. She guided us downstairs off the kitchen and through the chill of a damp, earthen basement or cellar, and in seconds, more time had melted away, this time for me. I was three-years-old and at Grandma Swingle’s house. I am holding her hand tight as we step down the narrow plank stairs. I can see the cellar shelves looking just the same as Letha’s – filled with dusty jars of canned peaches, tomatoes, green beans, tomatoes, and pickles of every color and size. And I can see the jam jars, smaller than the vegetable jars but glowing with the promise of scarlet strawberry jelly, brilliant blueberry jam, and the royal purple of grape jam, grapes that grew outside the back windows.

         Then I am transported to the barn next to Grandma and Grandpa Swingle’s house. The barn full is full mooing cows, and the wiggles come over me, so full of joy I was, mixed with just a bit of fear of those huge cows. We walked down the lane between the rows of cows, and I can still l hear Grandpa Swingle telling me to be careful to stay away from the drop behind the cows, their toilet he said, a channel full of black you-know-what, and I never wanted to get near that stuff. We walked on until Grandpa pulled a bucket and a stool down from the wall. Before I knew it, he was guiding my tiny fingers around the cow’s teats, showing me how to milk the cow, and how to make the warm, white liquid ring against the sides of the tin bucket.

          “Are you coming?” I shake my head and recognize my mother-in-law’s voice calling me to her side at the bottom of Letha’s cellar steps. And I whisper “Goodbye!” to my Grandpa Swingle.

Now, what did you hear, see, feel, smell, even taste?

When you begin to paint (with words) a scene, close your eyes and envision all of the possible smells, sounds, flavors, and textures that surround you. Then, think how to make your reader see, feel, and hear everything that you did.

Smells not only describe food and body odor; they can be used to describe the weather, a room, or a situation.Try describing some smells yourself, paying attention to both the source of the smell and why it’s there.

Then do the same exercise paying attention to the sounds you hear: the loud ones, the close ones, the distant ones, the shouts, and the endearments. Write the scene so you reader knows more than someone shouted, but can hear it, can feel what that shout or whisper was meant to communicate.

Try the exercise with taste. You are a guest in someone’s house, someone who is or will be important in your life or your character’s life. The main dish is being served, and as it is ladled onto your plate, you recognize only that you have never seen this on a plate before. Look at it. Smell it. Imagine what it might feel like in your mouth. Now write that so that your reader feels, smells, and tastes it too.

Here’s a sample:

I had never eaten Korean food before, and now it was my turn to order. I could feel sweat dripping down my neck, under my hair, and down my back, as everyone looked at me. I desperately looked for anything vaguely American, and finally, someone asked me if I liked seafood. “OOH, “I responded, “I do love seafood.”

“There’s a seafood soup on the menu, middle column, near the bottom of the page.”

I looked at the prices of all the dishes near the bottom of the page, and they were all reasonable. I remembered that someone told me once that the guest should never order the cheapest or the most expensive dish on the menu. “I love seafood, I said, so that sounds good,” though I had no real idea what was in it. But seafood, you shouldn’t go wrong with shrimp and clams and scallops, I thought.

The dinners were preceded by delicious fragrances, like chicken maybe, soy sauce, and other things I didn’t recognize. Each serving came in a bowl, big bowls, white bowls, the size I would serve mashed potatoes in. But everything did smell good, I reminded myself, knowing I could never eat that whole bowlful.

I was glad it was soup. At least I did not have to master chopsticks or any other unique implement in front of our hosts, who loved this place. Thankful I had a large soup spoon, I filled it with the chicken, very spicy hot chicken, smelling soup. Not so bad, I thought. It was hot though, the kind of hot that makes you find your ice water and keep it handy right away. I recognized carrots and onions and shrimp. Looked safe, it did. I was so glad to find shrimp and welcomed it to my spoon and stomach.

Then encouraged by my “victory,” I dipped my spoon deeper into the brown broth, and not looking at it, I couldn’t risk looking at it and making a face, I drained it into my mouth. This was not a shrimp or a carrot or a noodle. This thing now in my mouth was hard, or at least very firm, like some kind of shell. Looking down into my lap, ostensibly to fold or refold to do something to the napkin in my lap, I tried to bite into whatever was now filling my mouth.

It crunched. Yes, it crunched, like a thing with a shell, really, I could imagine like a baby octopus with little bony tentacles. Well, I could not swallow it like it was, so I had to chew it up somehow. So very gingerly, with my napkin very close to my mouth, I chewed it up fast. There is no other way to describe it – fast. And almost as fast, I swallowed it.

And I  spent the rest of the meal filling my spoon with broth and other recognizable substances, grateful I could say honestly, that soup tasted delicious, but there was no way I could get it all down.

Now it is your turn, so write your memory of some event, painting it with words that will make your reader wish it was longer.

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