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I was reading another writer’s work-in-progress and got to thinking about sensory details. The characters were in a forest. Low hanging branches, pine needles and twigs, rocks, and mud puddles were mentioned. But I asked this writer, “What other sensory details can you include?” These details were mostly sight details, though some could be turned into hearing or tactile (touch) details. For example, steps are often silent on a pine needle mat, but a twig might crack or pop. I’ve had mud be so slick it made me slip and almost fall when I stepped in it. A puddle can splash. If I caught my balance on the trunk of a cedar tree, I might scrape my hand.
This writer showed me it was cold—but not cold enough for the characters’ breath to show. Great use of temperature. But I didn’t know if it was sunny, partly cloudy, or overcast. With the former, I might squint or put sun glasses on. The latter can affect mood—when is the sun going to come out? Or maybe the sun is going down and I’m rushing to get out of the forest before it gets dark.
I wondered if birds in this forest were making noise and silencing as the characters got close. Are squirrels chattering? Or is there water running or dripping? Sometimes I’ve heard the buzzing of insects in a forest. Or a plane fly overhead. Or traffic from a nearby road.
I wondered about the time of day. Were the characters getting hungry? Maybe someone was munching on a snack. What does the main character smell? Scent of evergreens? Rotting wood? Ripe blackberries?
Now let’s switch to an ocean scene. On the Pacific coast (versus the Atlantic shore), there are lots of huge rocks that make for interesting tides. I’ve walked on coarse and fine sand and on pebble beaches. I’ve tasted the moisture on my lips. Smelled seaweed, fish, and salt air. I’ve heard the seagulls calling, the sound of a kite flapping in the wind, an engine of a boat. I’ve been wind-burned and sunburned. I’ve spotted shells and rocks and driftwood. Sometimes there are cliffs behind me. Other times hotels and restaurants or homes. I like the patterns in the sand made by the outgoing tide, or bird feet, dog feet, and people feet.
I’d prefer walking either of those places than on the hard concrete of city streets. There I might smell food from restaurants, exhaust from busses and cars, garbage. I’ll hear car horns, squeal of brakes, people talking or yelling, trains or street cars, etc. I might step on a grate, trip on the edge of a curb, or get a heel caught in a crack. If it’s summer, heat could be radiating up from the asphalt. Winter, the streets might be icy, slushy, or I might have to step over big puddles. Wind could be blowing bits of paper trash. I could step in gum. I might have to stop in the bakery shop and buy a fresh-out-of-the-oven cinnamon roll.
When I was in Bangkok, Thailand, the traffic was mind-numbing crazy. Especially the first night when riding in a taxi that was driving on the wrong side of the road compared to the US. Later my husband and I took a ride in a tuktuk (tooktook)—think three-wheeled motorcycle with a covered back seat. We took a night train to Chiangmai. If you turned into the restroom on one side, it was a traditional western style toilet. If you turned the opposite way, it was an Asian style hole in the floor. Both emptied onto the tracks. In the town of Chiangkam, we were transported by bicycle cart. In a remote village I saw teens riding a water buffalo. Sights and smells and sounds were different. If my story is set there, I want to share those with my reader.
Even buildings often have different sensory details. Think about the smells and sounds at a vets—fortunately my vet does very good at odor control, but often you’ll hear a dog barking or a cat meowing. Contrast that with the smells and sounds at a dentist’s office. I do not like the sound of the drill. Ever been in a building with a tin roof in a rainstorm? Or heard the snow sliding off the roof as it melts? I remember one apartment we lived in where the moment we heard the bathroom fan of our neighbor come on, we ran and turned our fan on. They shared the same exhaust pipe so smoke from her cigarette drifted down into our bathroom if our fan wasn’t on.
You won’t use every detail of your environment, but mention the ones that make it unique and use a variety of the types of senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell, and temperature.
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.