Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Writer Wednesday: Senses: Method or Madness?
As an author we are told to show and not tell. In a recent workshop I attended it was explained to paint a picture with your words. In order to do that one needs to address the senses.


Today I want to address smell. Scent is a powerful tool when writing. How often have we caught the aroma of a food that propels us to another place in time, or the haunting fragrance of a woman's perfume that reminds you of the one who broke your heart, crushed your soul?

For me Peony flowers  will always be my granny's house. She has three bushes that have grown back every year with a vengeance. Even though for a decade my grandfather rode them down ruthlessly with his John Deere.

In The Familial Witch the Peony flower is a living birthmark on the heart of Aisleen. The last of the Familial Witches and the leader of the extinct coven peonies are her distinct scent as well. While I know what I remember about the flower, it would be so much easier to describe what I'm smelling while in the act. Correct?

Since I don't have the budget to fly in Peonies and keep them in an indoor fridge year round or until I'm done with this novel. I tried the next best thing. Lotion. Bath and Body Works lotion. Sprays, candles or shower gel I'm sure would work just the same. But lotion is the strongest scent next to a candle which they didn't have in the kind I need. It was all very easy and cheap at $10 for 3 bottles. (I'm working on another novel and need Gardenias. The third was just for me.) I went in told the clerk I needed something that smelled of Gardenias and one like Peonies. She pulled out this magic wheel that pointed her to the fragrances that matched the scent I wanted. And Wala!

Carried Away=Gardenias

                                                          Sweet Pea=Peonies

So what do you people think method or madness? How do you creatively pull from the senses to write


  1. Excellent idea, Bri. For years in my university creative writing classes, one of the first exercises I have students do is on this. I divide the class into two and label Group A the "Dummies." The dummies are instructed to go out into the campus and return with a 2-3 paragraph description of anything they choose. The "Genius" group remains behind for more instructions. When the dummies are gone, I tell the second group to do the same thing... except they have to write at least one descriptive sentence for each of the senses. When both groups return, I hand out Magic Markers of five colors. On the board, I assign a color to each of the senses. I always reserve red for sight. Then, I have the students color each sentence according to the color code for each sense. When they're done, I instruct the ones who only have one color on their paper to hold it up for everyone to see. It may be surprising that they're all in the dummies' group. A sea of red. Then I ask for those with two colors to hold them up. Again, they're from the dummies' group. Invariably, these are the better writers in the class. I then go through the progression--three through five. The genius group all hold up their five. But, the really good writers from the first group will have from two to five colors in theirs. We'll have each student read their work and vote on which are the most effective and it's always the ones with multiple senses employed. I also use this in editing my own work. I'll use colored markers for descriptive passages and quickly see I've got far more red than anything else and it's a good way to go back and rewrite descriptions.

  2. That's flipping brilliant Les! I love colors and markers too. I feel like I've found out some profound truth that's been staring at me all along. Essentially I'm a dummy.

  3. Thanks, Bri. I'd like to take credit for it, but I got this from my friend Pam Painter's book, WHAT IF, eons ago. It's a great resource and imo should be in every writer's professional library.

    I've outlined this exercise in more detail in one of my writer's how-tos, FINDING YOUR VOICE or HOOKED--can't remember which one.

    And, students like this exercise... even the Dummies group... The rest of the semester I keep hearing kids from the Genius group refer to someone from the other as a "dummy," which warms my heart to no end as I detest that PC mindset...