Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sensory Writing

My thumb pierces the skin of an orange releasing a mist and aroma that catapults me back to childhood Christmases in our tiny Kansas town. The annual Christmas program at our little church showcased the wonder of the true Christmas story along with a paper sack of treats after the last carol and prayer. Beneath the chocolates, hard candy, and peanuts in that sack, nested an orange. I'm sure we had an orange or two throughout the year but it was the Christmas orange that is embedded in my sensory memory. It is a memory so strong, I never peel an orange without revisiting it.
The senses of smell, touch, taste, and sound are sometimes even stronger than the sense of sight. Yet, we as writers often forget to include anything beyond what the eye sees in our descriptions.

A young man strolls along the docks of a fishing village in Colonial New England. His eyes are drawn to crates containing wondrous treasures being unloaded from the decks of a tall sailing ship anchored in the harbor. The sun sparkles off the bay forcing him to squint and nearly topple into a peddler's handcart.

It's a nice story but what about the sounds, smells, and textures of this scene? Sweating bodies, the scritch-scratch of his feet against uneven cobblestones, gulls screeching, the briny sea air--take your pick. Including all the smells and sounds would distract the reader but the perfect balance will provide more than just a painted picture. It will be a scene that is alive in your reader's mind.
Now, go peel an orange and see where it takes you.


  1. I can smell the oranges AND hear the scritch-scratch and gulls AND smell the salt water. Thanks for the sensory images!

  2. Great writing advice, beautifully written.

    Now, tell me, which of the books for kids from your 2010 reading list was your favorite (or couple of favorites)? Since I quit teaching, I don't get enough recommendations.

  3. It's hard to chose a favorite, Sharon, but I think I'll start with these: ELEVEN, THE BROOKLYN NINE, & THE PATRON SAINT OF BUTTERFLIES. I absolutely loved THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES, but I think it's a little too mature for my students. :-)
    My list is going from June to June since that's when I began keeping track.

  4. Excellent post. You are really getting the hang of these! With the picture and the description I could almost feel the spritz of juice coming out from the peel.

    By the way, I only got through 41 books this year. Aiming for at least fifty next year. Just for Sharon's sake, I'll mention some of my favorites: It's a Funny Kind of Story by Ned Vizzini - a YA I picked up for research purposes for my own book as it's set mostly in a psych hospital. They're doing a movie about it now, I think. Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan was another excellent YA book. I just finished reading the first three books in the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, starting with The City of Bones - very good fantasy series.

  5. Your description of the sack you received filled with goodies, after your church Christmas program, brought back memories for me as well. I can remember the brown, paper sack filled with the same treats, including the juicy orange in the bottom, being passed out to all of the children after our church Christmas program at our quaint, Missouri, country church. My mouth started to water as you mentioned the orange, and I recalled the dimly lit sanctuary, the light from the small candles that everyone held, and the hum from the furnace as it warmed the tiny church on those wintery Christmas eve's. Thank you for bringing my memory back to life!