Thursday, September 21, 2006

Use Your Common Senses

About a week ago, I was in Colorado and Wyoming. While in Colorado, as I sat near the window, I noticed a cool front approaching. (And, no, I did not bring a coat with me – it was September for Pete's sakes, said the Texas girl.)

I noticed that a front coming in over the mountains is really different from the fronts that slide in over the hill country near where I live. Which, of course, made me think of setting the atmosphere in books.

If you're writing about a place you've never been or a setting you've never seen at the time of year you're describing, you're really at a disadvantage. You could talk to someone who lives in the area you’re describing, especially if that person is a writer and used to looking at things with a writer's eye. You can do
Internet searches for information on the area. You can talk to people in chat rooms. You can look in travel books or even in other fiction books. It can be done, but there's nothing like seeing it for yourself.

That’s because the best way to get it right is to see and feel it yourself. Whenever possible. The puffy clouds lingering among the peaks of the mountains. The white caps of the higher clouds. The light blue that radiates to a darker blue then to an almost purple.

When we describe things in our manuscripts (or our characters do), we tend to focus on what can be seen. This is natural. In the book I’m reading now, You: The Owner’s Manual, Drs. Roizen and Oz say, “Roughly 80 percent of what our brains process comes from what we see.” So, of course, we describe what we see (or what our characters see).

But sight is not the only important sense we should keep in mind when writing. We, and characters, not only see, we smell things; we feel pain, touch and bumps; we hear sounds, soft, loud, low, high; we taste all kinds of things, good and bad, and some in-between.

And all of these senses can trigger emotions inside. We hear a song and we’re thrown back to our teenage years. We smell bacon cooking and smile as we’re transported to our childhood. A certain unidentifiable flavor causes us to spend an hour or even days trying to remember when we once tasted it before, or it makes us gag and spit it out.

Yes, the majority of description in a book is based on sight. It’s what our brains process most. But don’t ignore the other senses, even if it means you have to go back on some round of editing and add them in.

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