Monday, October 27, 2014

Descriptive Writing Using All of the Senses ... by Holly Michael

Good writing draws the reader into the story by engaging all senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Recently, I submitted the first chapter of my work in progress—my sequel to Crooked Lines—to my critique group. My crit partner said, “I’m not hearing anything.”

I returned to my WIP and considered what Rebecca would hear, standing near the shore of the Indian Ocean, days after the tsunami hit. Having been there, it wasn’t difficult to recall sounds.

Going back to my debut novel, Crooked Lines, I returned to a scene with Rebecca on the Lake Michigan shoreline to check how well I used senses.

The whoosh and trickle of the whispering waves beckoned me to the shoreline. (sound) Gulls screeched and circled around dead glittering minnows. (sound, sight) Chilly water rolled over my feet and lapped my ankles. (touch).

 I could have added the smell of the dead minnows to that scene.

Crooked Lines goes back and forth between America and India, so let’s pop over to India, where Sagai is returning to his native state, Tamil Nadu:

After days of bumping, jostling, and elbows jabbed into his ribs on buses and trains, Sagai arrived at the station to a buzz of traffic jammed up and pressed against a lowered train gate. Petrol and diesel fumes left an acrid taste in his mouth. Women on backs of motorcycles raised the corners of their sarees to their mouths.

Sagai walked from the station toward the heart of the village where massive old tamarind trees formed umbrellas over small assemblages. Under their branches, cart vendors—with veshtis wrapped around their waists—sold fruits and snacks.

Men sipped coffee and tea from small steel tumblers. Barefoot kids in school uniforms adjusted heavy satchels while digging coins from their pockets. Sagai passed cows and goats mingling among the folks. Large brown tamarind pods fell at the feet of old men reading newspapers under bright green feathery foliage.

The women paid no attention to any of it. Friday was an auspicious day for Hindus, and the women focused on Kolam, their folk art decorations to welcome their deities. Ladies in bright new sarees bent low, shuffling their broad behinds, as they swept swirling dust piles away from their doorways with coconut stick brooms.

Others ahead of the sweepers sprinkled cow dung water onto the streets to prepare a spot for decorations. A few women must have woken earlier than the others and were already spreading their colorful rice flour powders in front of their homes, creating intricate geometric and flower shaped patterns. Very good to be back in South India among familiar sights and sounds.

A woman cried from the side of the street, “mokku mavu, mokku mavu.” She was selling flour for the artful doodles—kolam—to adorn the doorways of homes. Another called from the other side, “malli, kadhambam.” Her sweet-smelling basket held white jasmine and orange flowers along with strands of garland—a medley of yellow mums, green tulsi and violet marikolundu.

Sagai breathed in the pleasing potpourri and the mingling of earthy smells, coffee, teas, spices and frying oil. He left the shade for the shops. Mosquitoes circled and buzzed around stagnant water in the gutter near the buildings. The Suprabatham Hindu chants blasted from All India Radio from a receiver wired onto the small tea shop’s outside wall. He stopped, mesmerized by the melodic chant and the whoosh whoosh of the tea shop owner’s skillful cooling and mixing of the steamy coffee. The man raised one cup high, held one low, then switched the other hand high, the other low. A long line of frothy coffee masterfully streamed from one tumbler to the other. The rhythm of life in Tamil Nadu.

Taking a break from drama and dialogue, I hope I painted the above scene using all of the senses. To improve, Sagai could have sipped the coffee or touched the soft petals.

In a week, I’ll be in India, careful to pay attention to my surroundings. We return to Nagapattinam, where my husband and I were nearly ten years ago, after the tsunami hit South India. I’ll be working on a short non-fiction “then and now book” and my sequel to Crooked Lines. Fiction or nonfiction, painting visual pictures is important, but smells evoke nostalgia, and sounds, taste, touch complete a scene. Don’t forget to paint your word pictures using all of the senses.


Holly Michael, published in various magazines, newspapers, and in Guideposts books has released her debut novel, Crooked Lines. She and her husband, Anglican Bishop Leo Michael, regularly travel from their home in Kansas City to India. She has a grown daughter (Betsy) and two sons who play football. (Jake in the NFL and Nick in college). She and her son, Jake, have a devotional book contracted with Harvest House and scheduled for a fall 2015 release.

To learn more about Holly and her writing, visit her website and blog. She can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads. Crooked Lines is available at amazon, B&N, kobo, and Google Play.

Holly is giving away one copy of Crooked Lines to a U.S. or Canada reader who leaves a comment on this post before midnight Mountain Time, Tuesday, October 28th. The winner will be selected using and the name announced here on Wednesday.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That's something I have to really focus on, especially the sense of smell. Not something I think about, but we need it to add depth to our work.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I usually remember to keep the senses in the scene but not always. Holly has led a very exciting life.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Enjoy India!

As a photographer, I love taking pictures with texture, but I usually forget to describe it in my writing.

Dean K Miller said...

Indeed, indeed, indeed. Thanks for the reminder. I write more emotionally charge pieces which end up dry because the texture of the senses get left out.

Arlee Bird said...

I'm pretty bad about delivering sensate experiences in my writing. You've done a nice job here. To me good descriptive passages that allow us to experience senses should be unobtrusive and natural unless a sensate nature is the primary focus. I like to read passages that flow, involving me without distracting me.

Good points to ponder.

Tossing It Out