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During a recent Monday afternoon writing class, we discussed how engaging the five senses -- sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch -- enriches a scene and helps ground the reader. One of the class members responded that she becomes offended when this technique is used as an all-too-obvious tactic.
Her remark caused me to review some of my favorite writers’ works to see how they approached this matter. After taking a very swift and superficial scan of their published books, I tended to find action stories went light on portraying the senses except to heighten tension in dramatic moments. However, one of my favorite authors isn’t the least bit shy about engaging the senses. James Lee Burke paints beautiful word pictures using the senses. A short passage from his CREOLE BELLE demonstrates what I’m talking about.
“In the dream, the wind was balmy and smelled of salt spray and seaweed and shellfish that had been stranded on the beach by the receding waves. It also smelled of a Eurasian girl who spoke French and English and lived on a sampan in a cold on the edge of the South China Sea, her skin like alabaster traced with the shadows of palm fronds, her nipples as red and inviting as small roses. He could see her walking nude into the water, her hair floating off her shoulders, her teeth white while she smiled at him and extended her hand.”
Nice and natural, right? Nothing forced, and it gives the reader a clear picture of this scene.
I also like the way a local author goes for it in another peaceful, pastoral scene. The following excerpt is from Mark Wildyr’s homoerotic, historical novel, RIVER OTTER.
“I was tired. It had been a long, demanding day. The shooting of a human being took its toll on any caring, feeling man, and I considered myself to be of a sympathetic nature. I picketed the two horses on opposite sides of camp to double the chances of detecting unwelcome visitors. Patch was trained to give warning of predators. The Mare was a shadow jumper.
I settled on the coarse blankets of my bedroll and breathed a silent song to the Great Mystery. The spread of the heavens—shot through with glittering stars, both noble and mean—made a vast dome of the black sky. I studied the Seven Persons, which Billy had called the Big Dipper. A faint breeze cooled my face and carried the comforting rustle of swaying boughs gently to my ear. The heavy fragrance of pines on the hummock—so different from the scant perfume of cottonwoods along the crick bank—laid the sharp taste of resin on my tongue, or so it seemed. I stilled my doubts, calmed my breathing, and closed my eyes to slip away into sleep.”
Also nice, but to be honest, not as suave and subtle as the master, Mr. Burke. But it was a good try.
That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading. Be happy to hear from you.
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