Creative Similes: The Essence of Your Unique Voice

An iceberg and a waterfall

This freezing sensation also rose from within like the realization that she had been formed from an iceberg all along.

Simile – a figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly compared. Comparisons and associations are how we help others to see the world from our unique perspectives.

Ralph Cornish, a fellow writer and friend, recently challenged our critique group to write a short piece consisting only of similes. To tackle the challenge, I noted the similes that popped into my head for a day. The next day, I organized my list of similes into a description of morning ritual:

She woke abruptly like the finality of the explosive light bulbs in her house that always need replacing at the same time and don’t sputter out but break suddenly with a loud retort when she hits the light switch. Her fragile grip on sleep had been broken by the sound of the entire house cracking like it had finally stretched “the spot” that released its stiffened spine. She didn’t feel refreshed but wilted like the flowers she left in the vase on the breakfast table because she didn’t want them to be dead. Restful sleep continued to be torturously out of reach like whispers of urgent news too quiet to comprehend. The room smelled sweet as syrup and the air felt as thick. As she dressed, the pulled muscle in her back worried her like an alligator’s jaw ready to snap. This morning, she made her coffee strong as a ranch hand and bitter as a dreamless atheist. She liked it black as Ape Cave and hot as the sulfur smelling mud pots of Yellowstone, so it felt like molten lava pouring down her throat and pooling in her middle. Sitting at the breakfast table, she smelled the rotting flowers and felt a sudden change in the room as if someone shoved ice down the back of her shirt. Her skin pricked like she had fallen into a nest of fire ants, like she had leapt into the still winter lake fed by dripping glaciers in the first heat of spring. This freezing sensation also rose from within like the realization that she had been formed from an iceberg all along. Then her lava coffee warmed her and she sighed like a steam train after it settled into the station releasing the concocted vapors and set pen to paper.

Completely over the top? You know it, but I had so much fun writing it, I wanted to continue exploring and writing similes.

So how do we create similes that are unique and stay away from cliches? One way is to write what you know. Draw from personal experiences and the things that make you different. For instance, if you love chess or have horses you might come up with:

He zigzagged the path like a rook.

His options were limited like a knight.

She kept her hand on him as she walked behind him like she would with a horse. She had a feeling he kicked.

As she brushed her fingers through his sweat-matted hair, dust flew into the light like she was brushing a horse after a ride.

I lived in New Orleans so I relate things to alligators and fire ants but now live near a sleeping volcano which makes me think of molten lava and glaciers. I studied psychology which would explain a simile in my work in progress –

She felt all of these recent slights tapping at her rage button like a pigeon in an experiment desperate for a seed.

When writing similes for your novel, think about your characters’ interests and environs as well. What similes would your characters create?

Speaking of my work in progress, I went to the find function in Word, typed “like a” and found two problems. One, there were very few similes and two, many were cliche:

like a veil had been removed from his eyes

be treated like a queen

his torso and arms were chiseled like an action hero

Now that I’m excited about creative similes and plan to come up with new ones every day as part of my writing warm up, finding places in my manuscript that beg for similes should be organic. However, not finding similes could be a sign that I need to provide more sensory information. Tastes, smells and textures are difficult to describe without using simile: She tasted like chewing tobacco and pixie-sticks; she discovered a spot behind his ear that smelled like lavender and cucumbers drizzled with a salty musk; His trimmed beard defined his jaw, but painfully pierced her face like needles and pins fused to porcupine quills. Thus, I think a good place for me to start is with finding places to add sensory detail to my manuscript.

And how will I deal with my cliches? Well, I will need to get more creative. Let’s see what we can do with the examples above:

“like a veil had been removed from his eyes”- What else clears cloudy vision?

like the ophthalmologist gave him a stronger prescription

like he had all the Visine in the world

like he finally found his other contact

“be treated like a queen”- How are queens treated? Everything I think about how a queen is described is a cliche, so this one’s tough.

you’ll never chip a nail again

your heels will never blister

you’ll be worshiped like Bonnie Lu Nettles (maybe a bit gauche)

“his torso and arms were chiseled like an action hero” – What is another way to describe well defined muscles?

like the peaks and valleys of the Rocky Mountains

his muscles were large enough to house hobbits

his muscles were as sharply defined as cliff walls meeting the ocean

Please write your suggestions in the comments. I can’t wait to read how you would deal with these pesky cliches.

I was inspired by this simile challenge, so to continue it and share it with others, I’ve started posting daily Tweets with #similes. Please join me in creating and sharing creative similes.

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Exploring: Collective Nouns

A Cover of Coots

A Cover of Coots

Yesterday’s writing group was incredibly fun, thanks to Ralph Cornish presenting an exploration of collective nouns. We’re all familiar with at least a few collective nouns that we use in regular speech: a hill of beans, a mountain of debt, a litter of pups. But there are so many more fun and interesting collective nouns. The earliest list dates from around 1450.

For our group writing exercise, Ralph wrote out a selection of collective nouns and let us pick one from a bowl. We then wrote about our selection for 15 minutes. I grabbed A Transparency of Toupees. That made me so happy.

Ralph picked his selections from a fun, beautifully illustrated book, An Exaltation of Larks: The Ultimate Edition by James Lipton. an Exaltation of Larks cover

Mr. Lipton sorts the terms of venery (term for hunting game) into six families:

1. Onomatopoeia – a gaggle of geese, a murmuration of starlings

2. Characteristic – a leap of leopards, a skulk of foxes

3. Appearance – a knot of toads, a parliament of owls

4. Habitat – a shoal of bass, a nest of rabbits

5. Comment – richness of martens, a cowardice of curs

6. Error (resulting from an incorrect transcription by a scribe or printer, faithfully preserved in the corrupted form by consequent compilers) – a school of fish, originally shoal

The book contains more than a thousand terms. Here are some of my favorite:

An ingratitude of children

An untruth of summoners

A rhapsody of blues

A wince of dentists

A business of flies

A smack of jellyfish

A labor of moles

An illusion of painters

A worship of writers

A conjunction of grammarians

A browse of readers

Here’s hoping we all find instance to use colorful terms of venery in our writing.

What’s your favorite collective noun?

To finish what I begin – Tips for finishing a draft

In you go

With all of the kids spending as much time in the lake as they could before heading back to school, I must have become nostalgic for a moment because I suddenly remembered something from my blue bird (tiny campfire girls) days — “to finish what I begin.” It really stuck in my head so I looked up where I thought it was from, the Blue Bird wish:

“To have fun.

To learn to make beautiful things.

To remember to finish what I begin.  

To learn to keep my temper in.

And to learn about nature and living outdoors.

To have adventures with all sorts of things.

To make friends.”

from alicemariebeard.com/campfire/memories.htm

“To finish what I begin” is my focus in my writing life right now, but a good dose of “to learn to keep my temper in” and fun and friends could definitely help me make beautiful things.

Tips for finishing a draft

1. Jump around – Ideas for scenes don’t usual come in a logical linear order. Don’t let ideas pass you by because they doesn’t happen in the scene you’re working on. Get into it. Write the ending. Write some dialogue that you have no idea where to put yet. I like to use red text to write in a general idea of what I think will happen in the places I skip, so when the idea for something I skipped in chapter one, because I was writing the ending, finally comes to me, I have a quick visual cue telling me exactly where I want to start.

2. Push through – Getting the words and ideas down on the page is the most important part of finishing your draft. Even if the words aren’t feeling quite write, or flowing the way you would like, keep going until you finish the scene, or get to the end of the idea. Don’t give up. Don’t get frustrated. The rewrite is when you get to drive yourself nuts striving for perfection.

3. Be Patient – Though it is good to push through when you have an idea, but it doesn’t seem to  flow the way you’d like, you don’t want to force things. When I want to finish a project, but it’s coming along more slowly than I would like, I often here the mean voice in my head speak up with things like, “I don’t even like this anyway,” or, “Nobody’s going to read this. What’s the point.” That is when I am very grateful I have a supportive friend who says, “Be patient with yourself” and “Tomorrow’s another day.” Some ideas just want more time than others, so be patient.

4. Ask for Help – Any story can be improved by some good research. Reading and looking things up on the internet can add a lot of fuel for ideas, but can also be a time suck leading you down a rabbit hole that somehow ends in useless celebrity gossip. When you really get stuck for story inspiration, ask for help. Think of someone you know who might know more than you do about a certain topic and give them a call. It’s a great break from writing and people really like being appreciated for their expertise. I’m always happily surprised by the solutions people come up with that I didn’t think of.

5. Focus on One Piece at a Time – When you have most of your story on the page, but it’s time to put all the pieces together and get rid of all the red skipped sections, yes, read through, thinking about everything that you have left to finish, but then just focus on one of those sections at a time. Listing everything you have left to do can be overwhelming and make you want to put it aside and do something else. Don’t. Just pick one scene you have left to finish and start with any writing technique that gets you writing. I like to start with dialogue: You may like to describe a setting or a character to get you into the scene. Often times, the little skipped parts in your draft only need a paragraph or two to tie things together, but once you get started, something that once seemed sticky as tar may flow like a river.

Getting Words on the Page – Three Tools to Increase Productivity

How fun is this

The Plot-o-Matic and Dialog warm-up in Morning Pages

It’s almost time for me to print out the rough draft of my novel, to read through the whole thing with fresh eyes, as if I just brought it home from the bookstore. But first, I have a few more goals to accomplish: I WILL finish reading Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (I was born at exactly midnight and I enjoyed many of his other books, so I thought it would be a fun read when I bought it at the airport about five years ago. It seems no matter how much I read, I’m only half-way through.) and I WILL finish the draft of my mid-grade fiction story and make a mock-up of my picture book. I’m pretty close on all of these goals so I’ve given myself (and now you can hold me to it) until the end of the July 4th weekend to finish (these goals) before the big first-draft read.

In the meantime, I thought I would share some writing tools that helped me get all my words to the page:

  1. Morning Pages – as recommended by Julia Cameron author of many inspirational books including the Complete Artists Way where I first discovered morning pages.
  2. The Plot-o-Matic – a rendition of PLOTTOMATIC! introduced by John Dufresne in his intelligent and useful book on writing, Is Life Like This?: A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months.
  3. Dialogue Warm-up – a way that I get my writing going when my plan for the day escapes me. When I run out of things to say, I let my characters start up a conversation and watch where it goes.

Writing every day has not been easy for me, but I’m pretty close now. Throughout my journey to (almost) writing every day, I read everything in my local library on writing and everything recommended to me, plus a lot more. Only a few things really stuck with me and, through some development, still work for me.

Everyone has different amounts of time they can commit to their writing and most have to SQUEEZE it into their hectic lives (and family tithes). Making time for your passion makes you better for all the other people in your life, so that is why I want to emphasize . . .

  1. Morning Pages – Get up twenty minutes early if you have to. It will be totally worth it. Find three lined 8.5 X 11 sheets of paper. I use a thick college ruled notebook (I’m addicted to kukumusu designs, but they’re expensive and my super-favorite is already out of print, so I buy a bunch at a time). Start writing. Do not get dressed. Maybe make a pot of tea or coffee, but then – Start writing. Do not get up and do the things you remind yourself to do while you’re writing. Do not lift pen from paper. Write everything that comes to mind even if it is “I can’t think of anything” then “I’m spacing off”, etc. Keep writing until you fill all three pages. No excuses. No I have to’s.

Staying at the page for all three pages is much more difficult than I ever expected. I’ve worked with morning pages for years and looking back at my filled journals, there was very little written, but paragraphs of things done and things to do, with either woeful disappointments in not accomplishing these lists, or motivational speeches to myself of how I would accomplish these lists. After a while, however, I noticed if I did my morning pages those thoughts wouldn’t nag at me when I took a walk, or when I tried to meditate. I had more room for creative thought. More recently, I’ve started spending only the first page on those should do’s and the other two pages on character development and story ideas. These days most of my writing for the day is retyping my Morning Pages. I took a long time to get here, but if you have a story burning inside you, but can’t find time to write, set that alarm twenty minutes earlier than normal and give Morning Pages a try.

What about those days when even your morning pages won’t get you where you want to go? You feel dry of ideas, you want someone to just hand you a character, a conflict, or your character’s next step. Try the . . .

    1. Plot-o-Matic – I loved reading Dufresne’s book, Is Life Like This?: A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months and I will bring it up more when I work through my rewrite. A plot-o-matic is easy to make. I made a Word document with large print, bold type, centered in 3” X 2” rectangles. I printed the subjects – Dufresne used occupations and I added character descriptions like “Conspiracy Junky” and “Disco Dancer”- on green cardstock, the needs or wants of those subjects on yellow cardstock, and an action the character took on blue cardstock. I cut out the different colored “cards” and turned them upside down so I couldn’t see what my options were and chose one of each. If you take a look at the picture at the top of this post you’ll see I drew “A conspiracy junky wants to rescue kittens, so he listens at the wall as the neighbors argue” Fun right? Why rescue kittens? What conspiracy could the neighbors be part of? Are they the neighbors’ kittens? This tool can be great for story ideas, but you can also customize it to help you decide what your characters will do next. Limit the subject pile to only include your characters and choose wants and actions until you feel inspired. Remember to write at least five minutes for every combination you choose. Exploring what you don’t think will happen can be even more exciting than what you thought you were looking for.

If you don’t want to make a plot-o-matic, there are similar products you can buy:
The Storymatic Classic – 540 Unique Cards
Rememory – Share Memories and Make New Ones
Story Slam – Hundreds of cards with more than 600 unique story concepts, for endless storytelling fun.
The Amazing Story Generator: Creates Thousands of Writing Prompts

And finally, my personal trick that gets my mental juices flowing when I’m not quite sure what to write about . . .

  1. Dialogue warm-up – Discovering dialogue as a way to get my juices flowing was a major step to finishing the draft of my novel. The way it works for me is: I’ll imagine I’m speaking from one of my character’s point of view. Who does she want to talk to today? Who might she run into in the scene I’m thinking about? Who do I picture when I write, “Oh, wow, didn’t expect to see you here.” I let their conversation flow. While I write, I picture their motivations, what they are saying and not saying, who they might talk about. Where are they as they converse? Are they in public? Does another person join them? By the time I have finished writing a short conversation, I often have my next scene in my head, even if I never use the conversation in a finished piece, somehow my characters tell me what I need to know. Try it. Let the conversation flow. It’s fun. Big Tip: Don’t worry about dialog punctuation, or he said she said while you’re getting it out in these dialogue warm-ups. Only pay attention to starting a new paragraph for each new person speaking and adding physical descriptions of vocal or body language nuances that seem important. Be in the moment. You can put in all the other stuff when the conversation is over.

I hope at least one of these tools that work for me helps you find what works for you. The only way to know what works, and doesn’t work, is to physically put pen to paper in ways you haven’t tried yet. The job is only a little bit thinkin’ about it and a whole lot of writing it down.

I would love to hear some of the things you’ve discovered to keep pen to page. Please share your tips in the comments.

Exploring the Senses – Finale: Using sensory information in your writing

image from asiadesignwithpurpose.com

image from asiadesignwithpurpose.com

Through this series on exploring the senses we (you and I) have explored all the major senses and more. We’ve experimented with how sensual stimuli trigger memories that can inspire writing and played with different ways to add sensory detail to our writing. Now, I want to talk about when and how to use this lush sensory information we’ve discovered.

While writing your first draft, feel free to write all of the sensory details for everyone and everything. During the rewrite however, it’s important to ask yourself: Did I add this detail because it tells the reader something important about the character, because it is an important element of the story, or just because I thought it was cool? If the honest answer is the last one, take it out. Even if you came up with the greatest way to describe the color of the sky or the smell of water, if the sensory detail is not important to telling the story, take it out. Don’t let this statement turn you away from sensory detail in any way. Most sensory details add depth to your characters and dimensionality to your settings. I solely wish to remind you to be aware of your readers. When you bring sights, sounds and smells to a reader’s attention, s/he will expect them to have importance and be let down if they don’t.

Unexpected sights: The little bunny and its surroundings looked normal at first, but upon closer examination the bunny was really a swirl of white dots, as if I could see its cells magnified in space.

Unexpected sights: The little bunny and its surroundings looked normal at first, but upon closer examination the bunny was really a swirl of white dots, as if I could see its cells magnified in space.

Creative mismatching of sensory detail is a quick cue to readers that they aren’t in Kansas anymore. A pink sky over yellow water that smells of asparagus is an instant cue that the reader is not on the earth s/he is familiar with.

Exercise: Create as many sensory mismatches as you can in 5 minutes. Use your favorite ones to imagine a place where this sensory information exists (i.e. another dimension, another planet, the center of the earth, an undiscovered land at the bottom of the ocean, under the melting ice caps, inside a future space station, etc.). Write a scene about a person experiencing this place for the first time using the sensory details you’ve created.

Inspiration from exercise: After staring at the bunny circles until it made me dizzy, I looked down, but down was no longer an option. I was separating into colorful cells, worlds within worlds orbiting each other. How did I still have my consciousness?

Inspiration from exercise: After staring at the bunny circles until it made me dizzy, I looked down, but down was no longer an option. I no longer had form. My cells now danced, worlds within worlds orbiting each other. How did I still recognize my consciousness?

I’ve enjoyed exploring the senses with you. Don’t forget to stop and smell the bad smells as well as the roses, and describe them in all their malodorous glory.

Over the next few months I’ll be working on the first rewrite of my current novel. As I work, I look forward to sharing my discoveries: what works, what doesn’t work, trials, tribulations and epiphanies. Please share your tips, tricks, suggestions, or questions along the way.

Exploring the Senses – The Sixth Sense

Playing ghost hunter on Halloween night. Ghost floutist or submarine?

Playing ghost hunter on Halloween night. Ghost flutist or submarine?

next shot no flute

The next picture zoomed in on same spot. The ghostly image is gone.

Though everyone agrees on the five major senses, neurologists and perception researchers believe there are more. Some think the main senses should be broken into  sub-genres. Others believe we have many sensory cell types leading to other senses including: balance, pain, temperature, time, body part location, and sensing internal organs. However, when we talk about the sixth sense, none of these other senses come to mind. The sixth sense is commonly understood as a blanket term for how we perceive everything that is considered paranormal (not scientifically explainable).

Writing about the sixth sense can put your story into the horror or fantasy genre, or it can add depth to a character. A character who believes she has psychic abilities can be odd, crazy, or in tune with things others cannot see depending on how the writer presents the sixth sense.

Exercise: What kind of psychic power do you wish you had? Choose one (mind reading, seeing the future, telekinesis, etc.) and write about a character who has it, or having it yourself. Is it a positive or negative experience? Are you able to use it to help others, or is it a torturous burden? How would this insight or ability change how you relate to others? Write for five or ten minutes.

Example: When we did this exercise in writing group I chose a clairvoyant who sees the future in her dreams. This is an expanded version of what I wrote in group.

Unless she passed out drunk, she always left her computer on playing reruns of television shows on repeat. The song at the end of each episode would wake her up just long enough to kick her out of REM sleep. It was the only way she knew to avoid the dreams. She had been doing it for over eight years and was sick of it. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before, she thought, as she turned off the computer.

After a few vivid demonic visages that almost convinced her she wanted to watch a comedy-mystery for the 10,000th time, she slept. The nightmarish images came in full color. It was a hot sunny day made nice by a breeze. She and Miss Opal sat at a café having a pleasant catch up chat when the bomb was thrown from a moped speeding by. The scene happened in slow motion: her head turning, the white helmet with the black reflective visor moving toward them, the brown paper package coming into view just as it was thrown. She hated the ominous seconds that felt like a lifetime in which the viewer wants to do something, but cannot move. She watched as her friends and neighbors blew apart, heard their screams and smelled their burning flesh.

The room was dark and quiet. The clock read 4:10 am. She wasn’t sitting up, crying or sweating. She was more angry than sad. Just because she had been talking to her dead friend Miss Opal didn’t mean the bombing would happen in New Orleans. It didn’t mean it would happen at all. She wouldn’t tell anyone or watch the news. Knowing never helped her help anyone, not even herself.

Let your imagination run wild. Explore more than one idea of the sixth sense. Is psychic ability a spiritual issue for you? Does the idea of a sixth sense bring up death and afterlife philosophies, or is it pure fantasy wish fulfillment?

Exploring the Senses – Touch

Touching Ostrich Feathers in a Brown Paper Bag

Touching Ostrich Feathers in a Brown Paper Bag (make sure you can’t see what you’re touching to do the exercise we did)

Touch is a sense most of us take for granted – until we’re lying on satin sheets, or picking glass and gravel out of a knee – but  touch is sensed through the skin which is the largest organ of our human bodies. The sense of touch is based on detection of mechanical energy, or pressure against the skin. Touch, like taste, can include sensing temperature and pain; these receptors also exist in the skin and can be perceived simultaneously. In our writing, texture can bring dimension to an object and a scene. I hope through this exercise you will find that touch, like the other senses, can also bring up memories and vivid images. Let your characters touch the textures that fascinate you. How do they feel? How do they react?

Exercise – Each member of writing group brought a mystery object in a paper bag. We each reached into each bag, exploring with only our fingers and wrote down everything that came to mind.

My responses:

  1. Wet. A large alien eyeball. Birds dropping pits on the deck. A warm summer day enjoying the ability to pick my lunch from the garden. Sticky hands and face from popsicles. Running after the ice cream man. Red white and blue rocket pops. Item: peeled plum.
  2. I was never good at ice skating. My weak ankles would wobble from side to side. I enjoyed floor hockey. The side texture (of the object) made me think of tines. I remember playing air hockey at the skating rink. I really liked the feel of the cool air coming up from the table. Item: a hockey puck.
  3. Soft edges on a crusty spine. I remember going to the peacock farm with my mom when I was little, so she could pick up some long colorful plumes for her huge ceramic vase in the living room. It reminds me of the hundreds of metal loops I clamped feathers into after carefully bending each feather with pliers for the huge shoulder harnesses to be worn at the Mardi Gras balls. Item: ostrich feather.

Unlike taste, touch was again quick to conjure vivid images and memories. I found it easy to identify what was in the bags without looking and had stories to tell triggered by the objects. My response to the peeled plum could read as a little poem to summer present and past (Maybe minus the alien eyeball. Guess it depends if I meet any aliens and get to touch their eyeballs this summer).

I look forward to reading your experiences with this exercise. Remember, your skin is your largest sensory organ with areas of different levels of sensitivity. Our hands and fingers may be the most sensitive and dexterous, but rolling around in the grass, or going for a swim could be a great place to start exploring your sense of touch.

Exploring the Senses – Taste

Tasting sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory

Tasting sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory

Smell and taste are frequently stimulated together. The smell of food, for instance, greatly enhances its flavor. However, taste is a distinct sense from smell and should not be overlooked when describing your characters’ sensory perceptions. There are five well recognized types of taste receptors. These sensations are categorized as sweet, bitter, salty, sour and savory (often referred to with the Japanese word Umami). While exploring taste, I recommend finding ways to experience all five even though some of the taste sensations are not completely pleasant.

Exercise One: Gather things to taste that will activate all of the areas of your tongue. Also try some different textures. I tried soy sauce (Savory/Umami), lemon juice (sour), Agave nectar (sweet), Tonic water (bitter), pita chips (salty and crunchy) and plain Greek yoghurt for a smooth texture. Spend time moving each taste around your mouth and write down everything that comes to mind.

My example (Remember these are just notes. Forgive the incomplete sentences.):

Lemon Juice – More of a restrictive feeling on the tongue than a flavor, first on the right side then strongly at the back of the tongue. It stays in my throat and then I can feel it at the back of my sinuses.

Liquid Aminos (like soy sauce) – I feel it in the center top of my tongue. It is salty, but not from salt. It tastes brown like bear fur or the soft bark of a rotting tree.

Pita chips – do not taste as salty as the Liquid Aminos. The crunch is satisfying, makes me feel contented. My teeth feel sturdy and powerful. The bread flavor lingers as the crumbs liquefy and my tongue removes the leftovers from the bowls of my molars.

Tonic Water – Leaves a sour aftertaste at the top back of my mouth. All it is is sour aftertaste. It grabs the front of my tongue, but the bubbles carry it quickly to the top of my mouth where it lingers.

Agave Nectar – has a bit of a thick brown Molasses flavor though it is supposed to be the light neutral flavor. I don’t like it. I stick out my tongue and say “Eh.”

Greek yoghurt – It is cool on the tip and top of my tongue. Sour in aftertaste. A little vanilla or sweet at first. I feel the tang right at the top center of my mouth. I enjoy moving the thick silky texture around my mouth which I find odd because I hate the texture of pudding and it is very similar.

I was surprised that my notes were mostly physical descriptions of the feelings in my mouth. I did come up with a little bit of imagery that may be useful in my writing. I think I’ll try this exercise again sometime in the future with fruits and vegetables and also with a meal.

physical sensations on the tongue

physical sensations on the tongue

Exercise Two: With your new insights and sensory awareness from exercise one, take your main character out to dinner. What is his or her favorite food or restaurant? Why? What foods, smells and textures does he or she hate? Why? Once you get to your table start taking notes. How does your character make menu choices? Did s/he know what to get before arrival, or are menu decisions difficult? When the food arrives try to perceive everything about the meal as your character. Remember that the smell, texture and taste are all part of the taste sensation. Take notes of everything that comes to mind. If you invite people to join you and your protagonist on your taste adventure, make sure to clue them in to what you’re doing. You wouldn’t want them to think you were being rude to them, taking notes about them, or just plain crazy.

Exploring the Senses – Olfaction: The Sense of Smell

The sense of smell triggers emotional memories

The sense of smell triggers emotional memories

The sense of smell, more than any of the other senses, can trigger strong emotional memories. The olfactory system is physically wired for it. Unlike the other sensory pathways, the olfactory bulb has a direct connection to the amygdala (emotion) and hippocampus (memory consolidation). When you want to trigger your fictional character’s memory, you may want to figure out why s/he likes, or dislikes certain smells.

Preparing to explore the sense of smell was an exercise in itself. In the search for smells to trigger memories, I went scavenging at my childhood home. I started in the kitchen, looked around my old room, but hit serious pay dirt in my sister’s and my bathroom. I found small bottles of perfume I had received as gifts, lotion, an empty bottle of shampoo that still had a strong smell, and other forgotten stinky treasures. This adventure to my childhood home on the hunt for scents inspired a piece of writing before even doing the exercise.

Smells Like Home

She looked around the cold, empty kitchen. She wanted to make it feel like home again; warm and inviting as if they were all together staring at the TV in a tired, after school daze. She chose the French vanilla coffee from the ten different bags, in variable stages of use, in the freezer and started the pot. Her mother didn’t drink coffee and her dad drank instant. Did he drink instant because making coffee was woman’s work, or did he never bother to figure out the coffee pot? She didn’t know the answer. The only time there was coffee in the pot was for special occasions. Though her coffee was dripping in a regular plastic coffee pot, the sound of the coffee brewing reminded her of the tall silver percolator her mother set on the counter for every social gathering. She smelled the familiar earthy musk mixed with sweet and nutty aromas and she imagined everyone squeezing into the kitchen to help prepare the huge family meal. She thought of the Christmas get together with the lively white elephant gift exchange and smiled.

She went to the refrigerator and pulled out the huge block of orange medium cheddar which her mother always kept in the clear center drawer. The bread was on top of the fridge, though not in the stack of bowls like it used to be. They didn’t have the wonderful, hazelnut bread for her today, so wheat would have to do. She buttered the bread and started to slice the cheese. Remembering her mission to explore the smells of her youth, she held the slice up to her nose. Instantly, she pictured the cat that had been so crazy about cheese you could get him to walk on his hind legs and turn in a circle if you held cheese over him. He would be in the kitchen meowing loudly before you could even get the cheese out of the plastic wrap. He was the only one of Tatiana’s kittens they kept. What was his name? The smell of cheese didn’t bring that back. What a strange thing to forget.

Exercise: Gather a large selection of smelly objects that may trigger memories (I tried a sampling of gum and candy from my childhood along with the things I found in my childhood home). Don’t just look for good smells try some bad ones as well (I tried Witch Hazel, Noxema, and stinky perfume. Be creative. Try everything you can think of). In a group, smell the different objects and write down everything that comes to mind. Pick one smell that affected you the most and write about it for 5 minutes.

My example:

I had heard Ivory soap was invented to float, so I picked up a bar to clean myself in the lake while my septic was backed up—again. This was the second time in three years and when it happened the first time, I’d been without water for three months. At least this time it was warm. I got up before light and ripped open the plastic coated paper wrapper. The strong smell of the freshly opened bar of soap reminded me of the upstairs bathroom in my grandfather’s house. Specifically sitting and reading the wallpaper that looked like pages from a catalog from the old west. I remember the brown drawings of high button boots and a wood stove with prices a child collecting her pennies could afford. I don’t remember using Ivory soap during my annual week long summer visits. The soaps in the dish were small and shaped like flowers, but this was the smell of that bathroom. I decided I didn’t want to smell like grandpa’s bathroom. I didn’t care if the soap sank to the bottom of the lake. I hunted around the cupboard beneath the sink and found some old body wash. It was probably more environmentally friendly anyway.

I hope you try this exercise and enjoy exploring sensory description. I’d love to hear from you. Please leave comments and suggestions. Thank you.

Exploring the senses – Hearing

Auditory stimuli have the ability to trigger physical reactions. The calming sound of rolling waves, or the alarming jolt caused by a popped balloon can influence how we act and feel. Sounds, especially music, can also trigger memories.

Exercise: To explore hearing, each member of writing group brought a song to listen to. As we listened, we jotted down all of the thoughts that came to mind for the duration of the length of the song. I found that each song triggered personal memories and vivid imagery.

As with all of the sensory writing exercises I’ll describe, the results are twofold:

1. Sound triggers memories and writing ideas.

2. The exercise brings attention to how one’s fictional characters may react to sounds and music based on their histories and circumstances (perceptions).

Describing sounds, how they are perceived and their physical and emotional effects on the characters will add realism and depth to your writing.

Examples of my responses:

St. James Infirmary by Alan Toussaint

Railroad tracks

Otis playing piano in N.O. w/Kathleen on stand-up

I expect to hear Tom Waits start singing at any moment

The piano in that horrible apartment which I almost never played

La Belle Dame Sans Regrets by Sting

Ballroom classes at that weird dance studio in Metairie where I first met Bridget

The black and white checkerboard floor and the floor to ceiling mirrors in the middle of an empty club

Helping teach ballroom at Ruby Fruit Jungle

Drinking a tiny strong coffee at a café in Paris

The drawing Spencer did of his cousin Marie

The program from a Sting concert I thumbtacked to my wall over my desk

Like a Virgin by Madonna

Going to the record store with my gift certificate for winning the talent show and Mom making the clerk play every song on the Air Supply album, then saying it was too suggestive and making me get M.J.’s Thriller instead.

Buying Madonna’s tape from a friend at church because Mom wouldn’t let me get it

I hope this exercise triggers all sorts of ideas for you. I’d love to hear some of them. Also, if you have other sensory exercises you have found useful, please send them along. I love trying new things.