Monday, April 5, 2010

Beyond the Usual Five

Cricket McRae
A few years ago I enrolled in a Certificate Program for Advanced Fiction Writers at the University of Washington. It was one of the best things I've ever done for my writing, and it garnered me a kickass critique group to boot. The year-long program was taught by Marjorie Reynolds, author of The Starlight Drive-In, and now a good friend.

Marjorie had a bit of thing about smells, though. As in, every time she'd hand one of my pieces back to me, at least one page would have the notation, "smells?" in the margin. It wasn't just me. It happened to everyone. By the end of classes we all had smells in our novels. Lots of them. And flavors and sounds and sights and texture galore.

Of course, sensory detail in our writing draws the reader in, affords depth to settings and characters and concretizes the story. We knew this, but perhaps didn't employ the full range of senses that we could. And Marjorie was certainly right that smell -- the most primitive of all -- can be the most evocative.

Later, at a nature-writing workshop, participants brainstormed about other senses that went beyond the usual five. And boy, did we come up with an interesting list. I've been adding to it since then, and often use it as a jumping off point for a particular writing exercise in my own workshops.

Here are a few additional "senses" that can add atmosphere, attitude, and depth to fiction and nonfiction alike. Most use the usual sensory organs, but not all.
  • Sense of vibration
  • Sense of multitudinousness
  • Sense of enclosure -- can be comfortable or claustrophobic
  • Humidity
  • Feeling of lift/fall (as in an elevator)
  • Dizziness and/or vertigo
  • Speed
  • Gravity
  • Balance
  • Echolocation
  • Sick-building syndrome
  • Flight sensation
  • Air pressure (e.g. ears popping on a plane)
  • Numbness (e.g. the effect of clove oil)
  • Temperature
  • Light and dark
  • Presence of another
  • Sense of being watched
  • Subsonic vibration (e.g. dog whistle)
  • Depth perception
  • Texture (may be felt, seen, heard or all)
  • Feeling like you're still moving after getting out of a car
  • Barometric pressure
I'd love to learn about more of these secondary senses and add them to my list. Any suggestions?

Before signing off I want to add that I've waited to announce my new blog, Hearth Cricket, on Inkspot until I had enough posts to give readers a good idea of what it's like. Less practical writing advice, and more musings about writing and the things I write about -- domestic arts, recipes, gardening, local and seasonal eating, fiber art, etc. If that piques your interest, stop on by.


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Great tips! I'm tweeting this one...


Alan Orloff said...

I like your list of additional "senses." I'm usually bad about putting touchy-feely stuff (or touchy-smelly stuff) in the first drafts. By the end, though, I usually put in some kind of reference to something's "putrid stench."

I like your new blog, too. Who doesn't like eating, local, seasonal, or otherwise?

Deborah Sharp said...

great advice on senses in our writing, Cricket. And congrats on the blog ... I know you'll be a hit!

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Great advice! I'm like Alan. Usually the sensory stuff is added in rewrites to add needed texture and depth. But without them, a manuscript falls flat.

Cricket McRae said...

Thanks, Elizabeth and Deb!

Alan, I've appreciated you coming by Hearth Cricket. Thanks for not making any reference to "putrid stench" in the comments.

Sue Ann and Alan -- I do the same thing, making what I call a sensory pass in the rewrite stage to make sure I'm grounding the reader.

M Pax said...

That is a great list and a great idea.

Darrell James said...

I feel like I've seen the cat somewhere before... Oooops, there's another one... déjà vu! Thanks for the list Cricket. It will come in handy.

Cricket McRae said...

Hope the list proves useful, M Pax.

Darrell, am I missing something about that cat photo? It was easy to find, so no doubt is sprinkled here and there on the Internet.

Kathleen Ernst said...

What an interesting idea! I work hard on sensory details, but I'd never thought of going further than the usual suspects. (hee hee). Thanks for the tips.

Cricket McRae said...

You're welcome, Kathleen. Have fun!

Er, of course deja vu is a good addition to the list, Darrell. How 'bout I tack on muzzy-headedness from lack of caffeine, too?

Shel said...

Cricket, I actually found Hearth Cricket first, and then Inkspot from there! How's that for backwards?