Bringing senses to your writing

For a long time my iPod has languished with its battery flat. Poor little thing, it’s about 6 years old and has loads of music on it that I love. When I recently recharged it, I was struck by the power of the music I’d chosen to download and the memories it stirred up. For example, when Poppiholla by Chicane came on I was immediately back to mile 10 of the Great North Run in 2009. I remembered the feeling of exhaustion but elation as I realised just how far I’d come (and also how far I still had to go!). Beyonce’s Sweet Dreams reminds me of a friend and I trying to do the dance that goes with it – that’s another story!

But that got me thinking of the impact of your senses. Usually, for me, smell is my strongest sense. Different scents remind me immediately of past experiences and places. For example the smell of the sea always makes me feel warm and happy, regardless of the weather at the time. I suppose it takes me back to happy childhood memories of playing on the beach in the sun. Once you start adding this kind of detail it really brings your writing to life.

I recently wrote a scene in a hospice and having visited one (only in a professional capacity, thankfully) I know how quiet they are. Considering that they are places where people spend their last days, they’re never sad. Instead they’re places of peace and tranquillity and give off a sense of comfort.  I focused on using the silence to convey the compassionate and peaceful atmosphere there, which was something my character was desperate for. The silence of the place was more important than particularly what it looks like.

So, when you visit places with the intention of using them as locations for a piece of fiction, make sure you don’t just look at things and take photographs. Take recordings of how the streets sound. Make a note of what you can smell. As soon as you put this level of detail into your work, you immediately get credit from your readers because they know you’ve seen what you’re describing, that you’ve been there. It transports them to the place and gives them a better experience. Don’t be afraid to bring your senses into play because it’ll really bring your work to life.

As ever, I love hearing your comments. Which of your senses do you find to be the strongest? How do you bring touch, taste, smell, sound and sight into your writing?

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