Writing That Makes Sense – Part Six — the Mystery Sense

What Lies InsideThe last post on this topic is the one that has taken the most time for me to write. (Obviously, since there is such a long break in the postings!)

The Mystery Sense is, for me, the one that involves the heart. It’s one that makes us sigh when we read a beautiful piece of prose, or laugh out loud when the character’s voice rings so true that we are right there with them as they sail through their adventures.

I am currently reading DEAD END IN NORVELT, by Jack Gantos. This writer has the mystery sense dead to rights. Fell in love with the voice right from the start. The moment when I lost my heart to this novel was when Jack was standing on a picnic table about three miles away from the drive in movie theater, watching a WW II movie with his father’s old war binoculars. His mother catches him playing with the war souvenirs and scolds him…and then literary magic happens…

“Jack!” my mom called, and reached forward to poke my kneecap. “Jack! Are you listening? Come into the house soon. You’ll have to get to bed early now that you have morning plans.”

“Okay,” I said, and felt my fun evening leap off a cliff and she walked back toward the kitchen door. I knew she was still soaking the dishes in the sink so I had a little more time. Once she was out of sight I turned back to what I had been planning all along. I lifted the binoculars and focused in on the movie screen. The Japanese hadn’t quite finished off al the marines and I figured I’d be a marine too and help defend them. I knew we wouldn’t be fighting the Japanese anymore because they were now our friends, but it was good to use movie enemies for target practice because Dad said I had to get ready to fight off the Russian Commies who had already sneaking into the country and were planning to launch a surprise attack. I put down the binoculars and removed the ammo clip on the sniper rifle then aimed it toward the screen where I could just make out the small images. There was no scope on the rifle so I had to use the regular sight — the kind where you lined up a little metal ball not the far end of the barrel with the V-notch above the trigger where you pressed your cheek and eye to the cool wooden stock. The rifle weighted a ton. I hoisted it up and tried to aim at the movie screen, but the barrel shook back and forth so wildly I couldn’t get the ball to line up inside the V. I lowered the rifle and took a deep breath. I knew I didn’t have all night to play because of Mom, so I gave it another try and the Japanese made their final “Banzai!” assault.

I lifted the rifle again andwhen I saw a tiny Japanese soldier leap out of a bush I quickly pulled the trigger and let him have it.” — DEAD END IN NOVELT, Jack Gantos, 2011 Farrar Straus Giroux

And, you guessed it, there was a round still in the firing chamber. And then an ambulance pulls up to the next door neighbor’s house and Jack is sure he’s killed her. Did he? Go read the book — you’ll love it.

Why I fell in love with Jack has something to do with the fact that he reminded me of a favorite great-uncle who, as a child about Jack’s age, once blew out the windows on the undertaker’s barn with a homemade cannon. More importantly, however, it also had to do with how the writer has drawn Jack’s thought processes. He has not only shown us how Jack misbehaves and justifies his actions, but he provides the means for us to LIVE it as we read.

So how on earth does a writer draw what is in the character’s heart? The answer, sadly enough, is not found in Diane Ackerman’s wonderful book, A Natural History of the Senses, the book I used as a text for my class Writing That Makes Sense. She covers, Hearing, Smell, Sight, Touch, and Taste with abandon, but this last sense deserves to get the same coverage.

How to make your Point Of View character’s heart shine through?

1) Know your character. Backwards, forwards — and everything in between. Do a character sketch. Interview them. Have a conversation with them. Take them on trips (Grocery store: do they have a routine there? Are they OCD — or hopelessly forgetful when it comes to getting home with everything on their list? Going to bed routine: Do they brush their teeth while looking in the mirror or while sorting their mail?)

2) Discover their speech pattern. Do they have a trademark phrase that can tell the reader when they’re truly upset, startled, sad, angry? Winnie the Pooh uses “Oh, bother!” Jack’s is “Cheeze-us-crust!” Instructive difference between Pooh and Jack.

3) Look at your sentence structure. Long sentences usually mean slower action. Short sentences make the reader’s eye go faster. (I know. With Jack’s story, it’s the tumbling longevity of the sentence with so many thoughts pressed in between punctuation that makes for the hectic pace. He’s broken the rule. Once writers know the rules and can follow them, then and only then can they effectively break them and make it work.)

4) How do other character’s react to your Point of View character? Are they fully realized? Did you do steps 1 – 3 with them? You should with your main characters. (Just make sure that you don’t give too much air time to those characters who are so minor they don’t even have last names.)

5) Are you using speech tags to demonstrate emotions rather than having your action or dialogue convey that to the reader? Not a good idea. (An exercise you can use it to completely remove the tags from your dialogue and see if A. Can you tell who spoke and B. Does the dialogue convey the sense of emotion and the message you wanted to get across.)

6) How do you feel while writing the passage? A difficult scene may also be difficult to write. I’ve cried while writing scenes where the character feels despair and laughed out loud when the character has a good moment. This does not guarantee that the writing will convey what you want it to convey to a reader, but it’s a clue that you are headed in the right direction.

7) Do your word choices match the tone you want to convey? Do you use slithery, slimy, and slumpy words in a scene that is supposed to be about heartbreak? You might want to rethink. The disconnect between the words you use and the emotion you wish to evoke may sabotage your work. Contrast is one thing. (Think Irony or Sarcasm.) But having words come out of left field is another thing altogether.

8) Journal. I know. This is out of left field. Or is it? When you are in the grips of a particular emotion and journal about it, you are far more likely to capture the language of that emotion — and then you have a reference to use for your own writing.

9) Make lists. One of the exercises we did in my class was to come up with lists of verbs, nouns and adjectives associated with the different emotions. Corny, but effective. Once we had the lists it isn’t so much about going back and pulling Word 3 or Word 14 from the list like interchangeable cogs. It is more like recognizing and internalizing the vocabulary of the heart.

10) Practice. Yeah. I know. This one goes for all writing.

11) Read. There are some outstanding books out there — study them. Take your favorite stories apart and see how the author got you to buy in so completely that you were swept away.

Happy Writing.

Writing that Makes Sense – Part 5 – Taste

Where better than a coffee shop to write about the sense of taste? Well — perhaps a bakery, or French Cafe, or ice-cream shop — but here I am and here I will stay until I complete my word count for the day.

Taste and Smell intertwine to the point where you literally cannot taste without being able to smell. A lovely friend, Barbara Burnett Smith, author of the Purple Sage mystery series, lost her sense of smell and said that things that used to excite her to eat lost much of their flavor. If you lose your appetite when you have a cold, it could be because you’ve lost the ability to smell just how wonderful your mom’s chicken soup is.

So, Taste. What about the very thought of putting luscious berries, velvety chocolate, and grill-seared steak on the tongue makes us salivate? It’s the memory of the taste involved — and the social surroundings in which we experienced those tastes. While many of us adore chocolate, some find the taste bitter or remember well the migraine brought on by the midnight-dark chocolate they thought to enjoy. Each person brings their own memories to your pages, so the mention of something that evokes Taste can elicit very different responses from each reader.

According to the Thinkquest website the sense of Taste is the weakest of the senses. I personally disagree, but perhaps that is because so many of my social gatherings involve food preparation and the enjoyment of sharing our baking and cooking with friends and family. Those memories put the sense of taste up a notch in my mind.

While insects can taste with their feet(!), we humans have to rely on our mouths. Over 100,000 taste buds cover our tongues, sending signals to our brain to let us know what’s on the menu. When I was young, I wouldn’t touch green beans with a ten foot pole, insisting that I was allergic to them. I may not have been allergic, but I may well have been reacting to the strong taste of the vegetable. When we’re born, we have taste buds on the roof of our mouth as well as our tongues, leading us to be “surrounded” by the taste of whatever we’ve taken a bite of. Thus, the fact that I now eat beans with great enjoyment isn’t because of a medical breakthrough, but because I’ve lost some of my taste buds along life’s highway. My Uncle Ed, 96 years young, but with a failing appetite, loves his sweets. The sweet receptors are the last to go, so keep ice cream on the shopping list!

Salt and Sweet receptors reside on the tip of your tongue, leading those to be the first Taste you sense. Bitter is at the back of the tongue — perhaps the source of the term aftertaste? Sour resides at the sides. The middle of the tongue is pretty barren for receptors, so that’s where I’d put any pills before that great gulp of water washes them down the hatch.

Some taste vocab: Creamy, Delicious, Oily, Bland, Disgusting, Sweet, Sour, Spicy, Light, Heavy, Sinful, Horrid, Metallic…and so forth.

Happy writing — and tasting!

Writing that Makes Sense — Part 4 – Touch

Touchy Feely, that’s me. I love to plant things in my garden that have tactile attributes, so you’d think that putting things like this into my writing would be easy. Velvety soft lamb’s ear, the smooth crisp sides of the aloe vera, spikes and shoots of the red yucca. But it isn’t always that simple.

Let me start be looking at TOUCH and how our bodies interpret it. All objects have texture, be it the mustache on a dashing hero’s face to the feel of a breeze lifting the short hairs along your arm. In a way, it’s friction, or tactile tension, that you are feeling.

TOUCH is a complicated combination of the ability to sense heat, pain, mechanical pressure, and texture. We define TOUCH through the largest organ in our bodies, our skin. TOUCH includes more than just what you skim your fingers over, it includes your entire body. Some label TOUCH the somatic sense, because it includes the sensations produced by movement, both of objects around your body and the movement of your body itself.

While I’ve discussed in my previous posts on Writing that Makes Sense including language to express the different senses, I have not yet touched (sorry!) on what sensory detail can do for your character building. Each person has touch sensations that stimulate some sort of happy — or not so happy memory. This means that your reader comes with certain expectations of what each sensation of touch means to them. Your characters should as well.
One of my favorite plants is the fuchsia bougenvilla, a plant that thrives on the hot west wall of my garage — and which has long thorns hidden among its leaves. I’d never given that a second thought until an acquaintance of mine mentioned that when he was young, he literally skewed one of his eyes on a bougenvilla’s wicked thorns. Obviously the tactile nature of this plant means something very different to Jeff than it does to me.

Writing exercise:

Trifold your paper vertically to create three columns. List TOUCH adjectives, nouns and verbs in each of the columns. Stroke, velvety, slap, marble, embers, you get the idea.

Realizing that sometimes just mentioning specific nouns can evoke the sense of touch if there are memories attached, look at the list of nouns in particular. Make sure they are specific — Lava instead of stone. Jot down any memories associated with the nouns — or make them up — you are a creative writer after all!

Happy Writing!

Writing that Makes Sense – part three – Hearing

I talked about the benefits the Auditory sense brings to your writing when you read it out loud,  but there is value in adding this sense TO your writing.

I am not talking about, “It sounded like a herd of elephants running overhead,” although that too has a part to play in stimulating the auditory sense in your readers. What I find benefits my writing the most is using action or something that brings an auditory memory to life as part and parcel of the story. The best example of this that I’ve ever seen (heard?) is in Tensleep, a novel by Sarah Andrews, where the action takes place at an oil well drilling site. The author uses the sentence structure, the action, the dialogue to build a “sense” of the reverberation of the drill in the background. It is so skillfully done that I didn’t “hear” it until it went silent on the page — and then the silence echoed in my own mind.

That way of doing things is hard, and therefore pretty rare to find. Most of us use those pesky things like adjectives, nouns and verbs that have to do with hearing.

The sense itself is kind of interesting. Sounds strike our eardrum and set off vibrations which our nervous system interprets in terms of pitch, intensity, resonance, “color”, — if you don’t believe that sounds have color, then listen to Adele’s Ringing in the Deep and tell me her voice doesn’t color that song bluer than blue has ever been. Now that you’ve allowed me color, I’m going to add shape as well, because a round sound is not the same as a sharp sound. (Perhaps the word that I’m really searching for is length of sound, but I rather like shape as a descriptor better than length.)

Familiar sounds spark memory associations. A barking dog will have very different connotations to someone who was bitten by a dog than for someone who has always had good experiences.

So what sort of words evoke sound? Clanging, Bell, Ringing, Chime, Echo…on and one. Make your own list and see where it takes you. Writing in the Open is a wonderful tool for capturing sensory writing. Go to a playground, a forest, and a church and see what your hear, see, smell, taste, touch.

Next week I’ll work on Taste, recipes included!

Writing That Makes Sense – Part 2 – Smell

In part one of Writing That Makes Sense, I talked about building a vocabulary for SIGHT, now let’s hit that second sense, SMELL.

I picked SMELL to work with second because you cannot TASTE without the sense of smell. In short, aroma brings home the bacon. (Sorry, might not be factual, but so much fun to say!)

So how does a writer bring the sense of smell to a piece? Begin by thinking about things that evoke responses in you when you smell them — favorable and not so much, because both of those can help build a smelly vocabulary.

Sometimes it’s enough to mention an object that evokes the smell without saying,” the aroma of _____.”

Coffee. Fresh baked bread. Freshly mowed grass. Burnt sage. Pine. All evoke a sense of smell without even using an adjective. Then there are the seven basic odors the human nose can detect:

  • Camphor –  mothballs
  • Musk – perfume
  • Floral – roses
  • Mint – peppermint candy canes
  • Etherial – gasoline
  • Pungent – vinegar
  •  And last-but-not-least on the reaction scale, Putrid – Unnaturally green food in the back of your fridge.

For now, I’m lumping the pheromone system in with the sense of SMELL, but there is some evidence that there are actually two senses that the nose connects with our brain.


Grab your magazines and start looking for pictures of things that smell. Take a sheet of paper and list all the nouns, adjectives and verbs that you can think of that have to do with smelling. Sharp, sweet, sniff, quaff, waft, you get the idea. Try combining some of them that you wouldn’t ordinarily put together. You never know what might work.

Now go back to that piece you did with SIGHT and add something about the SMELLs in the air. Don’t make it like a laundry list — you know what I’m talking about.

Susan saw the orange cones. Susan smelled burning rubber as she hit the brakes.

Susan’s car shot past the orange cones trailing a cloud of burning rubber as her foot pressed hard against the brake pedal.

Second exercise; Go for a walk with your pocket notebook. Stop somewhere and close your eyes. What do you smell? Can you identify individual people by their smell? Objects close at hand? List them complete with the impressions you got just from your nose.

Happy writing!

Writing that Makes Sense – part one – Sight

I shared a revised scene in critique group this week that got me thinking again about how to add sensory detail to writing.

Here is the clip from the story:

The crisp air of the late spring afternoon brushed my cheeks as I cued Callie for her left canter lead. Making a balanced turn at the corner, I sighted on the freshly painted blue and green jump in the middle of the arena.

“Oxer,” I called out to let everyone know which of the jumps we planned to take.

Another rider circled left to get out of our way and Callie took it clear. It was only two-six, and not very wide, but the size of the jump didn’t matter to me. My heart beat faster every time I let go and concentrated on that one moment: the strides into the jump and the pure joy of flying through the air to land on the other side, my amazing mare already seeking the next jump. After a few more jumps I asked Callie to transition down to a trot and then to a walk, patting the mare on her neck. Even snooty Mrs. Everett had been watching us all afternoon — allowing Callie an admiring glance when she’d gotten the one stride the first time through.

One of the ladies said hearing it made her feel like a fly on the rear of the horse, sailing along with the main character. That was my hope, of course, but it’s never a given that what I see when I write will be what the reader will experience. I consider Maria’s comment a high compliment!

Of the senses, sight is the easiest to convey. Most of us have developed a pretty good descriptive vocabulary for what we see — color, distance, size, volume, positioning, lightness or darkness. But what about the other five senses?

(Yes, you read that right. I believe there are five additional senses that can be evoked when you’re writing fiction. More on that as the “parts” unfold…)

In Diane Ackerman’s excellent book, A Natural History of the Senses, she discusses the first five senses in as lovely a way as I’ve ever found. Once I read a part of her book, my mind was much more in tune to all five senses when I wrote.

Here’s an exercise I use to spark my sense of SIGHT:

Take a piece of paper and draw two columns on it. Label one Verbs, the other adjectives

Begin listing every single word that comes to you. Some of them will not relate directly to sight, but put them down anyway, you can always transfer them over to the sense-page to which they belong later. Fill up the entire page. Call a friend, open the dictionary, do an internet search — there are no restrictions on what you can use to build your SIGHT vocabulary.

Second half of the exercise: Use your painter’s eye to “draw” a scene.

  • Find a magazine featuring your choice of reading material: high-end decorating, lush gardening, delectable cookery, or a travel adventurer’s dream.
  • Pull pages of ads or photo illustrations out at random.
  • Pick one of the scenes that appeals to you.
  • Take a piece of paper and divide it into three spaces.
  • Write the name of three main objects in the scene you chose. People are objects, but don’t pick more than one person to describe. Leave plenty of room around each noun.
  • Draw a line out from the word in the middle of the page and begin describing what you see.
  • Color? Shape? Size? Time of day? Season? Weather? What direction does the light come from? Age of the object?
  • What other things can you see in the picture you chose?
  • Turn the page over and write a bit about the scene. (Making up a story is actually helpful!)

This will give you a good way to “see” how strong you are with your ability to “see” the scene and describe how it appears to a viewer.

Hold onto this scene because you’ll be coming back to it later.

Happy Writing!