Good writing is all about recreating a sensation for the reader: an emotion, an experience, a place. To do this we are taught to use all the senses; to show rather than tell. It’s probably one of the hardest parts of writing to do well. I know it’s not one of my strengths.
I do try to include smells and sounds as naturally as possible but it tends to be an element added in a later draft rather than intrinsically there from the beginning. Which is odd because I do live in all my senses. I’m very sensitive to sounds and smells. A piece of music, bird song. Even the dog that’s been yapping at the vacuum cleaner next door all morning, these all create the mood of my day.
As I write this I’m walking through a field of oil seed rape, a plant that gives off a very strong smell. One with equally powerful memories for me. I am instantly transported to my childhood, around ten or eleven, when I would run through the fields with my two best friends at the time – both boys, not that it mattered at that age. We ran free and hid in the fields, racing along the tractor lines between the tall yellow plants.
Even though I smell the darn stuff every year, and have developed an allergy to it in later life so that it makes my eyes itch, the memory that sticks is that one from 25 years ago. Year after year, the smell of the crop reinforces that memory.
I guess the problem with trying to introduce that effect into my writing is that smells always seem to take me off on a tangent, to a memory that bears no relation to my current situation. Still, it would probably be good to dig out some of my old writing exercises on the senses and have a refresher. Find some better way to invoke the senses than endlessly writing about thudding hearts and the smell of aftershave.
Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:
Claire watched the sensuous lips moving, aware she had no idea what words were being spoken. With a mental shake she tuned back into the conversation.
“…wouldn’t stop coughing, right by the Number Three speaker. I had to ask Simon to offer the woman a throat sweet. I mean, what can you do? I couldn’t throw them out the cathedral for coughing, but it was live on Radio Three. A dreadful dilemma.”
Anthony turned a worried frown towards Claire, seeking reassurance that he had done the right thing offering the persistent cougher a Halls. Realising some response was required, Claire nodded, as if discussing the viral ailments of visitors to Lincoln Cathedral was everyday fare. “I’m sure you did the right thing. So very selfish, coming to a concert with a cough.”
She was rewarded with a grateful smile that caused forgotten regions of her body to flutter in a disturbing way. Cupping her hands around her giant, sadly empty, coffee mug, Claire dredged her mind for a new topic of conversation. Hopefully a more stimulating one.
You’d think being in charge of recording concerts for BBC Radio would be an interesting job. Turns out I was wrong. How disappointing that every job is dull when it’s your job.
“Where to next then, Anthony? What marvellous audio delights do you have to share with the nation?”
Anthony looked vaguely perplexed, as if Claire had spoken in a foreign tongue.
Come on, my accent isn’t so very different from yours, though not nearly so appealing. She gave a small shiver of pleasure. Claire found the Scottish brogue inexplicably sexy, particularly when she was able to understand the words being spoken. Anthony’s silence gave her an excuse to gaze at his attractive face without hiding a yawn.
At last he translated her words in his head, and his face fell, like a school boy discovering he’d got double Latin next instead of Games.
“Opera.” He shuddered, so comically that Claire had to stifle a laugh when she realised he was in earnest. “Britten. The Turn of the Screw.”
Never heard of it. I’m such a philistine.
“Not that I’ve ever heard of it,” Anthony added. “But Opera, eugh. At least it’s back in London, at the Barbican.” He glanced at his watch, as if only now realising he had to get from Lincoln to London in time to oversee set up.
“Christ, is that the time?” He pushed his chair back with a nerve-wrenching screech, and spilt the remainder of his half-drunk latte across the table. Claire stood up just as swiftly, to avoid coffee spilling into her lap. She looked up at Anthony’s soft, wavy hair, the kissable lips, the heavenly eyes framed by eyelashes that wouldn’t look out of place on a cow.
He would be a worthy replacement for Josh in my dreams. If he wasn’t such a boring idiot.
Claire held her hand out to the frazzled man, who took it with a weak grasp, leaning forwards to plant a kiss on her ear, before fleeing the coffee shop.
“Bye,” Claire said to the empty space in front of her. Then she collapsed back onto her chair and gave in to the storm of laughter swirling in her breast.