Justine: An Exercise Using the Five Senses

Me (left) and Jilly, the most amazing travel partner and tour guide!

Me (left) and Jilly, the most amazing travel partner and tour guide!

As many of you know, I recently wrapped up a fabulous 10-day trip to England (with the wonderful Jilly as my official host and tour guide). The things I saw and did are experiences that I will eventually include in my books, with the goal being more realistic, “show-not-tell” scenes…scenes written well enough, you can imagine yourself there, even as you sit in your bed curled up with the book.

To get to that point, though, a bit of preschool-type exercises in the five senses can be very helpful to ensure your readers get “the full picture.” Using two of the pictures I’ve taken as examples, I’ll come up with some basic descriptions of different “scenes,” hitting on the major images, feelings, etc. that I want to evoke as I describe that scene for a reader.

First is the library at Kenwood House, which I’m imagining in part as the library in Nate’s house, Langley Park. Originally designed and built by Robert Adam in 1767-70, then heavily gilded in the early 19th century, it was recently restored, at which time the conservators discovered Adam’s original paint scheme for the room — the Wedgewood blue and pink you see on the walls and ceiling.

The newly restored library at Kenwood House. Photo © 2015  J. Covington.

The newly restored library at Kenwood House. Photo © 2015 J. Covington.

So? How do you describe this room? Think like a four-year old and use the five senses. Don’t try to write something prose-y, just make a list.

  1. Sight. There is much to describe here (almost too much), from the friezes on the ceiling to the paint on the walls to the roman shades on the windows. So start with one thing…the paint on the walls. It’s a delicate blue, almost like a robin’s egg, but it has more of a sky-color mixed in. The pink is bright and cheery, like cotton candy (of course, I can’t quite use that as a description, as it would be an anachronism, but it gives you, the blog reader, and idea of what I mean). It’s large, cavernous, with lots of room to move and explore. Something interesting that I experienced, too, is that the natural light that reflects into the room illuminates the half-dome ceilings in the apses where the bookcases are as if they were lit by electricity (look at the far end of the picture, the pink area above the two columns and cross-piece, how bright it is — that’s natural light!). Jilly and I thought there were lights on the ceiling, but there are not. Someone who is only used to the glow of a candle will be amazed by the way the ceiling is lit up…it will seem to them as if there are candles high on the walls.
  2. Smell. There’s a musty, old smell in the room, from the books, the fabrics, the wood, and the furniture. However, when this room was built, and shortly thereafter, one might notice the smell of books, but also paint and plaster. If the windows were open, you’d be able to smell the flowers and the woods, the barnyard smell of cows (the dairy is nearby), and the earthy, organic smells that come where there is a lake nearby (as there is at Kenwood). There is also a large lawn just on the other side of a wide gravel path from the library windows. One would also smell burning wood in the fireplace, candles, ink, paper, and perhaps the tea and biscuits that the butler has just brought in on a tray.
  3. Taste. In this sense, there isn’t anything to experience in regards to this room. Unless you count the tea and biscuits.
  4. Touch. Imagine the fabrics…the rouched, red silk fabric of the festoon curtains would be soft, but would also have a bit of texture, due to the pattern in the silk (which is woven, not printed). Same for the fabric on the benches in front of the window. One of the original couches, not pictured here, had the same silk patterned fabric, with large, poufy-soft throw-pillows, each trimmed with silk tassels, which would slide through your fingers.
  5. Sound. The hard soles of Jilly’s shoes echoed on the hardwood floors. Boots and the heels on a ladies’ slipper would do the same. As I mentioned, the room is very large. There’s a clock over the mantle (tick, tock, tick, tock), the fire in the fireplace would be crackling. If the windows were open, you’d hear the sounds of cows mooing, as well as other farm animals (pigs, chickens, sheep, horses), crunching gravel from staff walking outside, waterfowl in the lake, and the tinkling gurgle of water in the stream. If by yourself reading or writing a letter, you’d hear the scraped whoosing of pages being turned, or the scratch of a quill on paper. The tink from tapping the quill on the inkstand. Or the pattering of sand being tossed on your hand-written page.

On the opposite extreme is the countryside around Dover, in Kent, which is where Nate’s estate is located. I have to admit that before seeing Kent, I had no idea what to expect. I live in Arizona, where it’s flat, dry, and dusty, and I sometimes forget what it’s like where it’s green. And cold!

Looking to the west at sunset near Folkestone, Kent. Photo © 2015 J. Covington.

Looking to the west at sunset near Folkestone, Kent. Photo © 2015 J. Covington.

Here’s a picture of the surrounding countryside from the quaint little B&B we stayed at near Folkestone. For me, it was an eye-opening experience staying at Pigeonwood House, because I’d never been somewhere so utterly quiet. But more on that in a moment! First, the other senses!

  1. Sight. There are gently rolling hills that go up and down until you can’t see them anymore. In some places, you can see a more steep, sawed-off part of the hill, showcasing the chalky underside of the earth. Everything is green or brown, or would have been (the yellow field you see here is rape seed, used to make canola oil. Rape seed was used for oil lamps in the early 19th century, but it was not the large-scale crop then that it is now…back then, you’d have seen oats, wheat, and turnips). Sheep dot the meadows like little white puff balls.
  2. Smell. It smells so fresh and earthy! As someone who lives in the desert, I couldn’t even begin to catalog the different plant life and it’s wonderful odoriferous extravaganza, but I could probably assume that one would smell earth, manure, the sweet smell of fresh-cut hay, flowers (particularly if there was a formal garden), and animals. A pig pen perhaps? Or a chicken house? Sweaty horses?
  3. Taste. Unless you count the taste of honeysuckle or lemongrass or a piece of straw in your teeth, there’s not much here to taste.
  4. Touch. There are a couple different things to experience here…the temperature, for one. This was a nice afternoon, but Jilly and I mucked through our share of rain and wind (sometimes very severe wind, especially as we got closer to the coast). Still, for me, it was a bit chilly coming from Arizona, and the air felt cool on my arms and neck. There is a plethora of plant life…trees, grasses, grain, rape seed…I imagine if Susannah could get close enough, she could feel the dense, oily thickness of sheep’s wool. Scratchy grasses, bumpy gravel paths, slick mud, soft buds on flowering trees, and the silky petals of daffodils popping up through the ground.
  5. Sound. For me, this was the biggest “a-ha” moment. Susannah is coming from the city, where it’s always noisy, and from the Caribbean, where it’s really never quiet (you’ll always hear the surf or the wind or birds…it’s not completely still). Standing before Pigeonwood House, I was amazed at how quiet it was. No cars. No planes, which Susannah wouldn’t have heard anyway. No wind (on this particular afternoon). The only things I heard were cows at the nearby farm and a few sheep. At Langley Park, she might have heard other farm animals and staff working, but the normal hustle-bustle of the city would be absent, and would likely be startling to her. At least for a little while.

There you have two examples of preschool-style, five-senses brainstorming. I hope you found it to be useful. Have you done this for locations you’ve visited? What things surprised you when you went through this exercise?

12 thoughts on “Justine: An Exercise Using the Five Senses

  1. I haven’t ticked down the list like that, just recorded various impressions. It’s so important to pause and really look, hear, feel, touch, taste and smell. And if you take a minute to write it down, it imprints in the memory that much harder. (Or if you are forgetful, you might capture some little tag that can pull down the rest of the memory.) (-: To tell the truth, I don’t think I’ve ever pulled up notes to recount a scene. But photographs have been extremely important, especially when I was writing my Tokyo romance. The photos brought back the rest of the senses (-:.

    I think I might give this a try.

    Lovely pictures — you guys look fabulous, and WHAT is that blooming behind you? It looks far too large to be azaleas. And I adore the pink and blue and white for the library. Somehow, I always think of a library in darker colors — turkey red and midnight blue, or dark woods. This is so light and lovely. During the last five years or so, I’ve been increasingly attracted to “summer sunset” colors — those pinks, and blues, and white clouds, and golden sunlight.

    • When we visited Osterley Park, outside London, I was struck by the library there, but for completely different reasons. It was totally devoid of color. The walls, plaster, and wood were all painted white. It made the books on the bookcases pop, and I remember turning to Jill and saying, “THIS is Nate’s library.” Part of the reason was because it holds so many more books than the Kenwood Library (Susannah is a bibliophile and needs to be impressed by what she sees), but also because that is the sole focus of the room…the books. It wasn’t a room to have light entertainment or tea, like at Kenwood…it was for reading.

      I think the final result I will come up with for my book will be an amalgamation of the two. I like the shape and form of Kenwood House (Osterley Park is just a square — I say “just,” but it was also designed by Robert Adam, so imagine the detail in the plasterwork and mouldings), but I like the abundant bookcases and stark color at Osterley.

  2. They’re rhododendrons, Michaeline. Lots of the big stately homes here have gorgeous rhododendron and azalea gardens, and this time of year they’re a riot of color. Justine and I had to do some checking, because they were brought to England in the seventeenth and eighteenth century from China and the Himalaya by plant-hunting British explorers. Tricky to do that kind of thing today, but many of the plants I think of as typically British garden plants are not indigenous. Clearly the rhododendrons like it here, though ;-). I’ll try to post a picture of the spectacular ones in the Himalayan Garden at Muncaster Castle last week.

    Drat. Apparently I can’t upload photos in the comments, but never mind, here’s a link to the garden pics on the Muncaster Castle website http://www.muncaster.co.uk/gallery/muncaster-gardens.

    • Michaeline, the rhododendrons were so beautiful. Piles and piles of them! I saw some colors I’ve never seen before…yellows and oranges. I took lots of pictures of them. As we were walking through the garden, I kept hoping that the bushes were already in the UK when my story takes place, because they were so remarkable, I wanted to make sure I could include them. Thanks to Jilly’s research (midway through the garden, I might add), I got an instant sense of relief re: being able to use them in the book, and paid even closer attention to them as a result of it.

      I suppose if the weren’t introduced into the UK until later, I would have focused on something else.

      • Good lord, guys, those are some monster rhododendrons! I remember first reading about them in “Rebecca” (Daphne du Maurier), and not knowing what they were. Found out when I came to Japan — they are in my grandmother-in-law’s garden, and they should be blooming, too (the azaleas outshine them, though).

        (-: I do hope you can find a place for them in the book! The importing part may be a little tricky, but I think the Regency was smack in the middle of the great importing craze of plants (and animals?). I read somewhere that the botanists would even ignore enemy status if someone had a good bunch of flowers. Some French aristocrat imported a lot of things from a British nurseryman during the war — all of their names now slipping my mind.

        • I’ll find a way to use them. Even if it’s just a bunch of small plants in a garden that they’re cultivating to grow more.

  3. Another thought: Justine’s five senses were much more observant than mine, because the environment was familiar to me and very different for her. She noticed a lot of details that I take for granted, but when she commented on them I thought ‘oh, yes, of course!’ I think that’s a handy thing to remember with POV characters. The one who’s in an unfamiliar environment will notice and comment on / think about their surroundings. If their response rings true to the one who’s at home (or to a reader who knows the setting well) then that’s great use of the five senses.

    • That’s one of the tricky things about writing descriptions of a scene, and I’m as guilty as anyone of forgetting my character’s POV experiences. I’m sure when Kat was in AZ, she was just as observant, because for her, it’s very different here than in her home state.

      When I was a technical writer for software, I had to be able to put myself in the “head” of a new user and “forget” everything I knew about the software. I had to ask questions of myself about what stuff was, what it did, how to explain it, etc. I have to admit, as a tech writer, I was pretty good at that, but not so much as a fiction writer. Perhaps it’s because I’m so immersed in the world? I don’t know. But perhaps it’s because I’m just not taking the time to reframe my brain before I sit down to write a scene. I need to work on that, and I may even go so far as to make a list of whatever might be a novel/unique experience/observation for my characters.

  4. Pingback: Elizabeth: I’m Sensing I Need Some Help Here | Eight Ladies Writing

  5. I need to try this exercise. I’m reading a Courtney Milan right now and there is a scene where the hero is smelling a laundry (starch, soap – clean smells) and a dog who rolled in horse poop, sees light coming in the window, has a splitting heading from being coshed on the head, tastes blood from biting his tongue, and is listening to an intimate conversation between 2 people who think he is still unconscious. Very effective.

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