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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Taste. In this sense, there isn’t anything to experience in regards to this room. Unless you count the tea and biscuits.
- 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.
- 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!
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!
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?