Writing With Sensory Details

My new middle grade is about an eleven-year-old girl named Sadie McKay who moves to a small Texas panhandle town full of “boiling hot air and hard blue sky.”  The first night there, Sadie sits outside and watches the sun set, dreaming of the green, sweet-smelling home she left behind.  Here is a picture I took from my back yard that I think shows a little of what she is feeling.  Though it’s beautiful, it’s also bleak and bare.

Which brings me to the word synesthesia.  Although it’s an actual neurological condition (check out the YA A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass), the definition I will use (for us writerly types) is, “The description of one kind of sense impression by using words that normally describe another.”  Simple examples would be “loud shirt” or “prickly laugh”, and one from my own book, “tangy green smell of summer.”

I came across an exercise today to help develop synesthetic writing skills.  It suggested that writers should spend more time with a “palette” of language, just as painters spend a good deal of time working with a palette of colors. 

The exercise begins with auditory stimulation.  Find a piece of music, an environmental sound, or a certain interior/exterior “space” and listen to the sounds around you.  Describe these sounds as accurately as you can without using any auditory or sound-related words.  Think of sound as though it were colors, temperatures, textures, scents, flavors, and even physical movement.  Come up with ten good lines for whatever you are describing.

 Focus on a visual next.  Find a piece of artwork or any available visual phenomenon, and really look at it.  Think about its textures, light-dark values, clarity, etc.  Keep this in front of you and describe the thing as accurately as you can without using any visual words.  Transform your visual ideas into sound, smell, touch, taste, and movement.  Come up with ten good lines for what you are describing.

Look over your synesthesia-inspired lines.  What do they suggest to you?  Choose your best lines from both of the above and combine them into one poem about one thing (or a few related things).  Don’t resist the direction the language takes you.   What was the result?

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6 Responses to Writing With Sensory Details

  1. Erin says:

    That photo is beautiful! I like the one you chose for your blog page, too. Everything looks great! I’m just impressed that you’re making time to blog along with teaching and writing. 🙂 I actually worked on VPL yesterday while Jacob napped, so maybe I’ll have something new to read at our next critique.

    Oh, and I just read this wonderful adult novel called Lost and Found by Jacqueline Sheehan. A character in it has synesthesia, and it also has a black lab as a main character–check it out b/c I think you’d love the book!

  2. Brianna says:

    Those writing exercises are wonderfully inspiring! I’m working on revising a poetry manuscript right now and definitely plan to give them a try. Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. Jacqui says:

    Mmm. I love when authors mix description up like this. Thanks for the food for thought.

    Jacqui (SproutQ from BBs)

  4. Christy says:

    Wow! Gorgeous pictures!

    I love this exercise! I’ll have to try this one for sure. I love to play with language.

    Great advice and Welcome to blogland! :0)

    christy

  5. Kelly says:

    What a stunning picture! Great word exercise…will try it!
    Keep bloggin’!

  6. sruble says:

    Good luck with your MG novel! I like the picture; it evokes the mood of, ”boiling hot air and hard blue sky.” Even though the sky isn’t blue in the picture, it looks like it could be boiling. Plus I lived in Houston for a while, so I know how boiling air feels. This is a wonderful and evocative phrase too, “tangy green smell of summer.”

    I loved a Mango-Shaped Space. Thanks for the really interesting writing exercises!

    Stephanie
    (sruble on the Blue Boards)

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