All in the Best Possible Taste!

Natalie Kleinman brings this month’s chapter to an end with ‘Taste’ in the hope that, with her predecessors, we have been able to illustrate the importance of sensory perception in our writing.

Anyone who remembers Kenny Everett will be familiar with the expression ‘All in the best possible taste,’ but as far as I am aware this never referred to his palate. As writers we need to evoke the senses. How can we achieve this without, in the case of taste, describing the delicacy (or otherwise) in question? Henry Fielding’s famous eating scene between Tom Jones and Mrs Waters transferred so brilliantly to the screen that when Tom rips a claw off the langouste and sucks it we are left in no doubt as to what is in his mind.

We don’t need to say someone is eating a succulent rib of beef. As he placed the fork in his mouth, the juice ran from the corner and down his chin. There was blood where he dabbed it with his napkin would convey everything the writer wished.

Similarly, the strength of the mustard brought tears to his eyes. Perhaps I’ve never liked ginger and spring onion would promote exactly the right taste in the reader’s mouth when referring to a chicken dish Chinese style. Far better than saying that chicken with ginger and spring onion was on the menu. The ones covered in white chocolate are my favourites, Victoria said when offered a dish of truffles. It isn’t difficult to do but it’s very easy to do badly.

truffles

I don’t know any writer who doesn’t have the phrase ‘Show Don’t Tell!’ ever present in their head, if not entirely in the conscious mind then certainly nagging somewhere in the background. It becomes a mantra. It applies to all aspects of writing. Are we allowed to say He was wearing a flower in his button-hole? Of course not. She leaned forward to sniff the rose in his lapel is far more acceptable. But here I am encroaching on one of my fellow bloggers. You will know by now that we have all been assigned one of the senses – isn’t it lucky there are five of us – and I am the last and feel that, possibly, I have picked the short straw. I am writing this at the end of April before any of the posts have been uploaded so I have no idea what walls have been encountered and scaled. For all I know my fellows may be having as much difficulty as I am – and I admit that I am having difficulty. I don’t have a problem writing in context but this exercise is stretching me. All I can say really is that I try to awaken my reader’s taste buds by giving them something they can relate to without actually telling them. To resort to one of my favourite occupations I might say The taste of berries and pepper were fighting for supremacy as Emily lowered the glass. Far more evocative than She was drinking a glass of red wine.

I’d love to hear what problems you have when trying to satisfy your readers. I’m sure it’s always in the best possible taste.

 

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The Sweet SMELL of Success.

nose

Elaine Roberts talks about the sense of smell.

It is said that our sense of smell is the first of our senses to be developed and I believe it is one we rely on without actually realising it. So much so that when I started writing, I didn’t include it at all, what a lot I had to learn!

When I first thought about writing this, I was going to say that a smell could evoke memories the same as a photograph but having thought about it, I think that’s wrong. It’s more instant than a photograph. The smell of lavender immediately transports me back to happy childhood memories at my grandparents’ home in Hampshire. It’s not a conscious thought, I don’t think about it, it is quite literally instant. The smell of freesias reminds me of my wedding day because they were in my bouquet.

Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind, once said “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.”

Diane Ackerman is also quoted as saying “Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains.”

I believe both of these quotes to be true.

Throughout our lives we are bombarded with smells that we take for granted or just ignore because they are part of our normal day, the smell of coffee is probably a good example, or a meal cooking. When I was pregnant with one of my children, the smell of mince cooking made me nauseous. Even if I was out walking and it was coming from someone else’s kitchen I used to wonder if I’d make it home without being ill. To this day, thirty odd years on, I still get that same feeling when I smell it cooking. A lot of my childhood was spent living in Cyprus, time by the sea, covered in protective sun cream, both having distinctive smells, let alone the fresh smell of fruit growing on trees as I walked to school.

In writing, smells can be used to describe settings. An obvious one is what my mother fondly calls country smells. She grew up on a farm so for her it triggers fond memories, but for me it’s a smell I can’t abide. The musty smell of damp could tell me more about the setting; for example, it might be a run down cottage in the country.

Smells can also tell you something about the characters in a story. Everyone smells of something, expensive perfume, garlic, body odour. Whatever the smell it will tell the reader something about the character and their lifestyle.

When smells are described in novels or short stories they add another layer to it and transport the reader to the correct time and place.

Join us on 26th May when Natalie will be concluding our series by talking about TASTE.

A Touchy Subject

Francesca Capaldi Burgess talks about using the sense of touch in fiction.

See how she leans her cheek upon her hand.   
O, that I were a glove upon that hand
That I might touch that cheek!”                                                                                                    
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet                                                                                                                    

Touch isn’t always the easiest of the senses to deal with when writing fiction. If a point of view character is standing in a kitchen (as mine often seem to be), there’s a limit to the number of times their tea can be described as too hot, or the unit they’re leaning up against as hard. The latter is so obvious would you even mention it?

The beach: soggy, grainy, jagged, ridged, slimy?

The beach: soggy, grainy, jagged, ridged, slimy?

Three out of the four novels I’ve written are set by the sea. The seaside has a lot of scope for the sense of touch. Is the wind biting, balmy, refreshing? Is the sun blistering or gently warm? The sand can be dry and silky, wet and grainy, irritating the toes. Pebbles of various sizes cause different sensations on the feet. Is the water nippy, chilly or so bitterly cold it makes the character’s teeth chatter? (My beaches are always in the UK!)

If we’re not too careful, all this potential can lead to touch overload: ‘The wind cut through her, making her shiver as she stepped onto the beach. The solid cobbles she encountered first were hard underfoot. The sharp pebbles stabbed at her feet, sending little pinpricks of pain into her skin. When she reached the wet sand she dug her feet into its cloying stickiness. She flung herself into the icy water.’ You get the idea. Besides which, if I was writing this scene I would include the other senses too.

All the novels I’ve written so far have been romances, a genre which is enhanced with the sense of touch. Back in our kitchen scene, if our heroine is feeling the hard edge of the unit because she’s being jammed up against it in a passionate embrace by our hero, that might be acceptable. Skin, hair and lips all beg to be touched, whether they’re rough, warm, moist or silky. Then there are other parts of the anatomy for those who write more intimate scenes.

spidergram 2Whether we’re talking beaches, a couple making out, a child running through a wood or trudging to work on a rainy day, the problem is finding the words which really bring the scenes we’re working on to life. I deal with this in a number of ways. Often I’ll brainstorm the scene with a spider diagram, trying to put myself in that situation. There’ll be other senses apart from touch on there, but I get a lot of ideas that way. Sometimes I’ll use music or a sounds CD to help. Even better still is if I can be in that place, say the beach or a wood. If I’m really stuck to find a different way to describe something, there’s always my trusty Collins Thesaurus.

I’m off to Wales tomorrow, to the verdant undulations of Abergavenny. I shall lie on a hill in the sun and close my eyes to see what it feels like. All in the name of work, of course.

 

As I mentioned earlier, touch isn’t always the easiest sense to deal with, but it’s not the hardest either. Join us on the 21st May for Elaine Roberts’ blog post on ‘Smell’.

The Sound of Silence

Elaine Everest explains how sound affects her writing.

As a writer I need to have sound around me. I find that I cannot function in silence. Furthermore I am unable to write in silence. I always have the television on in the background while I write. For me it’s a form of white noise. I’m unaware of Holly Willoughby wittering about babies or Jeremy Kyle screaming for a lie detector. However, the moment something of importance hits the screen I am alert and listening. I’ve tried having the radio on in the background – it doesn’t work. News disturbs me and radio phone-ins annoy me as I need to stop writing to join in. I’ve tried playing CDs but stop writing to jump a track or browse the covers – I come from the days when we read LP covers whilst the music played.

Music can help me when I’m writing one of my WW2 sagas. I’ll put a DVD of a wartime film on the television or perhaps play Vera Lynn songs. At once I’m pulled back to the era where my characters would have lived. I’m able to absorb the atmosphere of times gone by. My fingers speed up on the keyboard and ideas flow.

Music also helps with my story telling. Last night I researched a tune that my main character would dance to in the arms of her new boyfriend. It was the last dance of the evening and sadly many decades before Englebert Humpedink would record his ’Last Waltz’.  His words would have been perfect. Instead I spent a few happy hours using YouTube to listen to music from the 1930s. I discovered a lovely song, memorable from happy family holidays at Warners’ holiday camp (albeit with the right words). Goodnight Sweetheart fitted the bill perfectly and set the scene for the start of a long romance.


sea pic

 

I always find that I’m inspired to write when by the sea. The sound of waves lapping against the shore – or crashing if the weather is rough – is the perfect setting for my mind to wander and stories to evolve. I find a walk along the shoreline, where the only sound, apart from the crashing waves are the gulls squawking up above, clears my mind ready to get back to the keyboard. No wonder my favourite writing retreat is a cottage by the sea, in Whitstable, with my writing friends!

Sounds I cannot work with are summer sounds. I have a lovely garden and always plan to sit outside, when the weather improves. However, youngsters without volume controls, their parents continually chatting on mobile phones and builders erecting houses at the bottom of my garden have somewhat put paid to my plans to write al fresco this summer. Indoors windows are closed against the ‘outside noise’ and I can control what I wish to hear while I write – but it won’t be silence. To quote Simon and Garfunkel, ‘silence like a cancer grows’ and for me to sit and write in silence does not create words.

 

Please return on 15th May to read what Francesca Burgess has to say about the sense of touch.

 

 

Seeing is Believing

During May our bloggers will be taking a look at those essential components of expressive writing – the five senses.

Whether it’s a descriptive passage, a nature poem, a travel article or a fictional scene, there’s nothing quite like capturing the look, the feel, the sound, the smell, and even the taste of the place (and who and what are in it) to create atmosphere, enrich our writing and bring the whole thing vividly to life!

We kick off with VIV HAMPSHIRE talking about the sense of SIGHT

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The one sense I would least like to lose is my sight. Much as I enjoy listening to music, hearing the birds sing and chatting to friends on the phone, I think I could just about cope with going deaf. Not being able to taste or smell my food would be sad but not devastating, and I’m not sure how losing the sense of touch is even possible, but not being able to see is almost unimaginable and would, for me, be utterly unbearable.

I make judgements about people’s character and mood from the expressions on their faces. I notice their body language just as much as the words they say. I love colours, flowers, reading and writing, solving crosswords, the independence of just hopping on a train or walking about town by myself gazing into shop windows…  Yes, there would be ways round it, I suppose, if all that visual stimulation suddenly disappeared from my life. I could run my fingers over the faces of those who’d let me, breathe in the scent of the flowers, listen to audio-books, dictate my stories into a machine, get someone to read out crossword clues to me and lead me around by the hand, and I would always have my memories to fall back on… but somehow it just wouldn’t be the same.

I absorb information using my eyes. Tell me how to do something and it will probably go in one ear and out the other, but let me see it for myself and I will understand and remember it. It’s what’s known, in the educational world, as being a ‘visual’ learner. A similar process goes on in my head when I’m reading, and especially when I’m reading fiction. If the author is able to describe the scene in all its pictorial glory, from the interwoven colours of the sky to the rolling shapes of the hills, and show me the main character in words that encapsulate everything from the sweeping flow of her hair in the wind to the delicacy of the tiny lace stitches on her collar, then I will be able not only to picture it all in my ‘mind’s eye’ but to throw myself instantly into that fictional world and believe in it absolutely.

Many writers just don’t seem to have the knack. I often find when I’m already well into reading a novel that I still haven’t been told the colour of the heroine’s hair. Once I didn’t even know she was black until about halfway in! Or I realise that, although the short story I’m reading is set in someone’s kitchen, I have been given no information at all about the décor. Some readers might say that it doesn’t matter, but it does to me. How can I picture the scene? It’s like having to solve a crossword without being given the clues. Thank heavens for the illustrators, I say! It has been said that a picture can paint a thousand words and, without their input on a novel’s cover or at the top of a magazine page, it would sometimes be almost impossible to imagine the ‘who, what and where’ from reading the words alone!

But there are some writers who manage to get it exactly right, conjuring up a vibrant snapshot of a character, mood or place, through the use of simile, metaphor or just a few incredibly well-chosen words. Here are some of my favourite visual descriptions, old and new:

 Her skin was scarred like a weather-cracked apple. (H.E. Bates)

 She opened her eyes, and green they shone, clear like flowers undone for the first time. (D.H. Lawrence)

 She had a meagre bit of hair plaited up so tight it pulled her eyes sideways. (Helen Dunmore)

 Gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. (Emily Bronte)

 The whole city is blushing, her buildings ruddy with shock. The canal is molten. The water, reflected on the houses, dances on the brickwork. The windows are on fire. (Deborah Moggach)

 An oak desk suggested permanence, the mahogany cabinet gave confidence. The chairs danced teak to teak. (Roger McGough)

The bridge holding between stone fingers her cold bright necklace of pearls. (Leonard Cohen)

Join us again on 7th May for more from the magical world of the senses, when Elaine Everest will be talking about SOUND