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’.

10 thoughts on “A Touchy Subject

  1. A thoughtful analysis of this topic, Francesca, and thank you for the lovely quotation from WS. Nobody can sum up human emotion as he did. All the senses are difficult to convey because we can never be certain that other people’s experience is like our own. I liked the examples relating to the sea, in particular, the sensation of the sand between the toes: one of those defining memories of childhood, like the gritty sand in the picnic sandwich I sometimes think that erotic writing has degraded our attitude to touch. The way a character touches another can be a strong indicator of inner emotion, for example, a reassuring pat on the back or a mother’s tender stroke of a child’s face

    • Thank you, Angela. That’s a very good point, about different perceptions of the same experience. It’s satisfying, therefore, when someone can relate to what we’re writing about. Emotions are obviously closely linked with the senses and therefore the latter is a good way to engender the former.

    • Thank you, Angela. That’s a good point, about people experiencing things differently. For that reason it’s satisfying when someone can relate to what we’ve written. The senses are obviously connected to emotion so the using the former is a good way to engender the latter.

  2. I really enjoyed this Francesca and you’ve certainly given me ideas, I don’t know why I’ve never thought of brain storming the senses before but I will from now on.

  3. The sea is always an inspiration, isn’t it? The sound of the gulls and the waves, the taste of salt on the lips, the smell of the fish (Hastings). Just back from a week near the coast. Senses reeling. Lots of ideas.

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