Characters, Age, Genre and Sensory Writing

There's a good article sitting on the front page of the new SavvyAuthor's website. Author Jaye Garland has written 'Write What You Know, Fill the Well'.

Specifically, she's talking about keeping a sensory notebook.

Jaye gives examples from her own notebook – the sensory feelings of waking up after surgery and questioning her pain, and some lovely explorations of the country cottage she was staying in while writing the article. She asks, as one example –

For example. We’ve all heard a rooster crow. If not in real life, then on television or in the movies. Think about that for a moment. Just how many calls does that rooster make before he’s done with his song? What is the pitch? Does it ricochet to a final crescendo, or fall off into the early morning light of day?

Yeah, it’s tiny details like that, that we need in our stories to add color, depth, and sparkle, so the story as a whole will resonate with our readers.

Of course, she had me at surgery, still fresh in my own mind. And I am fortunate to live now in a large gardened house sharing it's boundaries with Australian native bush and a creek. My days – and writing – are accompanied by tiny lizards, rainbow lorikeets, brush turkeys, cockatoos, kookaburras, water dragons, and once – an echidna. My nights have sugar glider bats, bandicoots, and at least one possum who lives in our garage.

That's just a list. I won't ask you what sound a possum makes as he grunts his way home at dawn, it's not pretty. And as we are in bird mating season at the moment, I won't overload you with the posing and fighting that goes on, nor the screeches.

I'd not thought to capture some of these in a journal before. But I got to thinking why that might have been.

My twenties and thirties were busy times in my life – as with everyone. Career building, socialising, cocooning, flatting, moving, house-buying, finding a partner, more career moves, overseas moves, babies, jumbling tasks and life.


I don't recall having the ability, time or intentions of sitting down to document all of it. I was on the run, living it.

In my thirties also, I did what a lot of women do at that time – a lot of soul-searching and learning about myself – or at least, trying to. Mine was brought about by a reasonably typical identity crisis as I took on domestic and child-caring roles after being so driven in a career for decades. Suddenly I was struggling with who I really was. I know that 30's search of identity is something shared by many women.

In my life evolution of my 30's I sought out lots of self-improvement / life books and spiritual books. I also returned to nature, spending a lot of time sitting out in my little gardens, watching and listening. It gave me power, and knowledge.

But I still never thought to document the sounds and sensations, smells and sights.

As I've moved into my forties I've been given another mini-identity crisis in moving across the world again, but at least I recognise the signs, and have a large garden of wildlife to share myself in. But it's my daughter's life that I now turn to.

At ten, she has an agenda full of activities. Her school sets hours of homework on her each week, and she has outside sporting, art, dance, swimming activities that take up most week and weekend days.

My own childhood was so much slower. I had long afternoons after school to spend outside. Last Sunday my daughter finally had an afternoon off from sports tournaments and practice sessions. She spent it go-carting down our street with some visiting kids her age. It was beautiful to see her out there playing late into the dark, then racing home full of smiles and one grazed knee she'd not bothered to cry over.

My daughter enjoys it when I take her to see a blue-tongue lizard, or the echidna that time. But I don't see her ever seeking out quiet time to just rest and listen in the garden. There's too much going on.

Teens are the same – full of business and socialisation. Full of life, perhaps not so much the senses.

So, I got to thinking about the age-range of my characters in my latest story. They are in their mid to late twenties, sometimes mid-thirties. Theirs is a life full of career-career-career. In fact, most of my characters live in apartments, and only visit parks and nature briefly, perhaps on a picnic date. They are sensual, in the fact that they enjoy good food, good company, good drink, good sex. But they are probably too busy to note the feel of the sheets under them during the act, or the smell of the bins behind the local burger bar at 3am.

As I write with a close third person point of view, putting in that bin smell with any detail will risk me, as a writer, taking the story out-of-character. They can comment on the smell, but only quickly. So yes, those senses are there, and a sensory notebook of that experience is worthwhile, but it's all in the length, word-choice and editing to make that description work within the story.

Lastly, I took a look at the genre I write in. Thriller, suspense – racing pace, conflict, conflict, more conflict. Where does a paragraph relating the sound a knife makes as it rips open a throat come into it? And will a passage describing the gloom of the scene-of-crime break up the pace, or not? And not being able to attend a police academy or autopsy (thank goodness), how do I, as a writer, live and experience those senses in order to document them?

In some cases, write what you know must become write what you imagine.

Of course, I jest. But certain genres can wear more sensory descriptions than others. And certain age groups of characters – and real-life people – are more apt to spend time in noticing these things. The ten year old racing down the road to catch the school bus might stop to see the spider's web glistening with fog droplets (but is more apt to search for the poisonous spider lurking around somewhere that made it) but the fifty year old on her way to buy a coffee from the cafe up the road is much more likely to spend time studying it, and putting that web into a place in her life.

I love the idea of the Sensory Notebook, or a journal of small life experiences. I am going to do it. I wish I'd started earlier, much earlier. I'm sure my writing will be the better for it. I'm also going to set a task to let my daughter into the sensory world also. (Next post).




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