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For Writers

Word Snapshots: Writing for the Senses

By Tessa Radley

The best books are those that invite you inside their pages and make you lose all sense of time and place in your own world as you become enthralled with the characters and the exciting new world you have discovered.

The setting of your story should transport your reader to that new world and make them feel familiar with it—even though they've have never been there before. You don't need to give a lot of detail. Just a snapshot of the surroundings should be enough to give the reader a sense of where they are. Weave the setting details in with the rest of the threads of the story. Here's an example by Harlequin Presents writer Robyn Donald:

'Big, totally dominant, the man silhouetted against the windows didn't move. The long southern dusk had tinted the lake and the mountains behind in subtle shades of blue and grey, but he was concentrating on the papers in his hand.'

The details of the setting give us a sense of time and place and introduce us to the hero. Notice how masculine and commanding the mountain outside is, mirroring the hero's power. Later in the scene we return to these setting details and again the dark power of the distant mountain is evident:

'Melissa blinked fiercely, forcing herself to banish the memory of a candlelit château ballroom and the heavy, sensuous perfume of roses. She pressed the palms of her hands to her eyes, then opened them and stared angrily at the dark bulk of the mountain across the lake, dotted now with tiny twinkling lights as the snow-groomers worked.' From THE RICH MAN'S ROYAL MISTRESS by Robyn Donald, Harlequin Presents

As you write don't forget to give your reader enough detail to make your make-believe world real to them. Your story will have dialogue. There will be action and reaction between characters. That's a lot to concentrate on. But don't forget the small details that bring the story to life.

Think about the place where your scene takes place, about the setting and everything in the immediate surroundings. Decide which details or props you are going to use to give your reader a view of your character's world—and which you will omit. The details you choose to reveal are going to impact on the tone of the story. Here's an extract from TAKEN showing how dialogue and choice of detail can bring characters—and the world they live in—to life.

'"I think I deserve an ice-cream sundae."

I fork out the necessary money and he runs off to the snack trailer, which is parked next to the field for the games. Runs by Karen Gavner and her husband, Jake, who have twin girls on the team. Not especially gifted athletes, but good kids. Connecticut blondes, both of 'em, and studying to be heartbreakers. I've seen the way they look at Tommy, but if he's discovered girls he hasn't let me know about it. Which he might not, come to think of it. "Meet me at the van!" I shout at his back.

He acknowledges with a bob of his head and then vanishes into the milling crowd of parents and players, high-fiving as he goes.

And that's the last I see of him.'

From TAKEN by Chris Jordan, Mira Books

The details in this extract are carefully chosen, emphasizing the euphoria and confidence of youth, before it all comes to a shocking, dramatic conclusion. Notice how this isn't reams of boring description that risks being skimmed over. There's plenty of action in there too. Your prose should always be leading somewhere, advancing the action and propelling the storing forward. Otherwise you don't need it.

In Bronwyn Jameson's recent book from Silhouette Desire we see the heroine through the hero's eyes and with every line the tension and conflict escalates, until in the final paragraph his emotional reaction to her is laid bare for the reader to see.

'Vanessa Thorpe. His father's widow. The enemy.

In every one of those society diary pictures she looked as glossy and polished as a trophy prize should... which had left Tristan speculating over how much was real—the platinum hair? the full lips? the petite but perfectly curved body?—and how much came courtesy of his father's wealth.

He hadn't wondered about the sparklers at her throat and in her ears. Those, he knew, were real. Unlike her other multi-faceted assets, the diamonds appeared on the listed valuations of Stuart Thorpe's estate.

But here, now, seeing her in the flesh for the first time, Tristan didn't notice anything fake. All he saw was the very real sparkle in her silvery-green eyes and the smile. Warmer than the August sun at his back now that the rain had cleared, it lit her whole face with pleasure and licked his body with instant male appreciation.'

From THE BOUGHT-AND-PAID-FOR WIFE by Bronwyn Jameson, Silhouette Desire

Notice how Bronwyn Jameson zooms in on the character. In the first line she's the enemy, a world apart from the hero. Then we see her in the social pages—still distant—then the hero looks closer, at the jewels against her skin, assets with a hard cash value. Finally, she's revealed close up in the flesh and his preconceptions go up in smoke. There's an instant romantic tension.

Use your setting and the objects within that world to evoke what the character is feeling—her fear, her cold, her longing or whatever else she may be feeling.

'She gained it within a few more minutes, but did not sit down. The stone would be too cold with nothing to protect her but her thin evening dress. Instead she leant against the balustrade, trying to steady her breath, her pulse, and gazed out over the night-darkened Mediterranean, at the tiny waves breaking on the rocks below the terrace. Above her, stars were pricking out, and behind her the moon was starting to rise. An almost imperceptible breeze came off the sea, tugging her hair into tendrils around her face, freeing them from the confines of the low chignon at the nape of her neck. The mild night air netted her, the scent of the sea and the pines quieted her. Slowly she felt the heat seep from her cheeks, her heart-rate slow.'

From PURCHASED FOR REVENGE by Julia James, Harlequin Presents

Don't forget that other characters form part of the landscape too. Let your characters interact. Let them touch each other and react.

'"Tell me the story..." he said.

We were lying in bed, making love. I pretended that I hadn't heard him and instead breathed in the sweet smell of his hair mixed with the rougher smell of his skin slicked with sweat. I licked the part of his salty neck that was pressed closest to my mouth. The tendons were hard ropes against my tongue. I hoped this would distract him but it didn't and he asked again: "Tell me. Who is he?"

From LYING IN BED by MJ Rose, Spice

Use every chance you have to use your setting and the characters in it to underscore the central conflict within your story. In the following extract Susan Wiggs sets her character up as the outsider looking in on a world she's not part of. Feel her emotion.

'Through gaps in the trees, she could see people walking in pairs or foursomes, chattering away. It was only the first day of camp, yet already, kids were figuring out who they were going to be friends with this year. Lolly already knew they had ruled her out, of course. They always did. If it wasn't for her cousins, she'd be up a tree, for sure.'

And then in the next paragraph the reader gets specific details allowing her to visualize Lolly. And we're led to a revelation that sets up a tension against how Lolly feels inside:

'She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose, and felt a dull thud of envy in her gut as she looked at the other campers, who already seemed totally at ease around one another. Even the new ones, like the lanky boy, seemed to fit in. Fresh off the camp bus, they strolled side by side, yakking away and laughing. Some of the girls wore their camp hoodies slung nonchalantly over their shoulders, their innate fashion sense evident even with the regulation clothes. Most of the boys had their Kioga bandannas tied around their foreheads, Rambo style. Everybody strutted about as though they owned the place.

And of course, that was kind of funny. None of these kids owned Kioga. But Lolly did.'

From SUMMER AT WILLOW LAKE by Susan Wiggs, Mira Books

Your setting and the props you, the writer, choose to use in a scene to advance the story is the external landscape. What your character wants and desires and fears is part of the internal landscape. You can often use the external landscape to highlight or set up a tension against what is happening within the heads and hearts of your characters.

Take every opportunity you can find to strengthen your story, that way your reader won't want to leave the seductive world you've created.

© Tessa Radley, 2006

This article first appeared in Heart to Heart the official RWNZ newsletter. The article may be reprinted in newsletters of writer's organizations provided that no consideration changes hands, that the article is used in its entirety and full credit is given to Tessa Radley as author.