Using 5 Senses In Your Novel Writing, by Pauline Francis
To be a good reader or writer you need to use sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.
Sight is probably our most used sense when we read and write, because we use our imagination to create the scene in our head, however much description there is. The setting of a novel is probably the thing we remember most vividly. I like enclosed settings rather than vast spaces. I like colour to be symbolic, such as the Tudor red-gold hair that displays ancestry or the white dresses that mark innocence. One of my characters was executed in February and I used snow to that effect and the fast-falling snow hid her footsteps very quickly, as if she’d never been there – suitable for a sixteen year old girl who had been queen for only nine days.
Sound is especially important to create tension. A scream opens Traitor’s Kiss and sends the young Elizabeth rushing from her bed but it’s the lack of sound afterward that creates the tension of the opening chapter. It’s the time of day when the palace should be stirring. The sight of a stranger creates tension. The swish of the sword that killed Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, is never far from her thoughts, as is the fear of it on her own neck. The slap of mud from the River Thames hides foul secrets, uncovered via poor drowned souls hauled out for money, and echoes the mud that clings to Elizabeth because of her mother’s supposed bad reputation, which is the subject of whispers in corridors.
Touch can accompany such things as compassion, assault, abuse, punishment and love. Traitor’s Kiss is based upon claims that Elizabeth’s stepfather, Thomas Seymour, came into her bedchamber when she was alone and tickled her, and that they later were seen kissing. In Traitor’s Kiss, this one kiss led to Elizabeth’s banishment from court and fight for survival.
Taste is a more neglected part of writing. In Traitor’s Kiss, I portrayed Elizabeth’s love of sugar, which was still new to England at the time and only affordable for a few. Elizabeth’s teeth reportedly rotted early, although you’d never guess from her portraits. I wanted to link this to the main theme: the abuse by Thomas Seymour. Sugar roses (roses made of sugar paste) were a royal treat and I had Thomas Seymour bring her one on her birthday, when he kissed her. So her favourite taste became matched in her mind with something forbidden.
Smell can be over-used in clichéd symbolic form (eg. ‘he smelled danger’ or ‘she smelled of fear’. It can be used to great advantage in a more personal way. Historians tell us that Henry VIII had a very keen sense of smell. When his leg became ulcerated and pus-filled later in life he couldn’t bear the stench and always had lavender and rosemary burning in his chambers. Elizabeth inherited this sense of smell and I chose to make this the most important sense in Traitor’s Kiss. I created a fictional character – a pot of perfume. Perfume can link memories powerfully and it’s through perfume that Elizabeth remembers her dead mother. I had her use it to bring back early memories, realising how much her mother loved her and that she must do credit to her name. The perfume is given to her by a stranger and has overtones of danger, since poisoned perfume was often used.
You may already be using all your senses as a writer or reader without realising it. Go over your favourite books in your mind and see if they link strongly to any of the senses. A good one I can think of is Trash by Andy Mulligan, which is about scavengers on a rubbish dump and was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.
Paulines Francis’s author website: www.paulinefrancis.co.uk
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