Wednesday, March 11, 2015

WRITING WEDNESDAY WITH ELLEN KENNEDY


BUT HOW DOES IT MAKE YOU FEEL?

I was driving along today listening to the classical channel on the radio and experienced a sudden catch in my throat when an acoustic guitar began playing. I knew right away why. This was the sound that often emanated from our basement when I was a child. It was the sound of my daddy, the court reporter, taking a relaxing break from his work transcribing court testimony. Hearing it gave me a safe feeling and also a poignant sense of longing for his gentle and humorous company.

 

Smelling the perfume Toujours Moi always makes me almost believe that my mother is nearby. Long after she died of cancer, my dad’s car still retained the fragrance of that appropriately-named fragrance. Riding in it made me a little sad.
 

I spent a lot of happy hours in my local public library as a youngster. It wasn’t one of these sleek chrome-and-glass buildings, but an edifice resembling a schoolhouse with the unique and indescribable smell of used books, tightly crammed together. That library was a treasure trove to me, full of adventures yet to be realized.
Why this trip down memory lane? I hope to inspire you to dig out your own sensory memories to use in your writing. But there’s more: what do these memories inspire? Sadness? Happy memories? Joy? Fear? Or even hate?

 

When telling a story, it isn’t enough to describe things using the five senses: vision, hearing, taste, smell and touch. These individual experiences need to represent something in order to move your story forward. It’s good to be aware of this as you write, although it may be almost instinctive in some writers.
 

Let’s say you want to create a particular kind of atmosphere. In my work-in-progress, I describe my main character Amelia Prentice descending into one of those old-fashioned root cellars underneath her family’s big, hundred-year-old house. Her friend Marie has already been down there, emerging shocked and speechless. Amelia is determined to find out why. (I’m trying to create an uneasiness, just this side of fear.)
 

It wasn’t quite as cold in here. A string hung from a light bulb on the ceiling, but I knew it would be futile to pull it. The light from the open door was all I had to see by. I sat on the bottom step and waited for my eyes to readjust.
 

As a child, I’d been frightened of this place, of its deep shadows, of the dank smell, of the possible spiders or other interlopers. In recent years, I’d ventured down here occasionally, but had mostly ignored it. Now, however, was not the time for long-ago bugaboos. I squinted into the darkness with determination…
 

I huffed on my ungloved hands, which were becoming numb and rose to relieve my hindquarters, made equally numb by the cement step.
 

What could have upset Marie so?
 

I continued scanning what was visible in the dim light. To the right of the furnace, two old brooms leaned against a stack of cartons and nearby, three very old plungers stood at attention on their own.

Why has nobody thrown those things out? I thought absently.

 
Amelia is only slightly afraid when she goes down into the cellar, but gradually, the atmosphere gets to her.

Still squinting, I stepped forward and my foot struck something metallic that rolled off into a shadow. I pursued it and discovered Marie’s flashlight…

 

All at once, the light picked up a flash of red under the lowest shelf on the dirt floor. I swung back and saw a high heel shoe with a distinctive red sole. It was attached to a foot and an ankle, which I followed with the beam along to the hem of a skirt.

Here, clearly, was what had so rattled Marie.

Expensive high heeled shoes with red soles…

 
Nope, not a place to hang around in for long.

Let’s review some of the senses involved: she feels the cold (on both her hands and her bottom), sees the burnt-out lightbulb, sees the darkness, smells the mustiness and mold, sees the castoff junk, hears and feels as her foot hits an object (the flashlight) and sees the leg of the murdered woman. The only thing she didn’t do is taste anything.

 

My field of specialization is fiction—mystery fiction, to be specific—but this kind of descriptive detail is also invaluable in writing non-fiction, too. Take for example the memoir of a fellow writer and friend of mine, Harry. In our weekly writers’ circle, he has read aloud sections of his life story which is interesting, but the real delight comes in his details. We learn what he ate and drank as a farm boy in the twenties and how he felt as a naval pilot during WWII and on up to the present. His story has become three-dimensional in our minds, because he has gone into great sensory detail:

The smell of the potatoes he and his friends roasted at the end of a hardworking day on the farm; the flowers the men planted next to the hastily-built military shelters on an exotic and very dangerous Pacific island; the delightful softness of his wife’s cheek at his long-awaited return, and on and on.

 

When I grow up, I want to write like Harry!
 

I have a tendency to write impatiently, to get the skeleton of the story put down on paper (or computer screen) and--there you are! It’s been a challenge to dig into my experiences and those of others to give flesh to the skeleton, to make it come alive and dance. As the leader of my writers’ circle, it’s been my goal to inspire my fellow writers to accomplish this as well.
 

And now, I challenge you: get out there and smell, taste, feel, smell and listen!
 

And write about it!

E.E. Kennedy is the author of the Miss Prentice Cozy Mystery series, about a high school English teacher: Irregardless of Murder, Death Dangles a Participle, Murder in the Past Tense and number four in the series, Incomplete Sentence, to be released this fall. She leads a weekly writers' group and babysits grandchildren in her spare time. She and her husband live in North Carolina.
 

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