Whether you’re writing about Venus for earthlings or a disastrous first date, the Napoleonic Wars or your grandmother, every book invites readers into its world. Even a cookery book has an atmosphere of its own and is often rooted sensually in a particular place.
You know your book’s world and so do your characters. How do you write it so that it not only convinces your readers but gets right into their blood?
Let’s start in the here and now.
The senses exercise
Sit on your own somewhere, anywhere. Let yourself become aware of nothing but where you are and what your senses tell you. Scribble what you find, just for yourself.
Are you warm or cold? Can you feel the air moving on any of your body? Become aware of what you’re wearing and what pressures it makes on different parts of your body. Which parts of your body are tense? (I usually write in something like a sprinter’s starting position, forward on the chair, up on my toes.)
Check your way through the five senses. Four of them are handy there on your head: eyes, nose, ears and mouth (taste), with the fifth covering all of you in what you touch and feel. What do you smell, what can you hear and so on. Most of our senses are more complex than we realise day to day. We can stretch our hearing for example to catch a thousand sounds from far away even on the most silent beach and can the zoom in like hawks for precision if we choose.
This is can do several important things for us writers:
- This trick helps us concentrate on our writing wherever we are, however distracting and noisy it is. Use the distraction, concentrate on it, write about it and its detail for five minutes, then select the bit that takes you into your writing world. In no time, you will be writing happily in your bubble.
- This exercise can (as Proust showed us) take us on a ramble through our memories, something we can harness for the good of our writing.
- The more you develop your ability to be aware of specific details, the better your writing will become. Notice yourself and the effects your life has on you. If we’re afraid, our heart and breathing rates increase, our stomachs might clench and we might start to shake. How and in what order do you feel these things? Does one effect lead to the other or do they happen independently? What do you taste when you’re afraid? These details are our writing paradox: we’re looking for unusual little things that the readers might not have noticed much but which they recognise immediately as true. It is a search all the time for specificity, and for emotional truth.
How do we find details in our character’s world?
Have a scribble-chat with your characters. Ask them one by one about where they live and work and note down the answers as you go with pen and paper or your laptop. No need to stop and tidy, this is exploration for you and nobody else. It’s the kind of chatty, best-friends interview I’ll post more about next week. Ask about:
- Home – kitchen and bathroom, main room, bedroom(s) and especially the bed. Tracey Emin was right, your bed can tell more about you than almost anything else.
- The car, including what’s in the boot and the music. It’s not just about those designer headlamps flashing past everyone on the motorway or the dog baskets in the back – how does your character feel the minute s/he sits inside and sets off?
- Work – the location, the place itself, equipment, people, air-conditioning or not, the loos, whatever comes to you. How does your character feel there?
- Hobby/pastime – the gym, golf club, pub, dance studio, mall, choir room. Again, what emotions roll through your character in places like that, and on the way to and from them?
- Family – Mum’s place, Nan’s place, girlfriend’s place etc.
- The home(s) your character grew up in.
- School/uni or college?
- Holiday – favourite and least favourite places and why.
This saves you loads of time later and primes you to write better and more deeply in your first draft.
It’s also really good for limbering up your imagination, your style and your talent for seeing the world through your characters’ eyes and hearts. More about that last one next week …