Do more than see...
© 2002, Lazette Gifford
reading is (usually) a visual experience, writers tend to focus on visual
descriptions and leave out some of the other senses.
In this exercise I'm going to give a brief description of a few places
and things, and show how the other senses can sometimes be called in to help
define a location and give it more depth.
what was it really like to live there...
Lodge (Nebraska City, Nebraska) was built in stages, and completed in 1903.
It belonged to J. Sterling Morton (as in the salt company), who had been
Secretary of Agriculture under President Grover Cleveland.
The fifty-two rooms are filled with everything from Tiffany glass to a
small private bowling alley in the basement.
High on the hills above the Missouri River, this turn of the century
mansion looks like the epitome of decadent living.
Consider this house on a day like the one where I took these pictures.
Nebraska was under a heat advisory. Temperatures had topped the 100°'s
(Fahrenheit), with heat indexes around 110°(f).
The building does not, of course, have any air conditioning. Even the
fans placed here and there were anachronistic.
The rooms felt hot, stifling and smelled of warm paint, dust, and
anything else that could let off a scent when warm. Metallic like door handles
or bed fames radiated heat. Open
windows let in only a slight breeze, but the humidity was appalling.
would be different. Many rooms had
nice, cozy fireplaces. In some
buildings like this one, cooking would have moved from the Summer Kitchen (a
separate building) back into the house, allowing that warmth to help.
A winter blizzard might trap people at the house for days... but in a
place like this, would it really matter? In
some cases that would depend on if you were a guest or a servant.
beyond just the colors and shapes of the place.
Imagine yourself trudging up and down the stairs from one floor to
another. Cleaning all those rooms, cooking for the many guests, including
occasional Presidents and foreign diplomats.
note of this sunroom -- even though it looks cool and inviting, the temperature
was very warm. It would be too cold
in the winter. And did you notice
the TV and folding chairs? Quite
out of place in this setting where everything else is turn of the century decor.
chance you get, go to a building other than your own home and write out
descriptions of everything except what you see.
This is especially effective if you go to a historical building of some
sort and try to imagine the place without any of the modern conveniences.
them out in sets -- intrusive sounds that don't seem to belong
you would expect to find here.
Sounds that you think should be hear, but you don't notice.
This might also be a good spot for anything 'historical' that is no
scents: Perfumes? Cigarette smoke? Cleaning
scents: Wood? Plants? Breeze?
there a special taste associated with the place?
is usually overlooked except during meals or if someone feels ill.
But we use the sense of taste in conjunction with smell quite often,
and don't notice it.
does not just mean with the fingers. How
does the floor feel beneath your feet?
The chair at your back?
let's look at Chaco Canyon Cultural Center, New Mexico. You would think this is a different world, compared to the
pictures of Arbor Lodge. But they have one important thing in common -- the
weather. Chaco has hotter summers
with a bit less humidity, and the snow in winter is not as deep -- but still as
cold. However, the way the people
survived the weather is entirely different.
ruins of the buildings found here were built half a millennium before Arbor
Lodge. No railroads existed to
bring luxuries from the East Coast and make life pleasant with Tiffany glass and
hand-painted china. Even today, the
visitor finds only a dirt road through miles of desert arroyos (dangerous during
summer storms) to this remote area. Sheep,
cattle, and sometimes horses run wild along the edges of the road.
Hawks sweep through the wide sky.
White dust covers everything, and the rough road shakes the car and makes
it nearly impossible to hear anything else.
But the journey will take you back in time to a place that is rare in the
United States. These ruins look very much like the ruins you might find half a
sounds of civilization are almost entirely absent. There are no local food
establishments, and there is no gas station.
The Visitor's Center sits to the side of the road, a haven of
air-conditioned luxury. After miles
and miles of dry, dusty roads the visitor unexpectedly finds pavement -- a path
that takes them in a circle around the canyon walls, with stops at five clusters
of ruins. Trails lead to other
ruins as well. Because of the
inaccessibility of the place, it is sometimes possible to come here and spend an
entire hour standing in a ruin with no one else around.
yet, despite the difficult terrain and the inhospitable landscape (which may
have been somewhat better during the age of the settlement), these people
prospered and lived well. They trapped rainwater running off the canyon walls
and diverted it into gardens and dams. They
carved lovely flutes, and objects in jet and turquoise.
They even traded with groups in Mesoamerica, and imported Macaws from
closest wood came from at least four days’ journey away, and yet they brought
hundreds of beams that had to be carried by several people, and used them to
roof their buildings and reinforce the floors between levels.
people who built in stone carved from the walls of the canyon.
Some of the buildings stood three stories high, with balconies.
Interior rooms were usually small, and doorways might be little more than
crawl spaces. Circular religious
buildings -- Kivas -- can be found in every group. Walls still stand at various
heights, many of them showing their original doors, including the unusual
key-shaped doorways whose purpose is still a mystery.
newer buildings have walls of darker stone; the better, reddish stone had
already been used. Several styles
of walls can also be seen, for those interested in mapping out the influences
and ages of the different groups. Different styles can also tie the buildings to
other cultures: McElmo, Mesa Verde, etc.
writer who deals with material outside of today's society needs to be able to
imagine (if not actually visit) such a place as Chaco Canyon. Here, not only do the buildings look different, but the
sounds and scents are different as well. In
the case of Chaco Canyon, natural sounds become far more pronounced.
An odd squeal turns out to be a lizard caught by a bird.
Movement in the brush is a jackrabbit coming out at sunset. Winds really
do make different sounds blowing around the buildings.
so popular for barbeques these days, is a weed -- a brushy weed that grows
throughout the area. On hot, dry
days, it fills the air with a sharp, tangy scent.
Breezes might carry the scent of wet earth from a distant storm.
And feel? Dust everywhere, a
dry abrasive feel that seems to be wearing the world away beneath it.
you are writing about an area that is not the world as you know it, how much
have you explored that world beyond the sense of sight?
Can you feel the ground beneath your feet on an alien world?
Can you define the scents at a medieval market?
Even if you are writing about a time and place you know, have you taken
the time to do more than set up the scene visually?
Take your current WIP and open to any scene.
See if you can add any of the other four senses to make the scene come