Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Workshop
Do more than see...

By Lazette Gifford
© 2002, Lazette Gifford


Because 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.

But what was it really like to live there...

Arbor 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.

But... 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.

Winter 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.

Look 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.

Take 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.


Exercise

First 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.

  • Sounds

  • List them out in sets -- intrusive sounds that don't seem to belong

  • Sounds 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 longer present.

  • Scents

  • Intrusive scents: Perfumes?  Cigarette smoke?  Cleaning supplies?

  • Natural scents: Wood?  Plants?  Breeze?

  • Is there a special taste associated with the place?

  • Taste 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.

  • Feel

  • Feel does not just mean with the fingers.  How does the floor feel beneath your feet?  The chair at your back?

A different world

Now 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. 

The 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 world away.

The 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.

And 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 that area.

Their 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Any 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.

Mesquite, 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.

Exercise

If 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 more alive.

  • Sound

  • Scent

  • Taste

  •  Feel