25 February 2015

Wednesday Writing Prompt #11

Part of the Showing technique, part of making a reality of flat words on a page, is to imbue those words by using the senses – sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.

In this excerpt from The Paintings I use ‘smell’ to break a run of terse dialogue via a mobile phone:

   ‘How’s it going? Done yet?’
   I braced my shoulders in annoyance. ‘Done yet? We’re not liable to be done this week never mind today. What have you discovered about Needsham?’
   ‘There’s little to discover.’
   ‘Rubbish! What have the police said? There’s no way, no way at all, that the man can be classed as a simple missing person. His apartment screams his vulnerability from every room. At the very least he was – is – unbalanced.’
   ‘Excuse me...’ Derek started. ‘Let me remind you that the company has no social worker role here. You were sent to assess artworks, so will you please calm down. Have you uncovered any more?’
   I took a breath, conscious that my heart was racing. ‘Yes, a woodland scene, a badgers’ sett.’
   ‘As good as the last?’ I could hear Derek’s eagerness and gritted my teeth.
   ‘You’ll see when we bring them back to the office.’
   ‘Ah... you can’t. At least not at the moment. Nothing has to be removed from the apartment until the paperwork is in order.’
   I tensed. ‘I thought it was in order.’
   ‘Evidently not as in order as everyone thought. As you surmised, it’s a question of ownership. I believe lawyers are speaking.’
   ‘Oh for goodness sake...’
   The fire door opened and McGuire swept through on a glorious waft of fried fish and vinegar.
   ‘Lunch has arrived,’ I said. ‘I’ll ring for an update later,’ and I thumbed the button, not waiting for Derek’s response.

If you happen to be reading from anywhere outside the UK you may well be frowning, but for those in the British Isles a glorious waft of fried fish and vinegar will have piqued their salvia glands and evoked a need to breathe deeply of the sharp mix of scents. Think what would have been lost if the line had merely read The fire door opened and McGuire walk in with a carrier.

I am also flagging this version of a British takeaway so I can refer to it later in the story, but in a different context. Day old fried fish and vinegar reeks; there’s nothing glorious about the food cold. This works well in a Supernatural Mystery where decay is an underlying feature, where the characters are on edge and nothing is quite as it appears.

If I were writing a Romance I would be using smells of food that are light on the palate, delicate and luscious on the lips. If I were writing a Thriller set in America I’d be using the greasier smells from a chain diner dependant on the State/region.

Don’t have your characters go into an eatery at the end of a chapter and be out of it at the beginning of the next. Food is very important to us. Make the smell and taste and texture of it work to create a realism to your writing, and a tone to augment the genre you are writing for.


  1. Interesting post, Linda. The senses are so frequently neglected in storytelling so that only the visual gets any stage time. This piece illustrates well the value of using the other senses.

    1. Thanks for calling by, Stuart. As you say, we rely on sight far too much in our writing. We're a generation of too much TV bias.