In The Realm of the Senses

Pedestrian Writing

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
We've previously discussed the importance of referring to all of the senses in our stories, and I've given examples from my own writing. Including as many of the senses as possible in a scene adds realism, for after all, we're 'on' all of the time—and so are our characters—feeling how cool the room is, as they talk to someone, observing their reactions while hoping that they're not distracted by the car alarm squawking outside.

In my WIP, I was writing about an art dealer who's just taken delivery of a macabre oil painting, a birthday present to himself. He prefers art to people, having a sensual relationship with his possessions, so I described not just the look of the painting, but also its odour, weight, size and how the image aroused the new owner :oops:. He goes to hang it in a soundproof chamber whose door is hidden behind a centuries-old arras, which allowed me to write about what he touches and hears and the smell of the deeply carpeted gallery.

I've been reading around the subject of art, including novels and non-fiction on art theft, forgery, famous collectors and painting technique. I'm currently enjoying a novel called The Last Painting of Sara De Vos, written by Dominic Smith, which is about a 17th-century Dutch painter of that name, intertwined with a narrative about the theft and forgery of her painting, set in New York in the 1950s,

There's a masterful sensory description at the start of the fifth chapter, which is titled Upper East Side—MAY 1958, as the owner of the painting walks along a street, after celebrating a promotion at his office:

A spring heat wave. Marty leaves a French restaurant in his shirtsleeves on a Friday afternoon, his jacket over one arm, hat in hand. He's a little drunk, the aftertaste of anise and steak heavy in his mouth. When he pushes through the big wooden doors and steps out onto Fifth Avenue, the city hits him in the chest, like he's pushed open the door to a foundry. The light dazzles him for a moment—a burst of acetylene coming off the metal and glass and pavement. He can smell burning tar and sees that a rod crew is filling potholes at the corner, much to the displeasure of the honking, idling cabbies. The scene is captured in the storefront window of a venerable old jewelry shop—a jittered filmstrip of men leaning on shovels against a bed of black velvet and diamonds. Marty sees his cameo flicker across the window. He could buy Rachel a celebratory gift, but then he's half a block away and it's already an afterthought. Two doormen commiserate about the heat under a canopy and they nod to him as he passes. He's always had a soft spot for doormen—his father used to call them the city's blue-collar admiralty. He can feel the sidewalk burning through the leather soles of his shoes and little blasts of air waft up his trouser legs and blow hot against his shins. He crosses to the park side of the street, for the deep shade along the stone wall. Clay was insistent that he take the rest of the day off, so he heads north along the park, away from the office.

It's clever how the author directs the mind's eye of the reader; Marty's experiences become yours, creating empathy.

Have you come across any sensual writing, that put you right there in the scene?

Maybe I'm picky but I wanted to critique the example you posted. Why is he telling us what his character 'can feel'. That's some bad writing and I was not so overcome by the rest of it that I could get past him canning me. Next thing he'll be starting or beginning to do something. Maybe 'fixing to' -- which come to think of it -- would be preferable.

So. I found a pdf of The Witching Hour by Anne Rice. Because she's the best. Although, I don't know if she's still the best. She has this in the opening pages of the novel. I didn't think I'd have to look far:

He got out of bed and padded silently across the carpeted floor until he stood in front of the sheer white curtains, peering out at black sooty rooftops and dim neon signs flickering against brick walls. The early morning light showed behind the clouds above the dull concrete facade opposite. No debilitating heat here. No drowsing scent of roses, of gardenias.

Gradually his head cleared.

He thought of the Englishman at the bar in the lobby again. That's what had brought it all back - the Englishman remarking to the bartender that he'd just come from New Orleans, and that certainly was a haunted city. The Englishman, an affable man, a true Old World gentleman it seemed, in a narrow seersucker suit with a gold watch chain fixed to his vest pocket. Where did one see that kind of man these days? ¨C a man with the sharp melodious inflection of a British stage actor, and brilliant, ageless blue eyes.

The doctor had turned to him and said: 'Yes, you're right about New Orleans, you certainly are. I saw a ghost myself in New Orleans, and not very long ago -' Then he had stopped, embarrassed. He had stared at the melted bourbon before him, the sharp refraction of light in the base of the crystal glass.

Hum of flies in summer; smell of medicine. That much Thorazine? Could there be some mistake?

I deleted some but I couldn't bring myself to delete any more than some. It all builds up to that last line, which isn't the end but it's where I sigh. Anne Rice has committed a writing crime here -- a felony at least. Her character wakes up from a dream in the first chapter in the first book of her series. It's enough to give pedants across time a reason to loathe her. But I can see the Englishman and I'm interested. Her language is beautiful. I'm already hooked and want to go download it now and read it again. You can too.

The Witching Hour

I won't swear to the value of the site because I haven't consulted my safe piracy guru. So, use at your own risk.

She uses at least three senses which is the magic number to my understanding. She takes into account the state of her character. There are steps to him waking up. It's reflected in the rhythm of the sentences.

She actually commits a much worse writing crime if the text on the website is correct. Let me go get that part (it appears I was totally uncommitted to my vow to delete some):

Come Together


THE DOCTOR woke up afraid. He had been dreaming of the old house in New Orleans again. He had seen the woman in the rocker. He'd seen the man with the brown eyes.

And even now in this quiet hotel room above New York City he felt the old alarming disorientation. He'd been talking again with the brown-eyed man. Yes, help her. No, this is just a dream. I want to get out of it.


Whose point of view is this in?

Now I want to go get a printed copy of the book to verify it. So, a trip to the used bookstore appears to be in order.

Is it wrong? An editor didn't change it? I'm not sure. There might be a reason and I think it would require reading the whole book.

People remember the vampire books but her witch books are actually better, in my opinion. Also, she has some stand alones that are really gorgeous.

Anyway, use at least three senses, make sure it has a purpose, scent is the strongest sense, and don't overdue ... that's the advice I try to remember.
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Pedestrian Writing

News Women mock bad male writers