Adding the Senses into the Spice of a Story.

Yes, all five. A dash here. A smidgen there. Mix well. Bake until the crux has turned a bubbly golden brown. A wholesome meal good for the mind as you lick lips at every savory word.

Okay. I’m talking about writing, not cooking. So you can stop gnawing on the keyboard now.

I talk about writing whenever I am on the verge of starting a new project. I sit for a time while thinking of all the good parts and tips I had learned in the last story. Then I remember all the new ideas I want to pursue this time. Some of the things I need to immerse myself in (and talk about today) are the human senses: sight, touch, taste, smell, hearing.

It is incredible how these things can shape a story. They can grab the readers’ attention and have the people fall headfirst into your writing as they send you the hospital bill and a summons to appear in court to pay for damages. But oftentimes we forget to explore such realms, except for two: touch and sight. We are doing a disservice to our stories when these are the only senses we concentrate on. And it doesn’t matter what genre you are writing in: literary, commercial, romance, YA, thriller, science fiction, fantasy, or short fiction (especially short fiction.) You need to make your story come alive for the reader. You need to capture all their senses until the readers feel as if they are in the room, leaning against the wall, drawing in lazy puffs of cigarette smoke, and wanting to join in or at least take pictures of the scene so they can sell it to the tabloids.

Do you want examples? Of course you do. Everybody loves free samples, er, I mean examples. These are just the ones I have written. You might have a few that can better express the senses.

A click sounded and the door swung wide. Mitch had seen a clumsy landscaper’s misplaced delivery in the bedroom. Yet that was in the Spring. This was Summer. Things had changed.

Bushes. Flowers. Thorns. Everywhere. Boards boxed in the floor around the bed and dresser to keep the soil away from the area near the door so it could swing open and close. The dirt lay piled up to two feet high in some places with long rods inserted in the mounds. Wire tied the woody limbs to the stakes to keep them upright. Branches reached outward almost engulfing the few pieces of furniture in the room. They surrounded the bed and over it, allowing a small space for someone to climb in. Leaves created a natural blanket for the sleeper.

I saw movement in the soil and in Clare’s bed. I could guess what it was but flicked on the light anyway to get a good look. My body leaned forward as I saw the earthworm tumble off the pillow and down into the soil on the floor. My fingers reached over and flicked off the light. I backed out of the room. The key made sure the lock caught.

Yeah. All right. A plant nursery grew in my grandmother’s bedroom. I could handle this despite Granny Clare having my mind tripping at the sight without the drugs.

Forgetting the missed cue, Trevor lost himself in the music. His voice thundered into the microphone with his mind completely locked into his special place. Now it was just Trevor and his guitar, as he stroked the strings and they responded to the caress by purring out their notes in satisfaction. His pants tightened below his waist while feeling the vibrating instrument rub against him in this musical game of give-and-take. Pleasure. Sheer pleasure.

I placed my cheek on the floor, devastated to the point of tears. Musty. The linoleum smelled musty with an old fruity aroma of many shoe prints. Overripe with what the previous occupants had brought inside. Excitement caused by the job promotion as they had never seen the yellow puddle in the grass from the feral cat. Happiness from winning the basketball rematch as the players’ sweat from the auditorium had filled shoe treads. Sadness created by the bad report card as they had stomped with frustration upon every unwary bug on the sidewalk.

Cold mint. George’s tongue ran over the surface holding a bitter tang and sweet snap of sugar euphoria that he enjoyed when chewing on black licorice dipped in Dr. Pepper. The heat from his mouth stripped away the first savory layer. Yet he lingered on the second. The flavor had changed. Deeper. Pungent. Dirty in the way of many hands covered in salty sweat and bitter perfume and deep-fried foods overcooked until charred.

He tried to tug his tongue away. Yet the chill air had frozen the saliva against the flagpole, fastening his tender taste buds onto the metal. George knew he should have never accepted that sucker bet.

I pulled my eyes from Mitch’s entry. My feet walked over toward the circular spot staining the gypsum board above. It must have been here Grandpa referred to in his journal. Yet he had mentioned a plaster ceiling. Was it the original covered over by the second made of tiles?

My hand reached up but I was too short to bump a tile out of the metal track. Not even the bone helped as I stretched it upward to scratch the rough surface. I hated drop ceilings. Saw no real use in them. My childhood home had one, and I could hear scratching noises as the mice played relay races on the tiles. Scritch-scratch toward one wall then the same sound toward the other, knowing my father had laid down traps as I waited with anticipated dread.

Scritch-scratch. Scritch-scratch. Scritch-SNAP. Silence.
The senses. Explore them all. Place them in your writing. See what you can bake up. But don’t forget to send me a slice. This post has made me hungry.

Quirky Characters

Today, I want to talk about quirks.

We all have quirks, whether it’s the eye roll whenever we hear a tasteless joke, the habitual clearing of the throat to gain someone’s attention, or the hip thrust with the hand placed on one side in the indignant pose when someone is acting silly.

Your characters do have their own unique quirks, don’t they?

If not, you are seriously missing an important element in your writing: creating an engaging character. In my last post, I rambled off a little story post. In this, a child was experiencing her taste of winter as her mother walked into the kitchen. The mother had a very interesting quirk. Let me refresh your memory with a snippet.
The water in my palm splashed onto the outdoor carpet as I wiped my hand on the hard fibers. I scooped another unformed snowball up, flicking away the tainted bits until I found a clean spot. My teeth bit down, shoveling the flakes inside, cooling my tongue. The cold white caused a brief shiver through my muscles and brought a grin to my lips. The snow tasted like presents.

The snorts proceeded her into the kitchen. My mother sucked in air through her nose claiming her allergy irritated sinuses. Every five seconds it happened, punctuating the air and halting her mumbling words spoken to herself. Yet the action seemed more instinctual.

When she had watched television, the noises would stop with her fully focused on the glowing screen. After the show had ended or an annoying commercial appeared . . . snort-snort-snort.

Back in the kitchen, I heard a large deep snort of disgust. She must have noticed the open porch door, felt the cold draft, realized whose shadow sat in front of the sun-filled storm door window.

For the mother, her snorts became her quirk. A psychological tendency she had during her boredom or when angry as she showed her disgust. When her mind focused on something, like watching television, the snorts never appeared.

A quirk can be anything, but it has to first identify the character. Even more, a writer can change such a trait - evolve it - with their character whose behavior should evolve and change with the story plot.

An example: You have a shy female character. Her quirk could accentuate this shyness, like a lopsided grin she only allows herself as she hides her laughter. By the end of the story, events change where she is more comfortable with herself. The defining moment is when she lets out a guffaw of laughter around those people who once made her feel uncomfortable.

Another example: You have an intelligent male character. His quirk is the classic raising of the eyebrow when around those people he feels are intellectually inferior. During the plot, he meets a mentally-challenged person whose childlike tendency softens his heart. Whenever this person shows bursts of compassionate wit, the intelligent male character no longer raises his eyebrows but scratches them in humbleness.

A quirk doesn’t have to take a center stage in the story. I’ve read one where the quirk was so dominant in the character, spread throughout the text constantly, that I grew bored and disconnected with the book. This was a true shame because it was a really good story. But a writer can kill an audience’s interest instantly when the only thing holding together the storyline is the quirkiness of the character. (I find this happening more often in humorous stories than anywhere else.)
Here are a few types of quirks you can give to your character:

Reflexive reaction/motion - This is when a character’s quirk only appears if something else happens. Oftentimes it covers up their own emotions.

- A peculiar sneeze or a cough during an embarrassing situation.
- A muscle tick or chewing on fingernails in nervousness
- A tapping foot or cracking knuckles in impatience.
Psychological habit/tendency - This goes at a deeper level. Something traumatic had happened in their past and it forces them to have such a quirk today.

- A trembling leg whenever seeing a dog cross the street caused by a dog bite happening during their childhood.

- The rubbing of hands when hearing a news story about a house fire or seeing someone flick on a lighter. Perhaps when he or she was a teenager, the character had vandalized a house by setting fire to it without knowing there was someone else inside.

- A clearing of the throat and spitting on the ground when seeing a parent verbally disciplining their children. It goes back to the character’s past when their parents disciplined them, perhaps in a negative way.
These are but a few idiosyncrasies I have listed. I encourage you to find your own to fit into your particular storylines. Give your characters quirks to make them unique to the reader, but don’t overdo it. As with every element involved with writing a good story, find a balance.