Friday 28 July 2017

Creative Pulse - Week 5 - Sensory Storytelling

By Bernice L. Rocque
Images by JD Lewis
A snippet drawn from a writing group agenda - for the full session, see here

Can you recall reading a book that transported you, as if into a sensory painting --- one where you could taste the food, hear the sounds, smell the aromas (or stenches!), feel the textures, and perceive the deep or subtle emotions of people? When the storytelling is that fine, we cannot help but “slip into” the story, beyond its physical words.

Recently, my writing group explored the topic of Sensory Storytelling: What is it? What does it look like, sound like? When is it truly artful? And of course, how can we increase the sensory depth and quality of our own writing? Here are two steps.

Analyze excerpts from a highly sensory novel.

Read and discover the sensory language in the provided excerpt.

Start of Chapter XII, Blood Rose Angel by Liza Perrat, a work of historical fiction.

It is 14th century France. The Plague is about to strike…

In this excerpt, Raoul, stonemason husband of Midwife Heloise, the protagonist, has just traveled home from a cathedral job in Italy with an apprentice (Crispin) and in the company of a street vendor (Merlin), who are now guests in their home (“cot”) for a few days. The relatives of Heloise mentioned are: Ava her deceased mother, Morgane the daughter, and Isa the aunt who assists Heloise with midwifing. The characters expect to attend an annual fair that day.

Please print the extract and read without pausing to analyze anything.

I woke on the morning of the Spring Fair, several days after Raoul’s return, with the chill of a wraith walking by. I thought of Ava and grasped my pendant.
Raoul slept on, his throaty breathing steady. I caught Isa’s wheezy breaths and Morgane’s quiet ones, and down by the hearth, Merlin Lemarchand and Crispen snored loud enough to wake the Devil. All was well in my cot, and I couldn’t imagine why Ava’s spectre would haunt me on this morning of our greatest fair, celebrating the height of spring. Maybe it wasn’t Ava, but the terrible deaths of Jehanne and her child still gnawing at my heart.
I shook off the shiver, disentangled myself from my husband’s limbs and laced up my kirtle. I climbed down the loft ladder and washed my face in the basin of water.
Feeding in sticks, I fanned the fire’s dwindled night embers, flame shadows soon dancing on the wall. Besides its warmth, we kept the fire going to make draughts, so the air was always smoky, but sweet-scented with the rosemary we kept burning to purify the air of any sickness ailing people might bring to our cot.
I opened the shutters, inhaled the scent of drenched earth and loam, and once I’d broken my fast I took the leather pails out into a morning wrapped in a fine mist. In the frail grey light, cottages, barns and trees looked like ghosts, and all who were tending livestock seemed anxious to finish their chores. The Spring Fair was a well-earned break from the harsh toil of our daily work and a bit of threatening weather wouldn’t dampen anyone’s spirits.
‘This rain won’t last, Midwife Héloïse,’ one of the lepers called, as I lifted an arm in a wave to them. ‘You’ll see, we’ll have as fine a Spring Fair as any yet.’
I smiled back, but sighed at the injustice. The lepers had never been allowed at the fair.
As I returned from the well with our water, Merlin sat up on the pallet shivering as I set the kettle on the trivet to heat.
‘You’re cold,’ I said, ‘I’ll heat some pottage to warm you.’
‘Yes, cold.’ Merlin hugged his arms around himself. ‘… and hot too.’ He tried to stand, stumbled and fell back down. ‘Oh and … and giddy.’
I touched a palm to his brow. ‘You’ve got a fever … a touch of ague. Best you stay in bed today.’
Merlin looked startled. ‘No, no. I can’t miss the Spring Fair; can’t miss this opportunity to make a bit extra.’
The noise must’ve woken Crispen with a start, as the apprentice leapt from the pallet. Staring at Merlin, his eyes wide and filled with—was that fear?—he sprang away from the trader, towards the cot door.
‘Whatever is wrong, Crispen?’ I said.
‘N-nothing … m-must’ve been in the m-middle of a nightmare.’
‘A terrible nightmare to make you stammer like that.’ I eyed him warily as I filled a beaker with boiled willow bark cordial.
‘Here Merlin,’ I said, ‘something to ease your fever.’
A fit of shivering gripped Merlin as he took the beaker with a trembling hand and drank thirstily, slopping the liquid onto the rushes around him.
Merci, Mistress.’ He slumped back onto the pallet. ‘I’ll be well soon, I’m sure … can’t miss the fair.’
‘Well let’s hope it’s only a touch of the ague,’ I said, sprinkling fleabane and alder leaves over the rushes. Merlin was scratching at his flea bites again so I hung dried fleabane from a rafter too, for extra protection.
‘Odd, isn’t it,’ I said to the trader, as I clambered down from the stool, ‘how those little black soldiers find one person so flavoursome and another not at all?’

Begin your analysis:

Circle any word, phrase, or series of words that helped you to better Visualize, Hear, Smell, Taste, or Feel the setting, a character, the action, etc. Code the circled items with V, H, S, T, or F. Then, tally how many you found of each type.

After completing this analysis, use these questions as prompts, for yourself if working alone, or as discussion starters with your partner or members of your writing group. Following each, jot down any thoughts you want to remember.

1. Which concepts do you use regularly? Which ones would improve your writing if you used them more?

2. Which examples really made an impression on you? Why?

3. Which sensory words or phrases did you feel were the most effective? Discuss why.

4. Any other thoughts about the sensory words and phrases on the excerpted pages?

Collect insights for improving your own writing.

Select a small piece of your writing that you feel is bland. Revising for sensory depth would likely improve it. It should contain mostly narrative; a little dialogue is okay. Do not improve it before you share it, if working with others.

Read your selected piece and identify sensory storytelling opportunities, as follows:

If working alone, review the insights you gained by analyzing the excerpt from Blood Rose Angel. Now, try to apply some of those concepts and examples as you review your short piece.

If working with a writing partner, exchange your selected pieces of writing. Read your partner’s excerpt and provide relevant question prompts that reflect sensory storytelling opportunities of the Visual, Hearing, Smell, Taste, and Feeling types.

If working with members of your writer’s group, conduct a brief brainstorming exercise:

Write your name in a top corner of the page, and then pass your page to the writer to your left. Set a time limit of 10 minutes. Carefully read the page you received. Then, notate (on the bottom half page or on the blank back side) any question prompts for Visual, Hearing, Smell, Taste, or Feeling opportunities the piece owner might consider, as in the sample of my writing you reviewed earlier.

When the time expires, repeat the process again, by handing the piece you just reviewed to the person to your left. If time permits, repeat the process a third time.

Complete the exercise by returning the pages to their respective owners, and share a few of the sensory “opportunities” received.

Create cues that will remind you which sensory storytelling strategies you want to employ more in your own writing.

Review all the materials and notes you made and select 3-5 improvement strategies. Transfer them as brief cues onto an index card. Keep this list near you when you write and revise.
Here are a few examples; everyone’s reminders will be somewhat different.

· Sounds?

· Nostalgic aromas?

· Textures?

· Quality vs. Quantity (best sensory word selected)?

· Sensory description reflecting the character’s level of experience?

Congratulations, you have completed this online class for improving your sensory storytelling.

I want to close with a personal note. A few days after my writing group completed this exercise, a writing group member and I were talking about what we learned from the meeting. She inquired if I had ever read The Red Tent, a novel by Anita Diamant, published in the late 1990s. I had not… So, she kindly lent me her copy. Oh… what an amazing reading experience! The Red Tent is a fine example of sensory storytelling in historical fiction. Anita Diamant was a journalist and author of nonfiction prior to writing this novel. She embeds her terse, yet rhythmic writing style with artful sensory descriptions.

Bernice L. Rocque writes memoir and fiction based on her family’s history. Her first book, UNTIL the ROBIN WALKS on SNOW, was published in 2012, in the latter part of an eclectic career in the disciplines of librarianship, education, consulting, and project management. Her work in progress centers on the beloved bootlegging grandfather introduced in “Robin.” You can follow her at:
@UNTILtheROBIN on Twitter
@Bernice.L.Rocque.Author on Facebook

Next week on Creative Pulse: Filtering with Jason Donald

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