With All of Your Senses

Wednesday, October 07, 2015
by Bernadette Geyer

One of the best ways to experience a place is to be there. Outside of that, reading a wonderful collection of poems, or a work of prose, has the ability to convey a wealth of sensory information about a place. By stimulating all of a reader’s senses – not just one or two – you can captivate a reader and help them experience a place.

Consider how you experience a place. How do your senses shape your experience? Let’s look at some ways of writing about a place that can evoke all of the senses.

1. Sight – Details about what can be seen at a place are very important. Use details that set “this” place apart from “other” places. There isn’t just “a bridge” across “the river”. What type of bridge? A covered wooden bridge? A steel suspension bridge? Which river? Is it a wide river, or a river suffering through a drought?

2. Sound – Think about the layers of sound in a place. There is the layer that is most obvious, such as car engines, or helicopters flying overhead. Then there is the layer that is hidden by the louder layer. Are there children playing in a courtyard? Voices in the next room? Details here are also important as you may not want to simply convey that there are “voices,” but that these are the voices of two businessmen having a heated discussion about a project. You may not just hear children “playing,” but you hear the sound of a ball being kicked against a wall while a baby cries.

3. Smell – Is there a smell particular to the place you are writing about, such as a Maryland beach boardwalk with the smell of fresh fish and Old Bay Seasoning? Perhaps you are writing about a summer fair and the smells of cotton candy, funnel cake, and sweaty children. In the town where I grew up, we could tell when the steel mills were operating because the stench of sulfur was nearly impossible to escape.

4. Taste – Sometimes, how a specific food tastes is highly dependent on the place where it is being eaten. For instance, how would the taste of a hot dog from a baseball park vendor differ from the taste of a hot dog at a backyard cookout? Or the taste of a hot dog that’s been steeping all day in an iron pot full of sauerkraut at an Oktoberfest event in Bavaria?

5. Touch – Even the feel of a windowsill as a character rests her hand on it will differ due to place. Following a dust storm in Tel Aviv, everything exposed to the outdoors is coated with a fine layer of dust. The windowsill of a cabin in the woods may be sticky with sap from the evergreens around it.

There are many ways to describe a place in your writing. These are just some of the examples. By considering how you would describe your environment to someone else, you will also be more attuned to the wonders of the unique space that you inhabit at this moment.

Bernadette Geyer is the author of a full-length poetry collection, The Scabbard of Her Throat, and a poetry chapbook, What Remains. She is the recipient of a Strauss Fellowship from the Arts Council of Fairfax County (Virginia, USA) and was a finalist for the 2011 Brittingham and Pollak Prizes. Geyer has served in the past on editorial boards of an independent press and literary journal, and has led workshops for The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. She lives in Berlin, Germany, where she works as a freelance writer, editor, and translator. Her web site can be found at http://www.bernadettegeyer.com.


Join Bernadette's upcoming online class, WRITING ABOUT PLACEwhich starts on October 26, 2015. Visit our classroom page for details and enrollment.



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