When I was a kid, my mom had this crazy wallpaper in one of our bathrooms. It was black and white, and covered in pictures of cartoon people poised by outhouses—all kinds of outhouses, in trees, on beaches, in the woods.
Whenever I went in that bathroom, I’d stare at the wallpaper until I noticed something different, some tiny detail that I hadn’t seen before. The older I got, the harder I had to look, but eventually, I always found something.
One of my main characters in my current work in progress is blind from birth. It’s been a real challenge trying to “see” the world from her point of view. I’ve blindfolded myself just to see how long I could go without using my vision. It hasn’t been very long. I had a terrible hair day and typed several paragraphs with my fingers on the wrong keys.
But I did learn to pay attention to the other senses, and how those other senses make me feel. So, take a second and learn to notice.
Close your eyes in the shower. What does the water feel like when it hits your back? Your face? Does it relax you? Or hurt? (I’ve stayed in a friend’s house where the shower pressure was so strong the water stung. We had to cover the showerhead with a sock to diffuse the powerful spray.)
What does it sound like when you unload the dishwasher? Or start your car on these freezing cold mornings? What can you hear in bed at night? From my house, I can hear the train whistle—but only at night. It comforts me.
Take a bite of a food that you hate and focus on why it is you hate it? Is it the texture? Or the taste? Or does it remind you of hospital food? Close your eyes and run your hands over your desk. Or over your family’s faces. I’ve done that a lot recently, and it’s an interesting experience.
It’s these details that add life to our stories. We all know this, but sometimes, when we’re writing we get bogged down in the plot and our characters, and miss out on the opportunity for some great sensory details.
These details gain value as they often become the source of symbolism and themes, and carry unifying motifs throughout the story. A splinter in the finger that grows, festers, and is finally removed. The smell of mom's bacon and eggs luring the family out of bed--until the mom dies, taking that smell with her. The touch and swish of a girl's first silk party dress becomes a symbol of her coming of age.