In her book, Beginnings, Middles and Ends, Nancy Kress writes that at the beginning a good story makes a promise to the reader that the reader expects to be fulfilled by the end. My blog title promises you a simple suggestion that can help create the kind of characters and scenes that will reach out from your the pages and ruffle up the senses of your reader so that she feels sensuously involved in your plot. Just so we’re clear here, I refer to the term “sensuous” in its most direct meaning: perceived by or affecting the senses.
Okay, I admit, I put the word “sensuous” first because it does sound just the teeniest naughty and I did want to get your attention. But first I want to refer to “cerebral research,” and that, to me, means parking your tush in front of the computer for hours to research some facts about which you have no earthly clue. It’s an important start; it sort of gives you a general idea of what you are trying to describe. But it’s cerebral, not tactile. It’s perceived through your brain matter and not your senses. To put it more simply, consider the time-worn advice, “Write what you know.” What we know comes from the brain, but the brain is fed by our senses.
In writing my book series about the Oasis Ladies, I have the benefit of living where my story takes place in the desert, in Arizona. Still, there are things in my story I don’t have personal experience with. One of my characters is Native American. My research involved a visit to the Heard Museum in Phoenix (Native American cultures). There I met members of various tribes serving in the positions of docents and volunteers, and was given the opportunity to converse with them in an informal, non-intrusive manner. Aside from what I learned about their culture, I could observe the nuances of their gestures, the inflections of their speech patterns, and appreciate their physical features.
In my book, my main character Stella Woods, who has little experience riding a horse, must travel on horseback to visit the family of a mysterious night visitor who is digging in her neighbors’ yards. Like Stella, I’ve done very little horseback riding. I took myself to a trail riding ranch and got some hands-on experience, feeling the ripple of hard muscle, inhaling the smell of dusty hide, communicating with them (okay, I had to do all the talking—but they listened to me with their big ears and their curious eyes–and I got a responding snort now and again). I took a short ride, acutely aware of how my body, unfamiliar with the motion of the horse, reacted.
The important thing is to immerse yourself in your sensuous research. Do it alone (not a social outing with a friend who can distract you) and make immediate notes while your impressions are fresh. The truth of your experience will shine from the pages of your writing and your reader will feel like she is making the journey right along with your characters.