Making the senses real

Low section shot of legs of two construction workers wearing jeans and brown leather work boots standing with man in suit on concrete floor

When writing fiction, our imaginations can often be enough to bring our characters to life. However, there is a point where nothing beats writing from real life experience, especially when writing an immersive emotional experience for the reader. I’m talking sensorial, visceral details here.

Let me give you a sensorial example from my own experience: the hellish odor of a packed maintenance lift at the end of the day shift on a construction site. The best I can liken it to is spraying the interior of a room with a mixture of cow manure and dumpster, then sucking all the air out and replacing it with bad breath. Here is my first person summary for those who want to steal it for their own writing:

I was on the sixteenth floor, only focussed on the quickest path to stripping off my work boots, showering and ordering Thai noodles. I could wait for the next lift, but I knew from earlier in the day that it may not come. As the door closed, my stomach lurched: I could have taken the stairs. Even in mid-summer Queensland, maintenance lifts typically have no aircon. Pack that with hot, sweaty bodies, and the temperature is tropical. I ended up smushed against a middle aged carpenter who could not hold in farts (yes, plural). As I gagged and locked eyes with a colleague whose amusement at my plight was obvious, I realized one benefit of this situation: even if I forget to shower and lose my deodorant, I will never ever worry about how I smell ever again because it could not possibly be this bad.

I didn’t even know the above was a “thing” before experiencing it—it’s what you might call an unknown unknown. Fortunately, the internet is a rich source of first person accounts on just about anything. If you’re writing about an experience you have not had personally, I urge you to seek out blogs, YouTube channels, specialist hobby groups and forums.

Sometimes, though, it is not enough. For example, how can you write a realistic shoot out if you’ve never fired a gun? YouTube goes a long way, but the emotion of pulling a trigger can catch you by surprise—another unknown unknown—especially for those of us in countries where the privilege of firing a gun first requires proficiency in paperwork and bureaucratic gymnastics. You could holiday in Honolulu, and spend time at one of their indoor gun ranges, like I did. Or ask a friend who loves shooting. Even though I have personally fired a pistol, I still checked in with my gun nut friend to explore his feelings about shooting and compare them with mine. I also learned from his anecdotes about himself and his other gun nut friends who are hunters and hobbyists and cops.

Don’t forget about the other senses. For example, it is fairly easy to accomplish authenticity in taste. If my characters are eating a particular dish or drinking a drink that’s important to the story (for example the Basbousa cake my protagonist eats that reminds him of everything he’s lost), I make that dish, or bake that cake. I smell and taste what they are experiencing.

This is what I believe takes writing to the next level because it adds the spice of life and realism. What do you think?