How do we perceive the everyday physical world around us? And how to we perceive the world of a story? As readers, we really enter into the world of a novel if we experience it not only mentally but physically (however unconscious that may be) through sensory perception. We have been given five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. Most writers – probably all – make abundant use of the first, the most dominant sense. We are given visual descriptions of scenes, of characters. Personally, I become irritated when an author stops to introduce each new character with a description of his or her height, age, hair colour, facial appearance, clothes, and so on, ad infinitum. More of this in a minute.
Unfortunately, all too often many writers ignore the remaining the four senses and so deprive the reader of full participation in the fictional world. When I was teaching English literature to university students I regularly harangued them about noticing the use of sensory perception in the works they were studying. Not only does sensory perception draw us in to the fictional world. It is often a clue to the characters’ state of mind, or underlying relationships between them, or some theme the writer wants to evoke.
Thinking over how to discuss this here, I decided the best way would be to illustrate it from my current work-in-progress, the seventh book in The Chronicles of Christoval Alvarez series. The time is the summer of 1591. The weather was exceptionally hot and dry that summer, so dry in fact that people were able to wade across the Thames in London from the City on the north bank of the river to Southwark on the south. There was a bountiful harvest, the crops having received sufficient rain earlier in the year, unlike the later 1590s, when there were crop failures and famine.
The heat was oppressive, though it had its benefits, because the players in Burbage’s company were able to perform every day to large audiences. It also had its drawbacks, like the problems of the Thames:
The river was so low, even in the centre, that from time to time the wherry lodged on mud banks, so that the wherryman was forced to push us off with an oar. Moreover, he was so exhausted with the heat and he rowed so slowly that I thought we should never make any headway against the current, even as sluggish as it was.
Later, Kit looks through a window at the river:
I went to stand by the window, looking out over the garden to the river, which was almost empty of boats. Until the tide came in, nothing larger than a wherry would be able to navigate it. The farmers who sent produce by barge down from Oxfordshire, and all the counties in between, must be cursing the shrinking of the river. And the London shopkeepers who depended on them would be cursing too, finding themselves unable to supply their customers. Were it not for the small farmers between Southwark and Lambeth, and those along the road to Hackney Downs, London would have started to go hungry, an ironic state of affairs in a year of abundant harvests.
This is all part of a strand running through the book, that the heat, perceived by touch, is affecting everyone and has all sorts of ramifications. Elsewhere, Kit sees a woman in a loose cool gown, while: Caged in the heavy folds of my physician’s gown, I envied her. Forced to wear the appropriate dress for a physician, Kit is constantly irritated by it. She is particularly conscious of the heat, having spent the last year amongst the snow and ice of Muscovy (plenty of opportunity for touch there!).
The sense of taste is evoked, of course, during mealtimes, but also at certain crucial points in the story, as when Kit experimentally tastes a little contaminated wine, and describes the substance which has been added (I’m not giving that away here).
Sight is crucially important, and I don’t skimp on it. However, I try whenever possible to use it sparingly, not in long, unremitting passages of description, aiming to allow these to arise naturally in the course of action. Sometimes they serve to evoke a state of mind. Kit rides out into the country. Her circumstances have taken a turn for the worse, and she needs time to think. Rikki is her dog. (Incidentally, Hackney Downs was a beautiful part of the country then, trust me!):
Here we were in true country at last, so I gave Hector his head and we galloped up the rising ground of Hackney Downs, his hooves thundering hollow on the dry earth. The breeze in my face was as refreshing as a splash of cold water.
On a little knoll there was a stand of trees, venerable oaks and chestnuts, interspersed with alder and rowan. I reined Hector in to a canter and then to a walk. As soon as we reached the trees, Rikki flopped down in the shade, panting . . .
I stretched out on the grass myself, just within the shade from the trees, but where I could look down on London below me. From here it appeared so tightly packed, the houses jostling each other cheek by jowl, it seemed there could be no room for the streets, no room for people to move about. Everywhere the spires of parish churches stabbed upwards, so that the city looked like a monstrous hedgehog crouched beside the Thames. Up here the air was clear, but a summer haze hung over the city, making it seem as insubstantial as a mirage.
Below this higher ground, between the Downs and the city, farmland stretched out to east and west. I could pick out the hay meadows, reduced to stubble now, where sheep and cattle had been turned out to graze. The sweet perfume of cut hay still filled the air, rising up to my perch like incense in a church. Surely the scent of hay is one of Nature’s most blessed. It seems to hold the essence of summer. The fields of corn – wheat and barley and some oats – were already golden. They would be harvested soon, a month early at the least. This would be one year without famine.
Weather was so unpredictable. Two or three years of bad harvests and the poor starved. Wasn’t there some story in the Bible? About storing food for the lean years? Yet even in the good years there never seemed to be crops abundant enough to store in case of future need. London grew and grew, inexorably, with more and more mouths to feed, many incomers turned out of their country livings by landowners who saw more profit in sheep. Surely this must mean that the supply of food must be shrinking, even as the number of hungry townsmen was growing?
This is a longer passage than usual with me of what passes for description, but I hope you can see that I am doing several other things here. As for the sensory description, there is not only sight but smell and touch and sound and implied taste. The purpose, of course, is primarily to explore Kit’s state of mind.
I mentioned that I dislike blow-by-blow descriptions of a character’s appearance in other people’s writing, and avoid it myself. I will use a few small details. For example, Simon is slight and fair when Kit first meets him, still young enough to play women’s roles, though he is eager to move on to men’s parts. I let you know gradually that Kit is quite tall, slender and wiry, for she walks endlessly, rides exceptionally well, and later is taught basic swordsmanship. It is not difficult for her to pass for a boy. As a young girl she had luxuriant dark hair, now cropped short and rather regretted. The rest I leave to the reader’s imagination.
With the historical characters, I drop in a few known details – Walsingham looks ill (he was constantly ill), Thomas Phelippes has light brown or fair hair, is very short-sighted, wears spectacles, had minute writing, bears some scars of smallpox (all attested in contemporary documents). Everything else I leave out.
Music is important is several of the books (not so much in this one), so that also appeals to our sense of sound.
Here’s a final passage from the work-in-progress. After their uncomfortable boat trip up the Thames from Old Swan Stairs to Somerset Place (now Somerset House), Kit and James Burbage make their way across the mud to the water gate and are admitted to the property by a servant of Lord Hunsdon:
Once we were within the walled precinct of the gardens, sounds from the outside world of city and river were cut off. As we were conducted along a cool path between pleached lime trees, we were enveloped in the languid perfume of roses, growing in profusion within their geometric beds and climbing up ornamental pergolas, while my gown brushed against a low border of lavender beside the path, releasing its sweet but slightly astringent scent and disturbing a cloud of bees. The air was full of them, flying purposefully along their invisible aerial highroads, back and forth from the abundance of flowers which filled the immaculate garden across to a row of hives, dripping with their sticky gold, which stood under the shelter of the brick wall surrounding the property. One zipped past my face with a hum like an arrow in flight, so close I could feel the tremor in the air.
I hope you can see that all five senses contribute to our sensory perception of this brief moment of quiet pleasure, which takes place immediately before a very uncomfortable and difficult meeting.
So that’s a sample of my attempt to bring my fictional worlds to life. If such worlds are to engross us, draw us away from the present day into the story, I believe both the writer and the reader should be able to enjoy the physical reality of those worlds with every single one of the five senses.
Till next time,