The best authors in history make readers imagine, believe, and feel they are living and breathing within a story. But to achieve this harmony of sights, sounds, and smells in words, a writer must draw on an understanding or an experience that makes it real.
In this week’s blog, author Kelly Saderholm talks about “sensory memory” and its importance in telling stories that pop. I’m a believer. Sensory memory field trips really can make a difference. Let me know if they make a difference in your writing, as well.
Happy Reading! And until next time, read like someone is burning the books!
Sensory Memory Adds Grist to Your Story
By Kelly Saderholm
A few years ago at Killer Nashville, I had a conversation with Jeffery Deaver, who knows a thing or two about research. Using the analogy of an iceberg, he said most of the research he did never made an appearance on the page, but it formed a solid base of knowledge to support that little bit that did show up. This is true. Readers do not want a dissertation in the middle of their story, but they do get irate with Writers Who Did Not Do The Research. This takes quite a bit more effort than to just Google a subject.
Athletes and dancers talk about “muscle memory”. Fiction writers develop and draw on “sensory memory”. There is still a need for research, but it is a different kind of research than facts and figures of a research paper. A writer has to research sensory aspects, especially for place: what does it look or sound like? How does it smell, taste? In addition to acquiring facts, when writing, an author would do well to take a sensory field trip.
I’m currently writing a novel in which a gristmill makes an early and important appearance. When I began the project, all I knew about gristmills was a wheel went round and round and somehow produced flour or meal. That’s all most people care to know, but this scene with the gristmill will set the tone for the whole book, and I need the readers to know that I know what I’m talking about. So I started researching gristmills online, and I even found a publication about them. Handy research tip: any topic you can think of has a society, or some sort of following. Those followers will produce journals, newsletters, websites, etc., and they love to talk about their subject. I also had the good fortune to meet a gristmill keeper, who told all sorts of great stories.
The James Rice Grist Mill at
Norris Dam State Park
But even after all this, my scene still felt flat. I felt that it lacked . . . something. I had all this great information, lots of research about gristmills, but the scene just needed something else. Happily, there is a (sometimes) still-working gristmill in Norris Dam State Park in Tennessee, which I visited.
I learned things on a sensory level that I could not learn from reading the Journal of American Gristmill keepers. For example, how very clear and cold the water of a mountain stream is; how slick (almost slimy) the wooden sluice is from generations of water flowing through; the splashing of the water escaping from the buckets of the wheel; the crunchy (and somewhat disturbing) sound of grain being milled and the meal dust and grit in the air.
You can do this for your own research. I even incorporated research into trips I was planning to take. For this subject, I looked for other parks or museums in the area, whether there are entrance fees, and what were their hours. The Lenoir Museum, next to the mill, for example is free, but closed throughout the winter months, and even some days in summer. Close by, the much larger Museum of Appalachia (a Smithsonian affiliate) is open year-round, but it has a fee. For almost any museum, if you contact the staff ahead of time, as I did, and let them know what you are interested in, they can suggest or even arrange a special tour for you. Very often, museums have demonstrations and you can find out exactly the info you need; in my case, how corn is turned into meal, and then baked in a wood-stove or fireplace.
Doing Your Research Can Pay Off
Museums may also have archives, databases, artifacts that are not on display, but may be available for study for a researcher. Check these out in advance. Also visit the gift shops for specialty books, maps, CDs, postcards, and other objects for later inspiration. I picked up a bag of stone-ground meal, a cushion made from an old flour sack, some books, and lots of postcards.
In my original scene, characters drove to the mill on a road. They met with the keeper, he gave them information, and they went on their way. The scene now has a treacherous, twisty road; the gritty grinding adds an ominous touch when the grizzled old keeper tells a gruesome tale. The information they want is peppered with bits of folklore. He leads them along a slippery, mossy path to his house, now furnished with objects I saw in the museums. It is all much more interesting now, and yet there is no more factual information in the revised scene than there was in the first. My sensory memory field trip made this scene “pop” and also gave me sensory material to work with for the rest of the novel.
Kelly Saderholm has written, blogged and lectured about aspects of the mystery novel. She has moderated panels and presented papers at literary conferences, on both the Mystery Novel and Urban Fantasy. She is currently shifting from writing about mystery fiction to writing actual mystery fiction and is working on a novel, as well as a non-fiction book dealing with Folklore in the American South. She is a recipient of a Kentucky Foundation for Women grant. She lives in South Central Kentucky with her family and two feline office assistants.
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