explore & write real spaces

This is a simple exercise in paying attention to details when you’re going about your daily life. If you commute by train it’s easy; it you don’t, it’s worth finding somewhere similar to explore.


Head down concrete stairs into a railway underpass (or under-bridge; or other heavy, dimly-lit structure). Feel the grit underfoot and the jolt of each impact on the steps. Try to imagine you had to do this blindfolded. How would the feel of the space change as you entered the underpass and left the outdoor air?

Pause to inhale deeply. What do you smell?

See if you can think of a visual image that represents that smell. If it’s bus exhaust, you might see a tailpipe. If it’s rotting garbage, you might see a withered apple core.

Stop just long enough to jot these mental images down.

Touch the interior wall or concrete — how does it feel? If it’s rough and cool, try to pinpoint in your mind exactly how it feels. Is there powder residue? Is it damp? Do you feel ‘weighed down’ by the concrete mass overhead, or are your impressions different?

See if you can recall an emotional experience that connects in your mind to the physical sensations of touching the underpass wall and the hard ground underfoot.

Stop just long enough to jot down one significant early memory that you can associate with these sensations — for instance, schoolyard asphalt or the area between two hulking school buildings.

Next, pause in the middle of the underpass to listen to the sounds. Is there a noise of traffic? Or is it quiet? Can you hear water trickling? Are there pedestrian noises? Trains roaring invisibly somewhere? If you move on through the underpass, do these sounds change?

Stop just long enough to jot down these sound-impressions. Try to capture each noise as exactly as possible — that is, try to spell out each sound you hear. If you hear traffic it could be a ‘hum’ or ‘brrr’ or ‘whoosh’, or it could just as easily be nothing resembling a word. Disregard ‘proper’ language. Just try to be as exact as possible when writing the sound.

Lastly, stand at any point in the tunnel (or other structure) and use your eyes in ‘snapshot’ mode to take instantaneous impressions. That is, simply put, blink. Are there any larger impressions or shapes that take your fancy (between eye-shuttings) or remind you of something else? If you do feel reminded of a powerful image (dinosaur? island? cavern? warhorse?), jot down your idea, no matter how little sense it might make to someone else.

The point out of all this isn’t to look or feel silly to other communters. It isn’t even to find useful ways of describing an underground rail passage. It’s to develop the ability to write with feeling, from immersion inside an environment.

And of course it’s to stop and study a place you might not usually pay attention to, in order to gather useful information you could use when writing something similar (such as a cavern, smuggler’s lair, dungeon or bunker).

EXTENDED EXERCISE: In two or three paragraphs, imagine and describe being lost (and perhaps pursued) in an underground structure using the sensory information you gathered.

Point of view for this exercise can either be yourself, or a character you invent for the purpose.

character in setting

In an exercise on sensory writing I spoke of entering a roundhouse and imagining the textures, smells and visual imagery. However the exercise could easily be extended to show some of the ways in which character can be used as a ‘filter’ through which to visualise — with greater depth and mood — a given environment.

In fact, if you’re using character at all, you need to think about the way they see and feel their surroundings. This exercise is aimed to help extend your ability to portray this.


Take one of your own existing characters and plant him or her inside an ancient village roundhouse. Concentrate not on why the character is there, but on the pure perceptions of place. Is this character tall? In that case your character would see from a particular vantage, and might be able to discern swallow nests and so forth in the rafters, or failing that, perhaps they’d find themselves having to stoop to avoid inhaling the dense cloud of upper-level smoke.

If your character is short or a child, think differently. What do they see? What do they nearly step on? Who appears dominant to them? Is your character likely to feel nervous? Might they be disdainful of ruder ways of living? Are they used to luxury? Do they have a rat phobia? All these things will affect how they see, feel and experience the roundhouse, and therefore how you’ll describe it.

Write a single paragraph that expresses most fleetingly and exactly the significant ‘feel’ of the space according to that character. Stick to broadbrush things: smell; light; impression. When you write sensorily you often use impressions because they stick in the mind better. The easiest and most succinct description is often a metaphor, so don’t necessarily try to be exact or literal.

For instance, here is a basic description from a neutral point of view:

A wide hearth lay in the centre of the room, surrounded by a circle of stones. On its fiery core bubbled clay pots, while above hung strands of drying meat.

But now imagine how you could use description :

A red maw opened in the floor, stone teeth gripping an array of clay pots and strung meat.

What would the latter kind of description say about the character doing the observing?

simple metaphor tool

woolIt’s easy to come up with metaphors, but do they work? Let’s try.


Make two separate lists of words and word-groups. On the left, list tangible things that easily spring to mind. Now cover it while you work on the second list (or your brain, if it’s anything like mine, will try to cheat by making concepts that suit the terms you’ll be borrowing). On the right hand side, list intangible things and complex ideas.

It’s good if your tangible things are also very visual, by the way. Of course imagery can incorporate concepts, sounds and smells, but let’s go with visual for now.

Try not to ‘intend’ anything; the point is to try to surprise yourself when it comes to matching terms to ideas.

An example:

kitten ambition
tin whistle attraction
sock drawer political expediency
wool togetherness
hinge the art world
termite politics
shark suburban life
bus old age
castle preventive medicine
Siamese twins marriage
pebble envy
cellophane solitude
chocolate summer
onion death
zipper hesitation

When you’ve got your two lists, read across the page and try to find links between them.

Can ambition be represented by a kitten? It’s hard to know, so let’s see:

The kitten of his ambition toyed with the wool ball of her… Oh, crikey. That’s dreadful.

Still, I’m thinking there could be a link if I use ‘ambition’ to mean ‘desire to pursue romantically’.

He found himself studying her wool as she jerked another length out to knit with. The ball danced in his vision, tantalisingly out of reach. He wanted to grasp it, to stop her knitting, but instead he only mewed: ‘I want you.’

There’s a kitten there, surely. And ambition. And also (another word in the list!) a ball of wool. So I’d say I’ve been somewhat successful, wouldn’t you?

What can you come up with out of my list words or some of your own?

It’s fine to jump around each list, by the way. There’s no need to feel you absolutely have to stick to reading across the page, though I have to admit, ‘tin whistle of attraction’ might have something going for it.

But what can you do?

sensory writing

Did I mean sensory, or sensual? In essence, both. I’m talking about concrete ways to make a work more sense-aware as well as making its characters (and setting) seem more ‘real’. It’s also about learning to describe perceptions.

Smells like a rose?

For instance, how does a rose really smell? A rose is a rose is a rose. But some mornings it smells like watermelon. Other times, like velvet on a peach. When you tell the reader an object smells like something they hadn’t expected, you create a link that lingers (just like an aroma) in the mind.


Let’s imagine we want to set a story in a roundhouse during the middle ages.

Roundhouses were made of wattle (a method of weaving sticks between uprights) and daub covered over by masses of thatch. They were called ’roundhouses’ because a circular array of poles supported the rafters. Thus the wattle-and-daub (mud) wall was merely the shelter while the structure was visible as a series of poles circling the space inside.roughweave

But while knowing the above is necessary for being able to describe a roundhouse, it doesn’t necessarily place a reader ‘in’ there. And we want that immersion, right? So in this exercise you need to think and write sensorily.

Using past experiences, what do you think it would be like to close your eyes and stand in the middle of the roundhouse (not on the hearth, mind!) smelling and ‘feeling’ the environment? Do this in your mind or jot down single phrases or words to capture the feeling.

Doing this, I get: smoky; dingy; vaulted; muffled; stew-smelling; earthy; cavernous; and so forth.

Using your word-list as inspiration, write a paragraph describing what it’s like to enter the roundhouse for the first time.


using the senses to extrapolate

We all use our senses, some of us differently or in more limited ways than others.

noseThe point of this post (and associated exercises) is to develop a more ‘writerly’ approach to sense-thinking. It’s about harvesting the information that is at your disposal in order to convey what isn’t. This can help make your settings and events as well as characters feel more ‘real’.

I’ve said before that novel writing is 10% experience and 90% extrapolative invention. Of course, if you’ve lived through an earthquake, you probably don’t need to do much extrapolating.

But perhaps you were a bit too busy thinking of surviving to pay attention to details, or perhaps like me you were out of town when the earthquake hit.

So how do you write in-the-moment (that is, sensorily) about something you’ve never lived through?

– you can research — of course. Researching an event is an important way to gain insight. However often this is distant insight — useful for overview, but not so useful when writing from the perspective of a character in the moment being described.

– you can experience similar (presumably lesser) things and extrapolate.

Having only lived through my share of noteworthy events, I’m a big fan of extrapolation.

So what sorts of things am I talking about ‘extrapolating’ from?

If you’ve ever slid down crumbling scree or fallen off a moving object you have some experience with which to begin to imagine the earth shaking and ground moving. How about being on a train or bus that suddenly stopped?

If you’ve ever hit your knuckles hard, you’ve got some clue of what it might feel like to have one’s fingers chopped off or stomped on by a boot. That is, you don’t know how either of the latter feel, but you’ve some idea how it might.

If you’ve ever loved or been loved (requitedly or unrequitedly), you can imagine how to write anything from romance to adoring (or losing) a child.

A fight scene can be rendered more ‘real’ if you can remember and write how it felt to fall, take a knock, or lash out at something.

So how do you turn these remembered sensations into something bigger-picture or more gripping? In large part that’s the wordcraft business. To do this more effectively, look at my other posts on writing from the senses and metaphor.

Meanwhile, it can help to jot down a list of memorable experience you’ve had, and try to write at least 3 words or phrases that sum up the sensations or emotions involved. Be as glib as you like; for instance you might sum up the end of an affair like this:

shock — rejection — loss.

Those are three flat, unimaginative words, right? But now we can turn them into equivalent physical sensations to make them seem more graphic, so they might linger in the mind of the reader. Emotions can be described via physical movements as well as sensations.

For ‘shock’ you could think along the lines of how your body felt during a shocking moment: chilly; numb extremities; tingling; tight-lipped; dry-mouthed. Was there a lightning (hot or cold) flood through the limbs or a jabbing in the temples?

For ‘rejection’ you might describe sensations of shrinking or shrivelling; protective flinching; hot-headedness; dizziness; acridity in the mouth; bile or another bad taste. You might slouch; you might cringe; you might stare helplessly into space.

For ‘loss’, you might feel your clothes have become too big; you might grasp at things; you might feel hollow-stomached; you might continually look for something that isn’t there, or drop a hand onto the seat beside you frequently.

Whatever you describe, putting emotions into physical terms, if you can do so without resorting to cliché (‘pain in the heart’) will help them seem more ‘real’, while paying attention to how your senses work means you’re in a better state to write any situation realistically.

Just be careful if you decide to fall off a bicycle down a hill of scree for ‘research’.

two-word character creation

The way to do this is to begin by looking at what film people call a ‘pitch’, or short punchy paragraphs used to sell the idea for films. Pitches are good to examine for the purposes of writing because they employ as few words as possible to sum up the conflicts hindering a character, and also hinting at that character’s journey.

Usually in a pitch the description of the character is no more than two words, the first being an adjective relating to personality, a vital physical characteristic or general outlook, the second a noun drawn from a verb (that is, a word describing the person’s job, main activity or chief interest).

Thus we could have a woebeggone archaeologist, an embittered principal, a jaded writer, a talking pumpkin… whatever.

Of course there’s a major art to getting the character to mesh in somehow (or clash with?) the theme. But that’s another story. Right now I’m just talking about coming up with ‘tags’ you can use to begin to flesh out your characters from scratch. After all, sometimes all we have to start with are words.

What I propose you do is make two separate lists along the lines above, then pick a word from each to be your character summary. The first list will be adjectives that have some relation to mood, personality or an important (which is to say, thematically connected) physical attribute; the second list will be all ‘doing’ words, or rather ‘doer’ words.

However as we’ll see later, not all personality traits or professions or pursuits promise much conflict to come. Still, here are some lists off the top of my head:

nerdy archaeologist
witty high jumper
boastful clown
hopeful obstetrician
pretentious stockbroker
logical princess
empathic ex-soldier
homely translator
successful pig farmer
brilliant deserter
deceitful politician
damaged demon (why not?)
romantic card sharper
disabled lion tamer
clownish tax official
uptight husband
washed out medium
abandoned gold digger
driven dog trainer
snappish tightrope walker
sensitive chess player
credulous accountant
obedient romance writer
sex-starved sculptor
hygienic madam
churlish pastrycook
deluded warden

Huh, I just realised ‘deceitful’ is next to ‘politician’. That was entirely happenstance, believe it or not!

The next step is to pair one of these ‘doer’ terms with a word from the list of personal traits. Unfortunately some just don’t work, do they?

‘Romantic romance writer’, for instance, is not particularly going to jump off the page. There’s no core conflict; no sense of a mismatch or lack. Another ridiculous example would be ‘clownish clown’. But what about ‘churlish romance writer’? Or ‘washed-out demon’?

Of course this exercise is more of a start-up one than a true character creation tool. And it must be underscored that the success of it depends in large part on finding new and unusual combinations of character traits. Genre and theme will almost certainly dictate the character’s social role, chief interest, corporeal state or profession.