Monday, April 30, 2018

Conveying the Senses of Place to Our Readers

Edie here. Today I'm really excited to introduce you to another author friend of mine, Hope Clark. She writes wonderful cozy mysteries and has a new book releasing. I invited her to stop by and share some of her own writing knowledge and give us a peek at her new book, Newberry Sin. If you haven't read one of her novels, I encourage you to pick one up. You'll become as big a fan as me. 

Conveying the Senses of Place to Our Readers
by C. Hope Clark @HopeClark 

When I pick up a book, usually a mystery, I crave to mentally fall into place . . . literally. Where is this story happening? To not feel like I’m there keeps me distracted from the action, crime, or character distress on the page. I keep waiting to feel like I am present.

If there’s a body, do I smell decay, blood? Is the living character sweating? Is skin cold or warm, and from breezes or rain, air-conditioning or a fire? In the intense moment of confrontation is there heavy breathing? If outdoors, does a squirrel’s nails clamoring up a tree tempt distraction? Do I taste the salt in the air of a beach, or the extra dryness of olive in a martini? Are fingers numb, or do they feel some unknown sandpaper touch when feeling around in the dark?
Setting is more than the name of a town. Setting can be a house, a mountain, a beach, a region, even a tribe. At least to start with. But to produce setting takes more skill than a mark on a map. Much of what makes for setting is tangled up in our senses of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.
When putting a book down in first draft, we naturally begin with a generalization of place, plot, and the characters. We know where we are going, and we are in a hurry to get there. I’m no different. However, I don’t feel invested in the story without feeling I’m entrenched in place, so after putting that chapter down on paper (or screen), I go back and immediately reread, hunting for spots to carve in the five senses that can park my reader amidst the story, sink them into place. In other words, be there.
Smell is the most memorable sense next to sight, and some say smell is more keen than sight. In any scene you can capitalize on that sense, which is the one often forgotten. Home has a smell. Nature has smells. Restaurants are a given. My Edisto Island mysteries are on the Atlantic Ocean, and salt, brine, coconut oil, beer, sometimes sense of decay play into many scenes. There isn’t a place that doesn’t have an odor. Trust me, that draws readers in, because it’s often the one most forgotten.
Sight is taken for granted. Use it wisely. A table isn’t just a table. Shoes aren’t just shoes. What type of rain or are the hills high enough for an early snow? Make it worth seeing so that it’s memorable. 
Touch can be richly used. When someone is depressed, what do they do? They yearn for sensory reward. Hands wander to whatever is in the room, on the set. They brush their cheek against the cheap sheets on an old antique bed, seeking consolation. Fingers running along a porch bannister, noticing the weather-beaten wood. Feeling something unexpectedly warm in the dark. The unexpected stickiness on a supposedly clean restaurant table. 
Sound is everywhere as well. Even if you are home, television off, you will hear. Just the air itself sounds contained or open, moving or still. What are the muffled sounds from outside? A bird on the sill, a lawnmower down the street, traffic, a dog. The ticking of a clock, even the minute distant hum of electronics, or the ice dropping in the refrigerator. All of these can add tension, fear, or maybe peace without saying what the character feels while painting the picture of where the character is.

Taste just doesn’t happen in an eatery. You can taste salt air, like in my books, or even a cigar someone else is smoking. You can taste a burp from the cheap diner on the corner, or relish the perfect cream bruléein the high-end shop downtown. Starbucks, Folgers or a signature blend of coffee. 

For instance, I often burn a candle at my desk. In that simple move, I have: the distraction of a dancing flame in the corner of my eye, the warmed of the glass container when I move it off a paper I need, the scent when it’s first lit, the sound of putting it out. Suddenly you’re in my study.

Let’s say you have two characters confronting each other on the beach. Clouds roll in from the bay, pushing the air, making one character keep pushing hair out of her eyes, or the other do it for her. The one facing the wind blinks more, moisture in her eyes she is denying may also be tears. The sweat under their clothes is drying, rolling a shiver across shoulder blades, telling you it’s hot when off the water. A whiff of a grill on a nearby beach house along with the laughter of family make her yearn for more normal times when she wasn’t dealing with so much trouble. She drops her water bottle, retrieving it while attempting to brush away the grit that won’t completely go away, and maybe a tiny shell or two. 

The magical perk of using senses so strongly is the unconscious gravitation toward showing in lieu of just telling. When you use senses, you choose to show. And so many of these senses can slide into metaphors to not only aid story movement but also layer your setting. 

Yes, place is way more than an address. It’s three-dimensional surroundings in just about every scene. For both writer and reader, using the senses can enrich a story beyond imagination . . . because it’s not imagination. Instead, they make setting oh so real.


Newberry Sin
Beneath an idyllic veneer of Southern country charm, the town of Newberry hides secrets that may have led to murder. 

When a local landowner’s body, with pants down, is found near Tarleton’s Tea Table Rock—a notorious rendezvous spot, federal investigator Carolina Slade senses a chance to get back into the field again. Just as she discovers what might be a nasty pattern of fraud and blackmail, her petty boss 

C. Hope Clark’s newest release is Newberry Sin, set in an idyllic small Southern town where blackmail and sex is hush-hush until it becomes murder. The fourth in the Carolina Slade Mysteries. Hope speaks to conferences, libraries, and book clubs across the country, and is a regular podcaster for Writer’s Digest. She is also founder of, an award-winning site and newsletter service for writers.


  1. First, welcome Ms. Hope. Honored to meet you here on The Write Conversation ma'am. Secondly, and most importantly, great post! Using all of our senses to impact our writing makes it stronger by brings our words to life. Will go search for 'Carolina Slade.' God's blessings ma'am...

    1. Thanks so much, Jim. Senses are highly important in setting. And I think you'll enjoy Carolina Slade.

  2. Powerful stuff, Hope. I can't wait to read "Newberry Sin," I have all your others. You, more than any mystery writer in my huge library, have mastered the art of creating a page-turner and disguising the whodunnit to the end. Your characters always remind me of someone I know and inspire me to do the same rather than just creating one. Welcome to the one place I visit daily. I look forward to meeting you here often and congrats on another mystery set in South Carolina. Jay Wright; Anderson,SC

    1. Thanks, Jay! A fellow South Carolinian! And one of my readers. Bless you for reading my work. I'm honored. Come to Newberry tomorrow where we're having a release party at noon at the Lutheran Redeemer Church! Luncheon and signing and 150-200 people!

  3. A good reminder that there is often space for more sensory details. I'll have to check out your cozy mysteries. Donevy~

  4. They might be a little edgier than a cozy, but help yourself! Thanks.

  5. Always enjoy your writing, Hope. Cheers on your new release 😃