Writing | Sensorium


Creating a vivid and memorable scene is something that writers, myself included, strive for. I’ve been fortunate enough to have readers comment to me that my stories feel ‘cinematic’ to them, as though they were in the scene watching it. Of course, as with anything involving writing, an individual writer’s style can vary from the non-immersive (tons of was – e.g. “there was a” all over the place) to over-description where each piece of furniture in a room gets its own paragraph. (Which is perhaps even worse than no description at all.)

Many writers make extensive use of visual and auditory descriptions as they leap to the forefront of the mind. The human brain is a funny thing. There are three more senses a writer can invoke to bring the reader deeper into the scene – touch, taste, and smell.


Image courtesy of https://askabiologist.asu.edu/what-your-brain-doing

For many people, the sense of smell is a trigger for vivid memories, yet many writers tend to overlook it. When your character is going down rickety wooden stairs to a damp, basement – consider adding a description of how it smells down there. What does the air taste like on the character’s tongue? How does the railing feel under their hand? A few well-placed tiny bits of description can far outweigh a ‘wall-of-text’ of what the basement looks like.


People tend to attach smells to powerful memories. An elderly person catching a whiff of some food their mother used to make them as a child can take them right back to that moment. A combat veteran who survived an IED that hit his truck smells burning diesel and the horrors of the battlefield paralyze him with grief over the friends he lost a decade later.

Here is an excerpt from Division Zero: Thrall (Book 3). Kirsten, even ten years after the scene below, still can’t tolerate the smell of beef stew laced with the hint of chemical.

She jumped at the touch, fearing the kind of hand Mother would lay upon her. His was different, warm, comforting. The man’s voice fell away to the warble of indistinct remembrance as he said comforting things and kept petting her hair like a cat. Kirsten stared at the metal octagon in her hands, salivating at the promise of untainted food. She listened to his thoughts; he would not harm her―she was precious.

The crack of the lid, yielding to a grimy little finger, startled her awake amid the remembered hiss of the chemical warming agent and the smell of beef stew.

Sometimes the use of smell can be small – a few words – to add more depth to a scene (excerpt also from Thrall):

She wobbled back, rubbing her leg. “Damn, tough doors.” Out came the E-90. “You have two seconds to open this door or I’m opening it for you.”

One laser blast melted the retaining bar and flooded the air with the glue-plastic stink of molten Epoxil. The door swayed ajar. Kirsten raised her boot to kick it, but dove sideways at the sound of a gunshot. A bulge in the door showed where the dense material trapped the slug. Rolling onto her back, she aimed through her knees. Another shot―no bulge.


Another often underutilized descriptive tool is the sense of touch. There are thousands of ways to use touch to add to a scene depending on the mood of the piece. In a tense scene where a character is creeping through an unknown place, consider a trail of sweat tickling down under their clothes. Another character has to cross a small creek – and her sneakers get waterlogged. For the rest of that chapter, she’s walking in squidge. Almost everyone can relate to being stuck in soaked shoes, and how miserable that is… especially when its cold out.

This excerpt is from Prophet of the Badlands, illustrating the use of ‘touch’ as a sense.

At the bottom, she dropped thigh deep into water frigid enough to paralyze her. Althea clamped her hands over her mouth and swallowed a shriek, fearful of attracting attention. Seconds later, she sucked in a breath through chattering teeth and forced herself to move. Ripples spread from her legs as she walked, jostling the floating junk. Her natural reaction to such cold water kept her motion slow enough not to make noise. A layer of clammy slime squished through her toes as it gave way to the coarse texture of old concrete below. Althea advanced without hesitation, pushing the flotsam aside; she had stepped in worse things than this before.


In short, remember to involve your reader’s senses―all five of them. Drop a line here and there about what a scene smells like, even two words about a character’s cologne or the overpowering smell of wood varnish in the air can ramp up the immersion factor of a scene. Maybe if you get lucky, a reader will catch a smell in the air long after reading your work – and remember it.

News | Prophet Sale



My publisher, Curiosity Quills Press, has decided to put the ebook of Prophet of the Badlands (book 1 of the Awakened series) on sale for the next two days for .99.

Althea, the main character, is still my favorite of all the characters I’ve yet created. The first novel I finished writing, Virtual Immortality, was a bit too long to query out to agents and publishers, so I decided to set it aside. At the time I had two other ideas, Prophet, and Division Zero. Since I knew Prophet would be the start of a longer series with five prominent characters, I decided to write Division Zero first.

All the while I was writing Division Zero #1, it felt like Althea was standing behind me, bouncing on her toes, asking “is it my turn yet” every few minutes. After I had finished Division Zero to the point I started the querying process, I got going on Prophet. As I expected it would, the story exploded out of my brain. I remember having the week off from the day job, and I managed 126,000 words in about 11 days. The story wanted out.

A little more than halfway along, Althea decided to take issue with the direction I had planned for the story. It was as though she were beside me, shaking her head and tapping her foot. She had a rather firm idea of something she would not allow to happen, and I wound up listening to her and changing the outline in a way that rippled through the remainder of the series in a major way.

Anyway, with the sale on, I hope you take a .99 chance on entering the world of the Awakened… See the Earth in 2418, after a corporate war has ruined the interior of North America. See the Badlands, and the world around it through the eyes of a young girl struggling to find the courage to stand up for herself against those who would exploit her powers.

Happy reading!



Writing | The Mirror Trope

The Mirror of Venus Edward Burne-Jones

The Mirror of Venus Edward Burne-Jones

Well, it’s bit a bit since I’ve posted. I suppose one of the downsides to the whole sleep-work-write-sleep thing is a dearth of interesting things to ramble on about. Due to a recent encounter with it, I figured I’d talk a bit about a writing habit some people refer to as “the mirror trope.”

What is the mirror trope? Basically, it’s a cliché shortcut where an author gives the description of a character to the reader by having them look in a mirror (or similar reflective surface) and describe themselves. If the story is written in first person narration, this often seems forced – especially if the tone of the description carries hints of sex appeal or adoration. When a character’s description of their own body happens in a mode of phrasing that sounds more like someone else who finds them attractive is talking, it gets a little creepy (or becomes glaringly obvious that the description is for the reader’s benefit.)

With the possible exception of a vain or narcissistic character, people don’t rush to a mirror as soon as their day starts and admire how beautiful their eyes are, or how their hair is stunning, talk about their awesome curves, or otherwise spend that much time ruminating about their appearance. The mirror trope falls somewhere between making the character come off as self-absorbed and being an obvious “hey, reader, this is what my character looks like” message from the author.

Another (less obvious) example of the mirror trope is when a character refers to their appearance in strange ways. For example, in first-person narration:

I pull my long, luxurious ebon hair off my shoulders and lean forward, thrusting my perfect round breasts against my sweater.


I stepped out of the van and clenched my statuesque jaw, darkened by three days without shaving. They couldn’t see my steel-blue eyes behind the mirrored sunglasses, but look on the three morons’ faces as they regarded my towering height and bulging muscles was priceless. Wish I had a camera.

In both of these quick examples, the first-person narrator speaks as though they are in adoration of themselves. Granted, if a female character is vain, they might think of their own breasts as perfect or their hair as “luxurious.” If a male character is overly proud of their appearance, they might call themselves statuesque or talk about their own eye color – but in both cases it makes the characters seem narcissistic and a touch cartoony. When I read something like that, it feels like the author is passing on their opinion of what the protagonist looks like by shoe-horning it into the character’s thoughts.

A Better Way

So what’s an author to do? Some writers offer nothing in the way of description, allowing the reader to fill in whatever appearance they want. For me, I try to convey a sense of what the character looks like by spreading the descriptive elements out and working them in a bit at a time. (This also avoids another bad habit of weak writing I’ve come to know as “index card” descriptions – which is where a new character coming “on screen” causes the narrative to stop so a full paragraph of description of what the character looks like can pop up like an index card, after which the story resumes. (Pardon the tangent of a tangent here, but another thing about “index card” descriptions that is weak is describing another character’s height exactly. E.g. “Bill walked in. He stood 6’3”, and weighed 322 pounds.” Unless the narrating character has cybernetics capable of performing a visual measurement of a person, giving exact height and weight feels ‘canned’ and a little silly. Of course if the two characters were close (like on the same sports team or military squad and they’d know this, a line like: “Bill walked in, all six-foot four hundred some odd pounds of him” sounds less obnoxious than giving exact numbers for height and weight.

Rationing it Out

In my opinion, the best way to convey a character’s appearance to the reader is to portion it out a bit at a time, and do it in subtle ways. For example, convey a sense of the character’s height by having them “look up” or “look down” at other characters. Instead of calling your main short, you could have them climb up on the kitchen counter to reach a cabinet. Rather than tell the reader the character is baby-faced, have other characters mistake them for a teenager. If they’re extra-thin, portray that by having them shimmy through a tight spot or fit somewhere a “normal” person couldn’t. If they’re heavy or huge, describe their difficulties with an environment made for smaller people.

Bear in mind that the more obvious a physical trait is, the sooner it should be provided to the reader. Don’t let them spend 250 pages thinking the main character is a feline-catgirl-alien with a furry tail only to learn on page 251 that she’s actually reptilian with scales.

Don’t Saturate

The urge to skip over large swaths of description is common to many readers. This gets more jarring with the “index card” method, and after a few characters come into the story, that standing wall of text-description may wind up getting skipped right over. Focus on the most obvious aspects of the appearance. What hits the eye / ear / nose first? (And don’t forget the sense of smell – a character’s clothing can be saturated with the scent of incense, pipe smoke, cologne/perfume, etc.) Give the reader a few tidbits to establish a mental image, then add little (more subtle) things bit by bit as the story progresses.

In short, avoid awkward ‘forced’ description that doesn’t ring true to a character’s voice. The mirror trope is a cliché best avoided (unless you’re doing it on purpose for parody.) Note that I’m not saying a mirror should never be used – but if there is a mirror, have the character use it like a normal person. Or for a cinematic feel, the character can stare through their reflection on a window at the outside world (but don’t use it as a means to describe them.)

And just for fun: