And so we come to the end of the lectures. We’ve taken each sense separately and broken them apart. Hopefully I’ve made all of you aware of how each of them is all around you and not by themselves. We’re enfolded on all sides by a many-layered multi-sensory world that we’re a part of. The trick is to be aware and observant.
Think of a campfire. You have light, and dancing flames. You have the crackle and pop. You have wood smoke that lingers in your hair and clothes. You can see the coals flaring red when the breeze hits them, darkening when the breeze fades, almost as if the fire was breathing. You have warmth and radiance washing over your face and body, flushing your cheeks. You have the sting of hot ash landing on your arm, perhaps the smell of singed hair.
All of this is nice but all of it together may be over the top especially if you yield to the temptation to describe everything in such exhaustive detail. Purple prose is out. You don’t want to gag yourself let alone an editor or your readers! So how do you have lean, mean, relevant description that’s still multi-sensory?
The trick is to bringing your story to descriptive life is to pick what would be most important to your character in their present state of mind. If it’s September in the Colorado Rockies and they’ve ever-so-gracefully tripped over a log, rolled down a hill and fallen into a creek, now that night is falling and they’re wet and freezing, the heat is what they’ll be most grateful for. If they’ve spent most of the afternoon lost, dodging imaginary giant vicious owls and rabid packs of grizzlies, that glowing light in the distance, the cheerful dancing flames holding back the terrifying darkness is what they’ll gravitate toward.
People don’t notice everything at once. We register that it exists but it doesn’t really get our attention unless it involves something that matters. If you’re entering a new place you’ll notice what’s different from your old place. If you go to a concert you’ll notice the sounds – that’s why you’re there. Some senses are just too overwhelming to be avoided – like the popcorn in a movie theater. I always leave a movie feeling like I’ve bathed in buttered oil. Or like the seaside docks – fish and brine.
Try to focus on what’s unique to that scene. Think about the differences right before a battle, the fear, the anticipation, the tension, pennants flapping the breeze and weapons rattling – during a battle, the smoke and blood and screams – and after a battle, the exhaustion, the gratitude to be alive, the feeling of spent violence, the groans of the wounded and the silence of the dead.
And because the character’s always moving forward, changing locations, and their state of mind is in a constant state of flux, the scenes will change as well, from sights to sounds to smells to taste to touch. What they’re noticing will change. You’ll be multi-sensory throughout your story, by picking and choosing what matters most right at that moment.
Thank season and locale and occupation first. What’s the norm for this character? Then, every time the status quo changes, describe the difference. Which they will notice because it’s not what they’re used to. Think about how much you notice food when you’re hungry. Doing the same with your characters will make them seem more human.
“Relax, lass,” Orla said. “Ye know healing canna take place in a troubled heart an’ mind.”
Dara closed her eyes, felt the softness of the bed and the warmth of the fire against her skin. She took a deep breath of cleansing sage-tinged smoke, held it in, and exhaled. Then again. She felt her racing pulse slow back down to normal.
“That’s it,” Orla approved.
Agata returned with a small drum. “Let’s begin.” She began drumming and chanting under her breath. Dara couldn’t make out the words but she felt her heartbeat matching pace with the drum’s slow, steady beat.
Orla placed a hand on Dara’s head and another on her belly. Dara felt the warm green energy flowing through her body like a spring mist. The firelight danced behind Dara’s eyelids almost in rhythm with Agata’s low chant. She could have sworn she saw the shapes of animals in the flickering shadows — a rabbit, a fox, a wolf, a badger, an eagle, a deer, a bear and a great long-necked winged creature she’d never seen before but could almost recognize…
Spirits of the forest and mountains, protective totems of the Clans, Dara realized, grateful that they’d help a stranger. She felt the bruising fade, the aches and pain dissolve like salt in water. The ribs fused, the muscles reknit until she could breathe again without pain. The relief was so intense she wanted to shout.
But there was something else, she sensed. A darkness, insidious like smoke. It was nowhere yet everywhere and she felt its hold every time she reached for her former Power. Tears ran down her cheeks. The healer had spoken true — the Iron was still with her. She felt Orla withdraw and Agata’s chants and drums faded into silence. Dara swiped at the tears. “I’m sorry. I am grateful to you both. Thank you.”
Agata inclined her head. “Ye were meant t’ come here, child. In a way, ‘tis like a comin’ home. Your folk are from these verra mountains.”
Orla looked tired. “I’m sorry I canna do more, lass.”
And later that night, when Dara can’t sleep:
Trystan did not answer but collected some wood for a small fire at the edge of the tunnel where he and Niadh settled.
Loren soon dozed off on his side of the fire but Dara tossed and turned. Odd how the night was anything but quiet even in a dark cave. She heard every little sound. All too used to sleeping alone, she found she noticed every little smell and noise in the camp. The voices of the hunters at the next fire, Loren’s snoring, the quiet murmuring of the shaman in prayer, the snuffling of a puppy, the padding feet of someone on their way past, whispers and giggles. There were the smells of wood smoke, tanning hides, wet hound, leftover food. Her ears caught the low sound of a flute.
Eventually she gave up and rose to her feet. She wrapped herself in Loren’s cloak and padded to the cave entrance. Niadh watched her but Trystan’s back was to her.
Hani`ena stood outside in the dappled moonlight. Frosty air streamed from her nostrils with every breath but the Clan boy had covered her with a woolen blanket and she seemed comfortable enough. The mare nuzzled her when she approached.
“Are you all right?” Dara asked.
Hani`ena tossed her head and whickered.
Dara could just make out a couple of shadowy forms further down the trail. Sentries, she guessed.
“Could ye no’ sleep, either?” Trystan’s rough voice asked behind her.
She turned. “Nay. Mayhaps it’s just an overflow of healing energy but I’m twitchy.”
He nodded and dropped to the ground. “Th’ forest spirits are out on th’ wind tonight. P’rhaps ‘tis them ye sense.”
“Mayhaps.” She stared down into his eyes. In the moonlight they glowed feral-green though she knew they were blue. Must be a trick of the light.
Trystan nodded to Hani`ena, who dropped her head and snorted back. He smiled. “No’ much scares ye, warlady, does it?” he asked the horse, as if half-expecting an answer. He turned to Dara. “Nor ye, I ‘spect.”
“You’d be wrong.” Dara rubbed her hands up and down her arms, staring up at the moon. “Jalad scares me. Wearing this brand for the rest of my life scares me. Demons subverting children scare me. Never getting my powers back scares me. Being alone in this world scares me.” She turned to Moira’s brother. “See? Everything scares me.”
He shook his head and rose to his feet but did not approach. “Yer no’ alone, lady. The one ye travel wi’ shall ne’er leave ye. As fer th’ rest, ‘twould scare anyone. Most ne’er see such times but those that do live fore’er in th’ future stories.”
“I don’t want to be a campfire story! Most of those heroes are dead and I’m still alive!”
“Ye’ve a fire in yer belly ‘twould hold off th’ dark. Why’d ye fight Jalad? Is it just personal?”
She shook her head. “Nay. He slaughtered my people. My kin. He must answer for that. If not me then who?”
“Long ago, th’ Guardian spirits walked among folk, wrapped in the guise o’ men — an’ women.” There was a faraway look in his eyes as he too stared at the moon. “They were teachers an’ counselors mostly but there were true-warrior spirits among them as well.”
“Where’d they all go then?” Dara asked. “We sure could use their kind these days.”
“I’m no’ so sure they be all that far away. Some nights they be close indeed, lady.”
“I hope so, Trystan, for all our sakes.” She shivered in the cold mountain air. “I’d better go back in. I imagine your sister will be here bright and early.”
He nodded, seemingly impervious to the cold. He looked like he belonged here in the moonlight, in the night. “I’m goin’ scoutin’, see how close they got t’night. Rybyk makes good time when he has a reason fer movin’.” He slipped off into the shadows and was gone.
Dara went back into the cave. Niadh watched her pass as she returned to the guest fire.
Loren’s eyes opened as she settled back down. “You are freezing! Did you go outside?”
“I couldn’t sleep, so I went to check on Hani`ena.”
“You should try to rest. It is a long ride tomorrow.”