One of the challenges of communicating in written form, as authors do, is that it’s sometimes hard to convey a strong sensory image. With only words, it’s hard to give readers a real sense of how something looks, tastes, feels or smells. One can of course use particular words that convey a strong sensory image. But the risk here is wordiness; most readers don’t want to wade through long descriptions. And then there are those descriptions that are either contrived or ‘clunky,’ so that they don’t sound authentic at all. So choosing the words to convey a sensory image can be a challenge. But when it’s done well, just a few words can convey a lot of sensory information. And that can invite a reader to be part of a story.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles for instance, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the mysterious death of Sir Charles Baskerville in the park of his family’s estate. An old legend suggests that the family is cursed because an ancestor Sir Hugo Baskerville sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he was infatuated. Holmes isn’t one to believe in ghosts and curses, so he sends Dr. Watson to Baskerville Hall to find out more about the family and about the death. Here is Watson’s first impression of Baskerville Hall:
‘A few minutes later we had reached the lodge-gates, a maze of fantastic tracery in wrought iron, with weather-bitten pillars on either side, blotched with lichen, and surmounted by the boar’s head of the Baskervilles. The lodge was a ruin of black granite and bared ribs of rafters, but facing it was a new building, half-constructed, the first fruit of Sir Charles’ South African gold.’
With just a few sentences, Conan Doyle conveys both the eerie atmosphere of the property and its age. It’s a powerful visual image, and Conan Doyle isn’t particularly wordy, either. This novel is less than 250 pages.
Åsa Larsson’s The Blood Spilt is the story of the murder of Mildred Nilsson, a priest in the Swedish Church. Attorney Rebecka Martinsson is trying to pick up the threads of her life in Stockholm after a traumatic incident (read The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm) for details). In one scene early in the novel, an emotionally fragile Martinsson has been persuaded to attend a company party at a country hotel. Here’s a bit of the scenery:
‘One of the archipelago cruise boats slips by out in the channel. The reeds down by the water put their heads together and rustle and whisper to each other. The sound of the guests chatting and laughing to each other is carried out over the water.’
Against that peaceful backdrop, her friend Maria Taube suggests she should go back to Kiruna to help arrange for the transfer of Nilsson’s property back to the church. Martinsson most emphatically doesn’t want to go, but she is reluctantly persuaded and ends up getting involved in the investigation of Nilsson’s murder. Larsson uses words deftly to convey sound, again, without being too wordy. This novel comes in at about 300 pages, depending on your edition.
In Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, Steve Carella and his partner Hank Bush investigate the murders of fellow cops Mike Reardon and David Foster. At first, it looks as though someone may be out for revenge against these two cops, who were police partners. But when there’s another death, the picture changes. At one point Carella and Bush pay a visit to the apartment of a possible suspect:
‘The smell inside a tenement is the smell of life.
It is the smell of every function in life, the sweating, the cooking, the elimination, the breeding. It is all these smells and they are wedded into one gigantic smell which hits the nostrils the moment you enter the downstairs doorway. For the smell has been inside the building for decades.’
That description conveys a powerful olfactory image, but McBain isn’t long-winded about it, or about the rest of the story. Carella and his team find out the truth about the murders within 150 pages (in my edition).
Fans of Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series know that Inspector Montalbano is fond of fine food. So for him, the way a meal tastes matters a great deal. In The Snack Thief, for instance, Montalbano and his team are investigating two murders: the allegedly accidental shooting of a Tunisian sailor who happened to be on an Italian fishing boat when he was killed; and the murder of a retired businessman who was stabbed in his own apartment building. Neither investigation is easy but that doesn’t mean that Montalbano forgets to eat. Here’s his reaction to a meal he has in a trattoria he’s recently discovered:
‘The pasta with crab was as graceful as a first-rate ballerina, but the stuffed bass in saffron sauce left him breathless, almost frightened.’
And here, from The Shape of Water, is his opinion of coffee served on an airplane:
‘He was in dire need of an espresso after the vile, dark dishwater they had forced on him in flight.’
I empathise. And Camilleri conveys these images in just over 300 pages for The Snack Thief, depending on your edition, and about 220 for The Shape of Water, again, depending on your edition. Oh, and more than a word of praise for translator Stephen Sartarelli’s skill at conveying these images in English.
Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest novels feature Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Tempest, who in Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs) returns to her home in the Moonlight Downs Aboriginal encampment after years of being away. When the father of her former best friend Hazel Flinders is killed, Tempest starts asking questions – and gets herself into a lot of trouble for her curiosity. Here’s her description of one very unpleasant encounter:
‘I glared hazily…my head as groggy as a payday at the Black Dog.’
What a perfect description of what grogginess feels like, and Hyland tells the story of this investigation in about 320 pages, depending on your edition.
It’s not easy to really convey sensual experiences without either going on too long or seeming contrived. But those images can really draw the reader in, and authors know how powerful they can be.
What about you? Do you notice that sensual imagery? If you’re a writer, how do you convey those images?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Lynyrd Skynyrd song.