Setting the Scene in Your Story: The five senses

As you write your story, consider your character’s surroundings. What does your character see, hear, smell, touch and taste?

Think of a movie or television show you’ve seen and create a sensory list. “Show, don’t tell.” An example might be M*A*S*H, either the movie or television show. What do you see and hear as you watch the show? Can you imagine the smells? Setting uses all the senses, so think “See, hear, smell, touch and taste.”

Examples might include:

  • Sight
    •  the sight of helicopters crossing gray mountains, red crosses on khaki Army tents, ambulances hurrying to the landing pad, red crosses on their sides and roof. The perspective gets bigger as the helicopter starts to descend. Nurse and medics race, carrying empty canvas stretchers, camouflage netting over equipment near the pad,  Jeeps speed up the hill towards the helicopter, dust flying. All of this is “telling.” Think of ways to “show.” You will probably use some of the other senses to help “show” the scene.

“My Blue Heaven” in Korean played over the PA system as Hawkeye and BJ swung their golf clubs near the medical camp deep in the gray mountains. The sunny day was suddenly broken by the whop-whop-whop of helicopters approaching. Hawkeye looked up, then both men sprinted to camp and hopped into jeeps. Other vehicles marked with giant red crosses followed, racing to the helicopter pad.

The setting is shown using the actions of Hawkeye and BJ, the sunny day and the approach of the jeeps heading to the helicopter pad.

  • Sounds
    • music over the PA system, the whirl of the helicopter blades, rattle and rhythmic clatter of the blades, people yelling (music covers some), second helicopter sounds, Jeeps revving their engines.
  • Smells
    • fuel, dry dusty air, perspiration, blood (smells metallic), antiseptic, burning hair (smells like sulfur), body odors
  • Taste
    • dust, dry mouth, maybe someone in the scene is chewing gum or smoking a cigarette
  • Touch
    • hot metal jeep and helicopters, gritty feel of tarp, stretchers, wet sweaty skin, sticky viscous blood oozing, slimy blood clots, heat of the sun, wind blowing from helicopter, dirt pelting skin

All of the senses can help with setting.

Imagine the scene in your story and write down all the things you can think of that fit each category. Keep the list hand because there might be similar elements in other scenes. Or your list can trigger other ideas for a different story you work on later.

List items you might use in other stories like someone eating popcorn (touch, smell, taste, sound, sight) or Mom making a pot roast for dinner or exploring an old musty home or forest. As you make your senses list, refer to it when you are stuck and it will help spark your imagination.

Happy writing!


What’s Your Story?

Do you keep journals? Write in a diary?

What is a journal? Business people will tell you that it’s a “record that keeps accounting transactions in chronological order, i.e. as they occur. ”

Writers use journals to come up with story ideas or to make memory lists for memoir. Journals help us tap into our creativity.

Mental health professionals often suggest keeping a journal as a means to discover your inner self and identify issues you may have hidden from yourself.

Journals can be very private or shared with individuals or groups.

Journals and diaries are a way to:

  • leave your legacy for your children
  • sort out your feelings about the past
  • communicate with yourself and others
  • unleash the right side of your brain (creativity)
  • figure out day-to-day issues and time management
  • understand your life story
  • keep track of a specific event as it is happening in your life

I tend to use random spiral notebooks for my journals, but there are many more formal journals you can purchase. They may have “prompts” in case you aren’t sure what to write about.

Years ago, after the birth of my first grandchild, my son and daughter-in-law gave me a journal called “Grandma, Tell Me Your Story.” Each page had a prompt for each day of the year. There were blank pages at the end where I could write whatever came to mind. The topics were something like:

  • January 1 – How did your family celebrate the New Year?
  • January 2 – What were your favorite activities in the winter?

Most months had holiday-specific prompts (if there was a holiday that month) as well as general topics like “Did you ever get in trouble at school? What did you do?” or “What was your favorite Halloween costume? Describe it.” One particularly poignant page in September asked “Where were you on 9/11?”

I wrote in the journal each day and by the end of the year, I returned it to my son for my granddaughter to read in the future.

Recently, I found another “Grandmother” journal that I plan to write WITH my granddaughter. It’s a “back and forth” journal where one of us writes and tJounral grandmahe other responds.

I am scheduled for a major surgical procedure next week and have been journaling about it. It will require major lifestyle changes so I am ambivalent and a little scared. Will I be able to do what is needed to stay healthy? I’d planned to grab a regular notebook to write in, but my friend said I should buy a special journal since this will be a major change in my life. She thought it would be wise to write down the process as well as my anxiety and feelings of anticipation. Why am I having the procedure? How will it improve my life? What will I be able to do afterwards that I can’t do now? What is the doctor telling me day-to-day?

I saw some journals at the card store while I was looking for Father’s Day and birthday cards. One caught my eye. It was beautifully bound and combined adult coloring designs and lined pages. But, it cost $25 so I put it down. A spiral notebook would only cost $2 or so. I told my friend, an adult coloring book fan, about it and she said I needed to go back and get the journal. “You deserve it.”

While out shopping, I was near another card store, same company. I decided to stop in rather than driving across town to the one where I originally saw the journal. Disappointed, no journals like it were to be seen. I asked the cashier as I was leaving the store and she pointed, saying, “Check out the clearance table.”

I walked over and laying on the table among scented candles, stuffed Easter bunnies, and small Mother’s Day plaques sat a lone coloring journal. Spiral and paper instead of leather bound, the coloring areas were on the outer margins of each page instead of the top. Price: $5. I couldn’t pass it up. I took it to the cashier and she rang it up at $2.50. Even better. “Clearance” proved true. Being a spiral, it’s easier to open up flat and write.


With a price like that, I couldn’t resist buying a second one listed for $8. It was more elaborate with pale green binding and sayings inside as well as coloring at the top.

I should be set for awhile.

I’ve discovered that writing in the coloring journal isn’t as tiring if I write awhile and then color awhile. Different hand muscles are in use for each activity.

journal inside

I have other journals that I will leave for my children as legacy. There is one about Family Traditions. Each major holiday has page where I wrote about typical ways we celebrated when our sons were small or still living at home. Each page has a pocket side where I store mementos such as cards, place-mats or small items.

There are so many journals out there that are fun and useful. I hope you can find one or two you like. To paraphrase the beginning definition of a journal by accountants –” A journal is a record that keeps personal and family history in chronological order, i.e. as they occur. ” Or not.

Journal mothers


What if…?


“What if I could catch that little white hand that is moving around?” —My curious cat, Daisy

Where do you get your story ideas? How do you develop your characters? What plot(s) do you choose?

At a recent writers’ group meeting, we worked on a prompt inspired by what someone read about Stephen King. Apparently, some or most of his novels started with the thought, “What if?” What if a dog terrorized people? What if an outcast girl had telekinetic abilities?

As I think about it, my current novel started out as a “what if?” What if a man commits suicide and can redeem himself somehow? What if Hell is other people like Jean-Paul Sartre proposed in his play ‘No Exit’?”

The prompts the writers in our group came up with were very interesting. Some were simple:
What if I took a wrong turn while driving in an unfamiliar neighborhood?
What if I found a blue pine cone?
What if my clock started to rewind on its own?

All of these “what if’s” could lead to an interesting story if we use our imaginations. We would come up with different scenarios and characters using the same “what if.”

It is interesting to think about.

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

What prevents us from writing?  Why can’t we write at times?  We come up with all kinds of excuses.

Excuse #1  “I am too busy.”

Being too busy means you don’t want to do it.  If we really want to do something, we make the time; we prioritize.

Excuse #2  Children and other distractions.

I have a friend who has 11 children and has managed to write three novels in the past couple of years.  Her advice? Write when you can, even if for just a few minutes before bed or after getting the children off to school and the baby is sleeping.  Keep your workload expectations low, but be persistent in writing every day.  Some days writing is squeezed into 5 minute intervals.  Other days longer periods are possible.


Excuse #3 Fear of failure.

Sometimes our expectations are too high so we don’t write because we are afraid we will “fail.” Maybe we think we aren’t good enough, that we don’t deserve to be a writer.  When we let the fear of failure stop us, we are focused on the end product, not the process of creativity.  We have forgotten how much fun it is just to write.  Overcome fear by doing.  Sit down and write just for fun and see what happens.


Excuse #4 “I am not inspired.”

What are you waiting for?  A cloud to open up and the sun to shine down on you?  By thinking you are uninspired, you are missing the things that could be inspiration for you.  Clear your head of the negativity and look around.  There is inspiration everywhere.  Erma Bombeck used to write about mundane things like cookie sheets.  Use your imagination.  Try some writing prompts and see where they lead.  Image

Excuse #5 “This is not the right moment.”

When is the “right moment?”  Waiting for the bus, sitting in the airport, taking a coffee break at work–consider all the times you are doing nothing.  I tend to “write” in the shower.  Some of my best ideas come to me in the morning as I get ready for work.  I mull them over in my mind during the day, then come home and put them down on paper.  Sometimes I make little notes throughout the day so I don’t forget a particular scene or dialogue that I have thought of in the course of my work.

Woody Allen said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”  Show up in your moment and write.  Worry about the rewrite later.  Get it down on paper.

Tropical Island

Excuse #6  Writers’ Block

I may be an exception, but I haven’t experienced writers’ block, unless I don’t have a clear idea of what it is.  I have had times when I didn’t know what to write next, but it soon passed as I relaxed or distracted myself momentarily.  I have written scenes where suddenly I don’t know what happens next, but I keep writing through it, producing many poor images and sentences until finally, my writing breaks through.  I think the answer to writers’ block is to relax and don’t put expectations on your writing at that point.  Your story will come back.  Don’t give up.  Keep writing.  “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” (Thomas Edison) Instead, dress your writers’ block in a frilly pink princess dress and top it off with a sparkly tiara.  Relax and enjoy the ride.

Princess with Flower

Excuse #7 “My idea isn’t original enough.”

“There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) Yet, everything is new when seen through different eyes.

One day I told a friend that I felt like I was regurgitating ideas that others had before me.  I didn’t feel like my material was “fresh.”  Other people had written about the same topic. (I was writing a non-fiction piece at the time.)  My friend, a photographer, listened and put it in perspective for me. “I can take a photo of the Grand Canyon that hundreds of other photographers have taken, but mine will be unique.” She explained that we all have a “different eye” or take on things.

Our ideas may seem similar, but unless you plagiarize another’s works, your writing is original.  So what if we both write about a big red barn in the middle of Kansas?  The words we use, the images we create, will be slightly different.

Excuse #8  “I need to do more research.”

Whether you think you need to do marketing research or content research, don’t let it stop your writing.

I love to do content research and it shows in some of my non-fiction pieces.  When I write non-fiction, research is my favorite part.  There are times I find so much material for a story, I get lost in the research and forget about writing the story.  I enjoy learning new things or finding more depth in a subject I am familiar with.  I have to force myself to stop and write the article or story.

As for marketing research, I don’t care for it.  About the extent of my marketing research is looking at a Writers Market now and then.  I have friends who frequent the book stores and look up books in their genre, study the book, checking who published it, reading the first line of each chapter, then going home and googling the author(s).  I feel guilty for not doing the same, but I find it tedious and uninteresting.  It may hinder my “success” to a certain extent, but not enough for me to change my behavior.

It seems the best thing to do is to set aside time for both writing and research.  One author I know spends one day a week doing marketing research and the rest of the week she writes.

I attended a writers’ workshop once in my early years where the speaker said, “Getting published is 40% writing and 60% marketing.”  Unsure where he got his statistics, I preferred not to pay attention to those numbers.

Maybe I’m like my writer-friend in Chicago who believed her writing was “channeled” to her and therefore couldn’t be edited. Maybe I am living in Lala-land, not accepting that I need to do more marketing research.  For now, I will stick to writing and let the chips fall where they may.


Excuse #9 “Paying the bills is more important than writing.”

“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”  ―     Nassim Nicholas Taleb

We all need an income in order to live.  Many of us have regular jobs.  I, for one, am fortunate at this stage of my life that I have the freedom to work a flexible schedule, only working a couple days a week, allowing time to write on my days off.  (Of course, I also have errands to run and household chores to do like everyone else.)  The trap is–“How much money do I need?”  I can work more often if I choose, but that cuts into my writing time.  It’s a double-edged sword.  Nursing pays much better than writing, but I am more passionate about writing.  I am blessed to have these options.  I enjoy being a nurse, especially in the NICU with the tiny babies, but writing is my addiction.  There have been times when it has been busy at work and I have been asked to come in.  Rather than turning them down, I have thought about the paycheck and it has trumped writing that day.

The key here is priority.  If you have a healthy attitude towards money and don’t think you need all the gadgets with the bells and whistles, then your writing will not suffer.  People who have full-time jobs still manage to find time to write.  It is important to them, so they find the time.


Excuse #10 _____________ (Fill in the blank)

What is your excuse for not writing?

writing procrasination