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A common piece of advice young writers get is to use all of the senses with which the POV character perceives their surroundings.

I can feel how important this piece is. I would like to describe subtle, yet inspirational details that affect the character in different ways; I want them to fully experience the scene.

Unfortunately, I often struggle to implement it. Currently, I'm writing a short story happening on a small Mediterranean island. The problem is: I've never been on one. Therefore, I can hardly come up with any natural impressions.

Going there is not an option. Reading others' journals and repeating their parts feels artificial and kind of like stealing.

How can I make a character's experience fully immersive with limited knowledge of the actual setting?

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  • Did you mean "sensory" (as in the description of what the charcter is sensing) or actual "sensual" (as in erotic experiences) experience? Dec 24, 2021 at 12:12
  • @Mindwin yes, thanks.
    – Rico
    Dec 24, 2021 at 12:27
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    The "sensory advice" seems more about writing richer, multi-dimensional characters…. than about accurately describing how locations should smell. It's writing advice, not worldbuilding advice.
    – wetcircuit
    Dec 24, 2021 at 14:14
  • @wetcircuit what you say sounds right to me, but I'm not able to explain it. Could you elaborate on this idea?
    – Rico
    Dec 25, 2021 at 13:13
  • No problem, Rico. It could go both ways, we needed to be sure. Jan 3, 2022 at 13:22

3 Answers 3

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Remember that very little of what our senses experience actually reaches our consciousness. (Consider for example the famous basketball selective attention test or the Baader-Meinhof effect.) What we consciously notice is more about who we are and what is important to us, than it is about what is found in the world around us.

One character will see the wrinkly old lady with spots on her skin and feel sorry for her. Another will see her smile and know what joy her family brings her. One character will see the lonely white cloud, abandoned in the sky. Another character will see a single bold cloud daring to defy the sun. One character will be irritated by the frequent rumbling of motorcycle engines, like insects. Another will find it hypnotic. Another will begin daydreaming about being on the open road with the wind in their hair instead of the sticky heat.

Basically what I'm saying is, it is much more important to understand your character than to understand the scenery. Obviously it is useful to know things like how many hours it would take to drive across the island, whether there are a lot of trees or grass or farms or cliffs or beaches (try Street View!), what the average temperatures are, what the common birds and animals and insects are like, how people dress, what kind of music and food is popular, and so on. But if you know your character well, sometimes you will know that they're being struck by a sound, sight or smell even if you need to do a bit of further research to figure out what it is they might be experiencing.

If you approach it from this angle then reading other people's writings should help you understand the world your characters explore, rather than dictate how your characters experience it.

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  • Thank you for your answer. It's really valuable. :)
    – Rico
    Dec 25, 2021 at 13:14
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Research. Read non-fiction. Watch Videos. Seek and find Nature documentaries.

Do not copy the journals of others: Generalize them.

What are they smelling? The flowers, the animals, the manure? What are they seeing? What are they feeling on their skin? Look it up. Is Hawaii humid? Is is windy, what is the average wind speed in July? The average temperature in July?

One form of intelligence we humans have is the ability to generalize from specific examples, and then generate new specific examples. That is what you want to do with your descriptions. Get the general sense of what it is like, and then invent new specific examples that fall within the general outlines.

You can gain a lot from National Geographic and Nature Channels on Cable, probably on YouTube, and travel documentaries or diaries.

Do not plagiarize (it can be very tempting when you read some compelling metaphor or simile that strikes you as perfection). You just need to build, from the descriptions, video and sound of others, a mental model of what it is like, and then use your own original descriptions of elements of that model.

e.g. In the documentary, they smell Magnolias. But in general, they smell the native flowers and plants of the place. Let's see, what ARE the native flowers and plants of this place? Can I go smell them? Find a perfume based on them? Is there a botanical garden that has tropical plants and flowers near me?

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Sensory doesn't have to be exclusive:

A rich sensory experience doesn't need to be specific to a single location. It just needs to create a vivid experience. If you want to show poverty, the smell of garbage paints as fine a picture as a detailed description of peasant clothes. Describe the things you CAN describe, like the lapping of waves against a shore, or the ringing of a bell your character doesn't know the meaning of.

Your character may not understand what they are looking at anyway, and describing the genus and species of flower doesn't add to the experience. In fact, ignorance can be in your favor - describe the spices as pungent, flowers as unfamiliar, and the fruits as strange yet pleasant. I doubt there's anywhere in the world you can't find tiny yellow flowers in a field. The very exoticness and difficulty in explaining it will come off as accurately portraying the MC's unfamiliarity with the environment.

Even if you have a picture of the place somewhere you are trying to create, describe what you can see. How many buildings are you going to describe? You have a picture of a little Greek island somewhere with white-washed walls, flagstone steps, and possibly a scooter shop. Stick to describing the things you can know, and while this might limit you slightly, I doubt it will hold you back much.

And the details don't have to conform perfectly to a single place. In the modern world, you can find a modern chain coffee shop next to a dilapidated tin shed and a crumbling stone building with a warning sign on it for people to keep out anywhere in the world. Old buildings will have electrical wiring sticking out of walls in odd places and random, after-the-fact pipes in the walls. Posters of places exotic to the locals but familiar to your character will seem out of place.

Many sensory experiences are universal anyway. Gravel streets crunch under the feet everywhere. The air holds the smell of dead fish, the flagstones are dirty with dried mud but warm from the sun, and the locals speak a language the MC doesn't know, yet the joy in their hearts at greeting a guest and bringing out fresh-baked bread with just a hint of something undefinable in the seasoning that reminds them of anise. It could be any village by any sea in the world.

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