I have to constantly remind myself to stop, look around, and make sure I’m providing a real, sensory world for the characters in my middle-grade story.
Emma and her friends have to not only see the Gothic mansion they’re visiting – they have to know that it is old because of the ivy crawling up its walls. They have to see what is still growing in the kitchen garden and the names and dates on the headstones in the cemetery. They have to see what each other looks like, what they wear, and notice the black, angry thunderheads that are blowing in from the east. Yup, the moose statue in the central courtyard is a male.
Is that lasagna I smell? What does the fresh bedding they slip into after a day’s adventures smell like? What about that old paper menu that’s been stuck behind the drawer of the butler’s pantry for 50 years? Old houses come with their own, distinct odors, like oak flooring that has been varnished and waxed for decades and the old fireplace that’s just been lit. Not every smell is pleasant and “homey.” The bull moose that’s chased them under the bridge reeks of urine and dirt.
It’s hard to sneak up creaky stairs. Not everyone talks with the same pitch or volume in a conversation. A mother’s soothing voice calms while the sound of two screeching girls makes your hair stand on end. The wind beating the rain against the windows is hard to ignore. You can see lightning, but the thunder that follows rattles the windows in their panes. (I’m getting lots of free ideas because I’m typing this during a thunderstorm!) Cookie sheets sliding into the oven means the spatula will be gliding under warm chocolate chip cookies and slipping them onto crinkling brown paper in about 10-12 minutes.
What about those warm, just-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookies? Don’t they just melt in your mouth? How about a glass of ice-cold milk to go along with them? On a cold, frosty morning does Laura singe the end of her tongue when she takes that first sip of hot chocolate? Crisp, crunchy salad, warm, buttery French bread – it’s all well and good, but it’s not the only thing that happens in your mouth. Sometimes a bug flies in through an open car window if your character isn’t paying attention.
It’s October in Minnesota. The air is cold and hurts your lungs if you overexert. Emma, Laura, and Raza better bundle up or their hands and toes will be numb before they know it. The ground is stiff – it no longer has that soft “give” of July and August. The water in the gurgling stream they’re going to find themselves stumbling through is ice cold. Hard stones bruise knees, soggy sweatshirts and jackets are cold and clammy against their skin, and the leaves and sticks on the bank are hard and stiff. Everything seems frozen and unforgiving.
My characters are me and I am them. They become real and human because of my sensual experiences. Make sense, doesn’t it?