The Importance of the Senses in Writing
Since the human being has five senses (if not six), to describe the feelings, sentiments and sensations of the characters is obligatory for the author. Showing not telling them is the art. If the writer can enter into the reactions of his characters it is job done.
How we react to the stimuli of art and music would be a good example. I try to capture my feelings and transpose them to my characters.
For the historical novelist this becomes more difficult since he has to contend with the changes wrought by time. I would like to illustrate what I mean by drawing from my first novel The Purple Thread.
In this novel, the main character, Begiloc, a British warrior tramps around the Europe of his day escorting Christian missionaries. On his journey he carries a hearpe with him. This instrument was more like a lyre than a harp and given that he crafted it himself, would have been rudimentary. I have borrowed an example from You Tube and all credit should go to Mr Peter Horn, a re-enactor. Begiloc would have sounded like the video above.
Later in the novel, Begiloc’s best friend, Meryn, now blinded by his enemies, finds salvation in music and becomes the Chant Master in a monastery just when the Gregorian chanting is changing from Galician to Roman. What does that mean? Let’s ask Meryn; here is an extract from the novel:
“The difference between the Gallican and the Roman chant is the former is more florid ...”
‘Has he heard me? Is he mad?’
“... like this – ah – aah –aah – on each syllable in an upward pitch where— ”
“Damn the Gallican chant! Did you hear me? I said I fulfilled my oath.”
The blind man sighed and stood. Crossing the room, he groped for a small box, removing Talwyn’s
brooch and holding it out to his friend.
“Take it!” he said, voice sorrowful, “this is a constant reminder of my sinful past. Indeed, of the
heaviest sin blackening my soul.” His tone changed to one of reproval, “Had you come but once to find me, I should have released you from your vow.”
‘What! He has gone mad! Why? Milo stole your sight, bedded other men’s wives, virgins! Had men castrated, plundered the Church ...’ Begiloc ground his teeth.
Now let’s listen to a fine example of the Galician Chant interpreted nowadays (scroll down to listen).
It is not just music that the novelist can exploit. What about art? In our descriptions the characters can find themselves in the presence of great art. How do they feel? Let’s turn again to Begiloc when he finds himself, to his amazement, summoned to Rome to the greatest cathedral in the world at the time: St John in Lateran. How does he feel?
To Begiloc’s left hung a painting, a picture of Christ on wood. Convinced the brown eyes of the icon were studying him, he could not detach his gaze but the work also enthralled his companions. In an awed voice, Boniface said, “The Acheiropoieton. The word means ‘made without hands’.”
“How can it be?” Begiloc asked.
“They say St Luke painted it with the help of an angel.”
“Could be. I don’t like the way it stares at me. It knows I’m a sinner.”
Averting his gaze, he refused to look in that direction.
For the warrior, an eternity passed before the summons into the presence of Gregory III. Willibald stood smiling as they entered. The Pontifex rose from his bowl-shaped throne and they knelt before him. The heart of Begiloc pounded and he wished himself anywhere but here.
Isn’t the Acheiropoieton a little disturbing? Just look at those eyes!
So, to conclude, I believe there are opportunities everywhere to describe the senses. I have chosen two, but what about the smell of freshly-baked bread? The scent of cherry blossom? The caress of a soft hand on the cheek? The opportunities are endless to take the reader into the sensations undergone by our characters. We authors have only to set them up.
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