Using 5 senses in writing (or what erotica teaches all writers)

Guest author and blogger, Anastasia Parkes (or Primula Bond, her often used pseudonym), has been a successful writer of erotic romance and domestic drama for over 20 years, but has always had passion for exploring ‘real life’ scenarios and teasing the drama out of the everyday. In this blog post, Anastasia showcases erotica’s use of senses to create sensational writing, showing how all writers in all genres can utilise this to bring stories to life. 

So. The uninitiated might assume that erotic romance consists of virtuoso sex performed by impossibly proportioned lovers, all wrapped around a flimsy central theme. But writers of all genres share the same mission: to create a believable world populated by characters who walk and talk and breathe and bleed as they progress through joy, sorrow, triumph or disaster.

Admittedly, erotica may specialise a little more in the sensual than, say, crime, horror or comedy, lingering longer over sounds, smells and tastes to paint an imaginary world, and kick-start the impression characters make as they connect.

But like any author my inspiration initially emanates from overhead conversations or altercations, anecdotes, newspaper articles, memories, a tableau glimpsed through a window, or random ideas while driving, bathing or ironing.

How to bring the ordinary to life

Reality becomes fantasy, not by creating preposterous or one-dimensional environments, but by enhancing what already exists.

I like to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. That’s why my heroines tend to be, like the Berocca adverts, me – but on a really good day!

The Silver Chain by Primula Bond.

So a suburb, street, office or shop becomes a colourful and exotic stage through what happens and who enters. An apparently mundane scenario such as funeral, PTA meeting or bus queue can prickle with drama. The participants’ jobs, hobbies and families will colour them in, whether politician, photographer or plumber, because it’s their mutual attraction or hostility that will drive your narrative. This dynamic can play out as powerfully in a scruffy flat as a plush mansion.

The imagination is a great substitute for travel, taking you to the dusty streets of Cairo, the shadowy alleys of Venice or the frantic thoroughfares of Manhattan, but characters shouldn’t stand awkwardly around a room, garden, beach or boat, woodenly emoting like bad actors.  They will be negotiating, arguing, flirting, pleading while they dance, sing, swim, fight, type, faint or operate.

Most writers can poetically describe land or city scapes, but pulling the focus into the intimate through weather, music, clothes or food will create the beating heart of ambience and mood, making the reader’s antennae tingle; like adding Scotch bonnet to an already fiery curry.

Call up the senses: a checklist for writers

Calling up the senses to evoke environment or attribute also avoids falling into the trap of telling, not showing. A hot sunny day will create a different ambience from a cold rainy one, without spelling it out. A garishly-lit warehouse, dodgy nightclub or deserted forest can establish threat/unease without the need to tell us that it is alarming or wild.  With a tweak or two the darkness and silence of a remote farmyard will vibrate with menace  – or tranquillity. A deserted beach can be restful – or frightening. Candlelight will create romance – or spookiness.

Habitat. Does our hero or villain live in a pig sty or are they perpetually lining up the ornaments? Is their house fragrant with frying bacon, coffee, fresh bread and flowers, or does it reek of litter trays, burning or mould? Does this rub off on the characters themselves? Do they smell of sweat, or scent? Garlic, or geraniums? Petrol, or pomegranates?

Clothing: a device important in Christian Grey’s character?

Clothing. A great visual indicator of a person’s background and personality. Do they favour jeans or suits? Flats or heels? Tight or loose? Beige or bright? Is this their normal garb or are they dolled up – appropriately or otherwise – for an occasion? Do they jingle with jewellery, squeak with sports wear or creak with old leather? Are their clothes a mask or a declaration? Is their underwear sexy or sturdy? Do they feel relieved or exposed when undressed?

(By the way, yanking off grubby overalls can be just as sexy as unzipping a ball gown!)

Visual Props. Cameras, mirrors or an artist’s canvas are great devices that enable characters to study others and themselves without resorting to introspection. So instead of saying ‘I/she felt tired’ you can observe, ‘My/her eyes were sunken’ or ‘My/her lipstick was peeling’.

Sound. A revving motorbike or screaming teenagers will set a different tone from soft jazz or babies laughing, with no need for explanation.

Taste. My favourite. Food and drink are great indicators of character and supplier of atmosphere. Start with the kitchen. Are we invited into a cramped galley or an aspirational space?  Are there cushions and cats or concrete and chrome? Are issues resolved through slices of cake or by smashing the crystal?

‘Her lips were slick with lemon syllabub spiked with liqueur. Lips that could suck the bumper off a Dodge truck’ sums up both this heroine’s appearance – and her appetites!

Are your characters drinkers or teetotal? Are they greedy or do they pick? Do they gorge on take away, or do they love to feed others?  Is eating a generous gesture, or a way of controlling? Whether a first date, family reunion or business dinner, you can steer the tone by making the food awful or delicious, easy or tough. Spaghetti or sausages? Spurting tomatoes or chewy steak? Character and dialogue can be illustrated by the way someone chops vegetables, slurps soup, or licks ice cream.

So, a starving landlady watches her sexy lodger as he cooks:

‘He pulls out slabs of bloody steak, industrial pots of cream, wheels of golden cheese, silver wrapped chocolate releasing fronds of sweetness.  My stomach groans. He strokes the pearly interior of a scallop shell then spreads open a leather case, fingering the blades of various knives  lined up like surgical instruments.

I can imagine those big hands smothering me in warm butter.  Flipping me over like a pancake. He chops the watercress, deftly reducing the leaves to tiny green flecks. A stack of chips glitters with salt. I snatch up a handful and stuff the golden shards into my mouth. My dress rips slightly as I lean back, the fridge humming against my spine.’

And incorporating the senses with subtle brush strokes, your painting is complete.

Anastasia is author of classy romance series The Silver Chain under the pseudonym Primula Bond, as well as numerous short stories, including the collection Random Acts of Lust. Under another pseudonym she has written domestic noir novels Daddy’s Girl and Loved Ones. All are available on Amazon, and you can follow her blog or on Twitter, @primulabond and @anastasiaparkes.

You can get constructive feedback on your manuscript from Anastasia or another of our editorial professionals, or look around for more advice on your writing.

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