Reply To: Splash Lesson 1

Zara West

Hi Nancy,

Apologies. I was unable to paste it in so I sent it as a Word attachment. I think you would have to sign into the forum to download it. I will try to paste it here. The Welcome is first and the LESSON 1 follows. The Suggested Assignment is at the end. I undid the hot links as they seem to be the problem. Download the attachment for hotlinks and colored fonts sections.

WELCOME Hello everyone,

I am very excited to be teaching this class. The content of this workshop grew out of comments I received from contest judges that I needed to add more sensory elements to my writing. I am an inveterate writing course taker so I looked around, but I couldn’t find a course on the topic.

Intrigued, I set out to gather what information I could from blogs and writing books and my background in science and create my own guide to adding the senses to my writing.

To start us off, I want to go over few things so we are all on the same page.


I will be posting a new lesson every Monday and Thursday in October. I will try to be as consistent as possible, but life happens. I live in a very rural area – on a sheep farm. Our electric and/or internet goes off at the oddest times. However, I do have a brand-new computer so at least I won’t have it dying in the middle of the course, I hope.


All class materials are copyrighted (by me or by the originating agency as appropriate) and are for your use only.


This class is interactive, and each lesson is followed by a short homework assignment. These assignments are designed to guide you in using sensory language in your writing so that at the end of the course you will have a handle on how to insert the senses at just the right point in a scene.

I encourage you to use a piece of writing you are currently working on so you can get feedback from me and other students that will be of the most use to you. If you prefer not to use your own work, then consider using one of your favorite romance novels and drawing examples from it.

I strongly suggest you do all the assignments and post them by the next class. In my experience of teaching online courses for over two decades and taking over a hundred online courses myself, I have learned that doing the assignments and discussing them with others greatly aids in understanding and remembering what you learn.


I will be checking the class regularly and answering questions and responding to your homework during the course. However, if you want to follow or friend me now or in the future, I don’t mind answering questions on the content of this course after the course has ended. My website is Zara West Suspense .com


I have done a lot of different things in my life. I have a degree in art and taught art for many years, although I have also taught writing, music, dance, drama, science, math, and most recently, technology.

I’ve done ethnographic research with Greek and Italian shepherds (I know where all that pecorino Romano cheese comes from!), run a commercial 400 head sheep farm and had a craft business marketing handwoven scarves and shawls across the country. I actually once sat at the top of the escalator in Bloomingdales, NYC, weaving at my loom.

I have been writing forever. When I was young, I dabbled in poetry. My first “real book” was a how-to manual on loom construction written for Volunteers for International Technical Assistance (VITA), a non-profit group, and distributed to Oxfam and other aid groups. Absolutely no sensory writing in it all.

Since then, I have gone on to write a lot. I have written magazine articles, flash fiction, short stories, and numerous novels – some published and some not.

My brand new, top-selling Write for Success series covers fast drafting, revision, research, and powering up your prose. Learn more at JoanKoster .com.



Did you know that there are seven senses? Or wait is that eight? At any rate, no matter how many there are, a great writer uses ALL of them in EVERY place possible in their writing.

The world is a noisy, whirling, colorful place full of sounds that tickle our ears, textures that twitch our fingers, odors that assault our noses, tastes that tempt our tongues, and images that dazzle our eyes. Our senses are what make us alive to the world. It is also what makes our characters come alive to our readers.

Today we will be looking at the science of the senses and thinking about how to apply this in developing realistic characters.

Throughout this lesson, I have interspersed Thoughts for Writers. These are not assignments you have to turn in, unless you wish to. But are intended to get you thinking about how to apply this rather scientific information to your writing.

Our Senses: The Science

Let’s begin with a scientific overview of what we know about our senses. [Note: If anyone wants the research references for the following, just let me know.]

<u>Some Definitions:</u> The word sense means to be conscious of, to comprehend, or to detect a stimulus. Multisensory is used to refer to experiences that combine several senses together in some way. Extrasensory refers to the ability to perceive stimuli outside the seven physical senses. It is often called clairvoyance, precognition, telepathy or more simply, ESP. ESP is beyond the context of this course. However, if you are writing a paranormal, knowing how our actual senses work can help in creating a realistic extrasensory one.

As with all living creatures, it is through our senses that we learn about the world. Tastes, smells, textures, sounds, movements, and sights, most often in combination, stimulate our sensory organs which convert them to neural impulses and send them to our brain for processing. Our eyes, nose, mouth, ears, skin and body are considered exteroceptors because they process external stimuli.

How Our Senses Develop

Our senses actually start functioning before birth. Every day researchers learn more about the amazing abilities of infants who at birth have fully functioning sensory systems ready to be refined through interaction with the environment.

<u>In the womb:</u> Weeks before birth, an unborn child hears sounds and smells the amniotic fluid. Within hours of birth, newborns recognize their mother’s voice and her unique scent. They can recognize music that they heard in the womb. They can feel warmth and cold, rough and soft. And while their visual acuity and depth perception are weaker than an adult’s, and their eyes still wander, babies in their first days have a sense of size and shape, prefer their mothers’ face over others, and complex shapes over simple ones.

<u>At birth:</u> A baby’s senses develop rapidly after birth. By four to five months, infants can see one shape inside another, recognize turning three-dimensional forms, and know when one object passes in front of another. They move their heads and bodies toward a sound, can match pitch, and discriminate between rhythmic and non-rhythmic music.

<u>At mid-year:</u> By six to seven months, vision is well-developed. Two dimensional and three-dimensional features, such as shading, relative size, texture gradients, and linear perspective, are used by infants to locate objects around them.

<u>Deprivation:</u> Sensory perception is so essential that when babies are deprived of one type of sensory information, because of a physical issue such as limited vision, hearing loss or sensitivity to touch, their future growth is affected. Visual deprivation in the first seven weeks of life results in impaired recognition of faces. Hearing loss not corrected before six months affects the child’s ability to classify and understand distinct sounds, hindering language development. Infants who are under-responsive to tactile stimuli show increased social and communication impairments as they mature. Infants who receive infrequent touching from their mothers eat less and show slower physical growth.

Even as adults, we rely so heavily on the intake of information through our senses that when deprived of all sensory input for as little as fifteen minutes such as in a sensory deprivation tank, adults begin to lose their sense of reality. If in the tank longer, people can lose consciousness or even sink into a coma.

Thought for Writers: Lack of sensory information in your writing can have the same effect as a sensory deprivation tank. The reader might be lulled to sleep or lose interest and put the book down.

Selective Attention

Bombarded constantly by sensory stimuli, we would grow crazy if we paid attention to all of feedback coming in from the environment. In order to survive, we use selective attention. From birth, the working brain filters the sensory information coming in, discarding some inputs, attending to others.

Selective attention is responding to the most important or compelling stimulus. This is what we focus on, analyze, and then react. For example, you hear a voice calling your name outside your window. Ignoring the rub of clothing against your skin, the colors on the wallpaper in your living room, the smell of the body wash you showered with, and the bitter aftertaste from the coffee you just drank, you rush to the window and look out.

We are also more likely to react to stimuli which might injure us in some way, such as touching a hot flame, or which are important to us, such as the expression on our child’s face. Our characters are going to do the same thing.

This sensing process consists of the following steps:

  • A stimulus is noticed.
  • Distractions are filtered out.
  • You focus on the
  • You figure out what it is from a memory or by deduction.
  • You decide what action you have to take.
  • You ignore it or you respond.
  • You learn – i.e. remember the stimulus and how effective your response was.

Thoughts for Writers When your characters hear, see, taste, touch, or smell something, how do they react? Do they use the sensing process above? Obviously, not every single character reaction to a sensory stimulus needs to be described in such detail, any more than we think through the process when touching a flame. It’s hot. It hurts, and we jerk away. But at high points of a story i.e. when a Navy SEAL smells a foul, but familiar, odor, the steps can be useful in describing how he or she figures out what it is.

Identifying the Senses

Remember when I said there are more than five senses? We all know the five senses from our kindergarten lessons. However, recent research has identified two additional ones.  We will be looking at each of these senses in depth in the following lessons.

Lesson 2 – Tactile perception The entire surface of the human body is sensitive to pressure and temperature, as well as to the textural qualities of the matter that makes up the world. This is tactile perception. Although we rely heavily on our hands to explore and to acquire knowledge about the characteristics of individual materials and objects and to develop an understanding of how things are spatially arranged and move, every part of our skin is part of our tactile sense.

Lesson 3 – Olfactory perception is using our sense of smell to identify odors. Although the sense of smell is often less valued than the other senses, it is a very powerful one. Smell stimuli travel directly to the limbic system of the brain, which primarily supports emotions and long-term memories.

Lesson 4 –Gustatory perception or taste is often the forgotten sense. Yet, tastes play an important role in forming pleasant and unpleasant memories.

Lesson 5 – Auditory perception is sensitivity to sounds and noises. It is a key skill in musical and language development. Learning to discriminate meaningful sounds from the distracting noise that surrounds us is key to developing the ability to focus and attend.

Lesson 6 – Visual perception Discriminating lines, colors, shapes, movement, and dimension is the main function of our sense of sight.

Lesson 7 – Vestibular & Kinesthetic perception

The Vestibular Sense is located in the inner ear and in sensors located in the soles of our feet. This sense tells us where our body is in space and provides feedback on balance, coordination, and movement.

The Kinesthetic Sense or “Proprioceptive System” provides input on the way our bones, tendons, and muscles are functioning and provides feedback on the functioning of our body in terms of pressure, contraction, stretching, and so on. (Note: They probably don’t teach these last two in kindergarten because they are really hard to spell.)

Which Sense is Most Important? 

As we have seen, we need all our senses to function in the world. However, most people prefer to use one sense more than the others. Because this can affect how you learn, educators have developed tests to determine what are often called “learning styles.” [Note: If you would like to find out your sensory preference, you can take this test.

Thoughts for Writers  Our characters should demonstrate similar preferences. For example, an artist may notice and refer more to visual elements in the environment, such as colors, shapes, and patterns. A seamstress may be sensitive to textures of the cloth and threads she works with. A hunter might be supersensitive to the sounds in nature. Check through your WIP or a favorite book. What sense preference is shown by the main character?

Writing exercise 1

Take a moment to explore your senses. Set a timer for one minute. Open your senses to everything going around you. What can you hear, see, smell, taste, touch? What attracts your attention first? Why? Focus in on that stimulus. What is it? How does it make you feel? What past experiences does it make you think about? How do you want to respond to it?

When the minute is up, write down what you learned about your senses from this exercise.


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