Sense and Scene

By Avigail Oren

We decided to change up the theme of this year’s Graduate Student Blogging Contest because we wanted to encourage storytelling. Graduate coursework and advising generally prepares historians to write persuasive, evidence-based arguments, but only some programs and advisors emphasize the elements of narrative—scene, character, dialogue, voice, style—that can make a piece of writing more engaging to the lay reader.

This year’s theme, The Senses, creates a framework that compels contest entrants to practice these storytelling elements.

Tell a story about any time, topic, person, or place in urban history that foregrounds sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch. Immerse the reader in the world of your story and make them feel like they are there. Posts can be from your perspective as the historian-researcher (i.e., you are the first-person narrator), from the perspective of historical actors (i.e., third person), or a combination of the two. Successful posts do not need to be about senses or make an argument related to senses, but must use vivid descriptions of at least one sense.

Today I want to focus on how vivid descriptions of vistas, noises, aromas, flavors, and textures contribute to scene-setting. The past is not a neat little stage play, but it still took place within earth’s richness and human creations. There were trees and pollen and smoke and mud. Rain-soaked clothes stuck to bodies, feet burned on hot sand. Eaves coated in spiderwebs. Frigid water blasting from uncapped hydrants. Trains that chugged past small towns every Tuesday night at 3 a.m., tooting the horn if anyone, man or animal, wandered too close.

In Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction Jack Hart describes scene as an author’s tool to forge connection with the reader and foster empathy.

“Scene-setting takes its power from its ability to put us into a story, to let us ride the narrative arc ourselves. We filter the details the writer provides through our own experiences, which is why great storytelling can coax such strong emotions out of us. The facts are the writer’s. But the emotions are ours, as potent as the love, anger, fear, and rage that wash over us when we tangle with reality firsthand.”

Jack Hart, Story Craft, p. 91

Isn’t that exactly what we want, as historians? To make readers feel that they are tangling with the past as if it was reality firsthand?

Here are two examples of writers using sensory descriptions to evoke scenes. The first is from my personal paragon of beautiful writing, Scott Sandage, who was also one of my formative writing teachers. This is the very first paragraph of Born Losers: A History of Failure in America.

“The American Dream died young and was laid to rest on a splendid afternoon in May 1862, when blooming apple trees heralded the arrival of spring. At three o’clock, a bell tolled forty-four times, once for each year of a life cut short. Dismissed from school, three hundred children marched to the funeral under the bright sun. Those with luck and pluck would grow up to transform American capitalism during the Gilded Age. But on this day the scent in the air was not wealth, but wildflowers. Violets dotted the grass outside the First Parish Church. The casket in the vestibule bore a wreath of andromeda and a blanket of flowers that perfumed the sanctuary with the sweetness of spring.”

Scott Sandage, Born Losers, p. 1

In seven short sentences, Sandage transports readers to nineteenth-century New England. He tells the reader that the deceased was an important person, because why else would every kid in town show up for a funeral on an afternoon perfect for climbing those blooming apple trees? By pointing out the casket covered with fresh flowers, Sandage tells the reader that the community honored the person inside it. And those 44 rings of the bell? That detail is not just about the age of the deceased; it’s also a signal that the town wanted to make sure that no one would miss the funeral that was about to start.

On the next page, Sandage reveals that the funeral was for Henry Thoreau; Ralph Waldo Emerson gave the eulogy. The scene is essential to the book’s argument: Thoreau is a stand-in for the last generation of Americans who did not associate their personal success with ambition and achievement. The 300 children would grow up with “the language of business applied to the soul,” forced to strive so as not to be deemed a failure. The changing logic of capitalism meant they were no longer free to dreamily wander the shores of Walden Pond. By evoking the idyllic, sweet afternoons of childhood, Sandage masterfully establishes the stakes of the story and instills a grief not for Thoreau, but our collective loss of innocence.

Writing tip: adjective+noun pairings (e.g., pretty flowers, nutty aroma; rough texture) are blunt tools that often rely on cliche or tired associations. Instead, name what you are describing (e.g., peonies in full bloom; chestnuts roasting on an open fire; stubble) and let the reader’s experience fill in the details.

If Sandage uses the senses to evoke bittersweetness, in this scene from The Warmth of Other Suns Isabel Wilkerson uses them to evoke urgency and anxiety. Wilkerson’s history of the Great Migration is filled with sensory language, and I genuinely could have opened the book to any page and found a beautiful example of writing. But the way that this passage invokes sight, and then immediately questions it, builds dramatic tension.

“Late afternoon. The desert was different than anything he had seen before. Great bowl of sky. Fringe of mountain in the distance. He was soon in Arizona. The desert began playing tricks on the eyes. It seemed he was driving and standing still at the same time. Road signs began warning of dust storms. Gas stations sold bags of water for people to placate their overheated radiators. He couldn’t wait to get to California.”

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, p. 205

One of the three main characters that Wilkerson follows on their migration, physician Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, makes the journey from Louisiana to California by automobile. By comparing the sky to a “great bowl” and the mountains to “fringe”—unconventional descriptions of these natural features—the reader senses Robert’s estrangement from the landscape. Invoking “tricks on the eyes,” Wilkerson reminds readers of the desert’s expansiveness and relentless. The signs Robert sees underscore the dangers of this stretch of road. Robert’s eyes inform him, and the reader, that he is vulnerable.

Wilkerson could have inelegantly written, “Robert fearfully drove through the desert, painfully aware of the perils that awaited him if the car broke down or he fall asleep at the wheel.” The problem is not just that it’s stripped of compelling details like the bags of water being sold roadside; it also eliminates references to the distance Robert has yet to cover, and the extent of the danger that lies ahead. Wilkerson matches her words to the slow pace of the drive, so that the reader instinctively wonders, “are we there yet?”

Robert ends up delirious with fatigue, forced to drive from motel to motel, denied a room at each one because he is Black. The brutality of the landscape is mirrored in the cruelty of the hoteliers’ racism and the injustice of Jim Crow.

Writing tip: use descriptions of what a historical actor is seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching to convey their mood or the stakes of the scene. Instead of “Sally noticed the neighborhood was changing,” write, “Every morning, Sally took her coffee out on the front porch and watched another neighbor hang a sign declaring their house for sale. Even with the hot mug cupped in her palms, she shivered.”

The limitations of the archive and the historical record can make this kind of descriptive writing feel speculative, bordering on fiction. But a combination of ancillary research and careful wording can thread the needle between fabrication and creative nonfiction. Consult historical weather data, fashion encyclopedias, farmers almanacs, or myriad other sources that capture local flora, fauna, and social life. I once looked up the exact time that the sun rose on June 1, 1880, just so I could say that a boxer “stood beneath the rising sun” when he arrived at the outdoor ring where his prizefight was held.

The extra effort may seem daunting, but remember that a scene can come alive with only a few key details. “The writer’s mission,” Hart says, “is not to describe what’s out in the world in all its detailed complexity. The mission is to tap what’s already in the reader’s head.” We all see, hear, smell, touch, and taste; all the reader needs is instructions for what senses they should remember.

Avigail S. Oren is Senior Program Editor of The Metropole. She is an independent scholar and entrepreneur, a bookworm, and apparently retains analytical skills she developed in AP Literature half a lifetime ago.

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