This technique was originally intended to be a concentration and anger management tool, but I think it’s a good exercise for the writer’s arsenal too. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, stop your train of thought and concentrate exclusively* on what your senses are telling you.
- What can you see?
- What can you hear?
- What can you smell?
- What can you feel (not just hands, any part of your body)?
- What can you taste?
One-word answers aren’t acceptable. You should take at least 2 minutes to run through this, and 2 minutes is a long time. Really think about the detail; notice the world around you, not as a background that you’re passing through, but as something important. The smell of exhaust and late-night chips, cut with a sudden burst of rose from a garden you’re walking past; the orange streetlights reflected at least three times in dark house windows, and above them the few stars that are strong enough to penetrate the glare of the city; the itch under your little toe, and the hint of a breeze on your arm-hairs.
Start thinking in descriptive inner monologue. These are the details that make a written passage come to life for the reader, and these are the senses that your characters have available to experience your world. (Unless you’re writing sci-fi, in which case feel free to swop additional senses in and out as desired. But USE them.) And if the character is blind or deaf? Even better! Make that absence come across. By cataloguing how you notice things, you’ll start to understand what they’re missing out on, and how the other senses can be used to compensate.
It takes practice. Your mind won’t like following strict orders for so long, and will go off on tangents. Late-night chips – mmm, am I hungry and is the chip shop still open? But the brain is a muscle and this is a really good exercise for making it do what you want. It might also change the way you look at the world, even if only for 2 minutes at a time.
* Er… within the bounds of safety, obviously. Don’t run a red light, or walk off a cliff, or anything.