Winter’s Sensory Appeal

By Karen Jurgens

Sensory appeal is a vehicle that transports the reader into a story, making it a real place. As we write, we need to paint the setting in such a way that it comes to life through the readers’ five senses.

Want a good shortcut? Cataloging personal memoirs of a particular season can come in handy for a reference. As an illustration, let me take you on a rambling journey of my recollection of Winter where touch, taste, sound, smell, and hearing punctuate my memories.



What do I feel when I think of Winter? Numbing cold. Growing up in the Midwest, we had wicked winters for as long as I can recall. No matter how many layers of wool and fleece, the bitter freeze cut through them like a razor-sharp knife. The temperature of my feet and hands remained like ice cubes no matter what, and it could be quite embarrassing when I was a teenager on a date—especially at the movies. A typical conversation ran like this:

Him: He drops my hand like he’d just touched a snake. “Why are your hands freezing?”

Me: Were they that cold? I had worn leather gloves to the theater. “They just always are.” I sigh as I retrieve my gloves and proceed to wiggle my hands into them. But my cheeks aren’t cold—they’re burning.


Him: “Don’t bother. I’ll warm them up.” He scoops my hands into his and forms a heated tent with both palms, wrapping his fingers around mine.

Me: I snuggle up to his warmth, hoping he understands that it’s just my freeze-cat nature and not him.

My hands might have warmed up at the movies, but defrosting in a boiling bath every night was my primary relief. I soaked until my extremities resurrected, then slid into a thick nightgown and jumped into bed before my newly-found heat evaporated. Even beneath layers of blankets and quilts, the bed was icy-cold, and for the next hour, my feet turned back into icicles, chasing away sleep. (Why I never used an electric blanket or wore warm socks to bed, I’ll never know.)

But the story, like the cold, worsens. One winter, the real temperature dropped to minus fifty below zero, and the wind chill was nearly double. Although fires roared in all three hearths and the thermostat was set high, it was impossible to warm the house above sixty-five degrees. The corners of the kitchen ceiling closest to the outside wall formed ice, causing the heat from the ceiling spotlights to melt it into slow, spattering droplets.

Sight, Sound_DSC2641

For the most part, the hard winters cast a frozen spell over the Midwest, wrapping everything in a white, paralyzing glaze. Snow lay in layers between the intermittent and endless storms, and on those rare, blue-skied days would slice a painful glare into eyes unprotected by dark glasses. The limbs of bare trees reached into the frigid air, begging the wind to soften its harsh blow. Flowers had deserted their beds long ago, and the lonely shrubs hugged together in shared misery. The animal and insect kingdoms gathered its members and retreated until warmer days, except for a few flaming-red Cardinals and their female companions who pecked at birdseed bells hanging from tree limbs, their only source of nourishment to stay alive.

Birds in the Park

Growing up in the City of the Seven Hills wasn’t all bad—the steep snow-covered slopes were perfect for sled riding. Bundled up like mummies in layers of sweaters, coats, and leggings topped with hats, scarves, mittens, and boots, we would drag our Radio Flyers to the top of a mountainous hill and then push off.


The more timid kids lay flat on their stomachs, but the braver sat upright, racing to the bottom. The faster the descent, the rougher the ride, and by the time the parallel blades came to a stop, brains and body rattled together like marbles in a pinball machine. Laughing with relief that no one had plowed into a tree or had tumbled mid-flight and broken a rib (that time), we would race to the top and do it all over again, thrilling in the fear of reckless speed and good-natured competition.


Packing our ice skates for lessons at Cincinnati Gardens was also a weekly ritual. All winter long we enjoyed parties at the indoor skating rink as well as those held outdoors at someone’s frozen pond. We glided arm-in-arm under a cold, black sky patterned with glittering stars, interspersed with breaks where we warmed up next to a bonfire. These memories are as sweet as the hot chocolate with melted marshmallows that we sipped, reveling in good friendships and fun during the carefree days and nights of that bitter season.

Closeup of campfire.IMG_20141129_015241


But there were also opportunities for rest on snowy-cold afternoons. As silent snowflakes drifted from the clouds, I would take luxurious naps on the couch opposite our large fireplace where a toasty fire danced the cha-cha. The logs flamed until they glowed with cherry-red and orange embers, and the soft crackling and popping lulled me to sleep. Those naps folded me into a warm cocoon dotted with peaceful dreams.

Taste and Smell

To help conquer the distress of the unending cold weather, hot food and beverages played a crucial role in surviving the season. I enjoyed cooking as much as eating, so I spent time in the kitchen creating a variety of comfort foods. Christmastime smelled and tasted like gingerbread, cranberries, and spiced apples. _MG_3286_

The rich smell of roasted game fowl, the nuttiness of steaming wild rice, the sweet pungency of hot yeast rolls dripping butter, the sweet cinnamon of warm apple pies, together with the smell of fresh coffee laced with chicory, floated through the rooms of our home.

After the holidays came the slowest months of the New Year. The lagging month of January puffed out sharp spices of bubbling chili and spaghetti and the rich gravies of beef and vegetable stews.

My own Cincinnati Skyline Chili

My own Cincinnati Skyline Chili

February’s sweets lined a parade of cupcakes frosted with chocolate and trimmed with pink and red hearts. Valentine’s Day parties showcased stacks of finger sandwiches oozing soft chicken salad and luscious petit fours paired with vanilla ice cream.


By the time St. Patrick’s Day arrived (which also happens to be my birthday), the entire house was wrapped in the aroma of sugar, vanilla, and baking powder from scratch cakes with gooey frosting, mounded high in sticky-soft swirls.

My birthday cake last year with my daughter, Meg.

What a wonderful relief to celebrate the end of Winter and the beginning of Spring!

Remember to enter our Blogaversary Celebration by leaving an answer to the writing prompt. You’ll be eligible to win a $100 Amazon gift card!

Writing Prompt: Using sensory details, write a description of Winter to keep in your writing file. When I think of Winter, I (feel, etc.) …


Photos courtesy of MorgueFile


6 thoughts on “Winter’s Sensory Appeal

  1. When I think of winter, I envision fuzzy snow boots one day and flip flops three days later. I taste the sweetness of snow cream one day, then iced tea the next week. I feel the difference of a 20 degree day and within a week, 70 degrees. I remember girls at college sunbathing in February during one of those warm spells. Winter in the deep South…

  2. I’m from Florida but I’ve been in the midwest for the last 12 years. So when I think of winter, I think of darker days – the sun rising late and going to bed early. A chill in the air that starts out as a gentle crispness but grows into a biting sting as the temperature gets colder and the days get shorter. My thickest blanket on the bed, fuzzy socks permanently on my feet, a bag of deer corn in the microwave to use like an old-fashioned bed-warmer so I can sleep at night (no cold toes for me, thank you!). Fingerless gloves so I can try to keep my hands warm while I type at my computer all day. And extra daily vitamins to stave off the anxiety that likes to descend upon me in October and will not leave until April or May. But also the one highlight – my most favorite time of the year smack in the middle of my least favorite season – Christmas, with the cinnamon/nutmeg scents, glistening colorful lights, cheerful music to celebrate our Savior.

  3. I love the idea of the bags of deer corn to use as foot warmers. I remember my mother describing hot irons wrapped and placed at the foot of the feather beds when she would visit her grandparents who lived in the country. Thanks for sharing your Winter memories!

  4. Speaking of sunbathing, I used to be a sun worshipper, but Winter never stopped me from having a tanned face. I would sit on a lounge in the snow, wrapped in coats and scarves, holding sun reflectors. I can’t believe my mother allowed me to do that!

  5. When I think of Winter, I am cozy snuggled in soft, warm blanket. Days of reading, while sipping a cuppa spicey Chai tea. My hair plastered to my face thanks to the static electricity.

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