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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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