for writers and readers….

An exercise that can help you travel back in time – sensory description in memoir writing

Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon – E.L. Doctorow

Photo by Geetanjal Khanna on Unsplash

Adapted from Back to Creative Writing School

Most of us think in pictures most of the time, which is why description usually focuses on how something or someone looks. However, by introducing at least one of the other senses – sound, smell, taste, touch – you can add a depth to your writing and help you travel back in time.

The mental image you have of Aunt Aggie’s face may have dimmed over the years but if you can remember what her kitchen smelt like on Sunday mornings then you are back there, drawing pictures in the steam on her window.

This is how the French novelist Marcel Proust put it:

….the greater part of our memory exists outside us, in a dampish breeze, in the musty air of a bedroom or the smell of autumn’s first fires … the last vestige of the past, the best part of it, the part which, after all our tears seem to have dried can make us weep again.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

There’s a problem though. Scientists say that we can recognise up to 10,000 separate smells. Our noses are bombarded with information from food, animals, earth, plants, bacterial decomposition, industrial processes, and other people and yet we don’t have a large vocabulary to describe how something smells. And it is very, very hard to describe a smell to someone who has not already experienced it.

The same is true for taste. Smell and taste are linked together because back in the dawn of time the two senses had the same purpose: to guide our ancestors towards stuff that might be good to eat and away from something that could be harmful. Most of the flavour of food comes from its smell, which floats up to cells in the nose through the nostrils and also through a passageway at the back of the mouth. Food is dull when we can’t smell it – it’s no more than fuel.


In this exercise I want to work with both taste and smell, but you may find one is more powerful than the other in which case go with that one. This is a tough exercise. To make it easier I want you to use sensory description to describe a place that you already know. I’ve given you list of three places, choose the one you want to write about or really challenge yourself and do all three. Be specific. Think of an office that you have a strong memory of – not some general, generic office or one you’ve seen on television – but one where you’ve spent time. It should be somewhere you can see in colour when you close your eyes.

Choose one of these:

  1. An office
  2. A bedroom
  3. A car

Ok, you’re now going to step into the picture.

As quick as you can, write down five things you ate or tasted in that place. For example a sandwich or the glue on the back of a stamp.

Next note down five smells you associate with that place – it can have something to do with one of the tastes you’ve just jotted down or something else entirely, such as lavender air freshener or socks taken off the night before.

Try to do five for each. It’s a stretch because I’ve avoided places that fill our senses such as kitchens and gardens. I want it to be first-hand experience, particular to you and that place, not borrowed from a shared understanding of what kitchens should smell like.

Now you should have 10 words or phrases. Work on the one or two that brings that place back to life for you. Perhaps you were always chewing gum when you got out of school and climbed into the car. Perhaps the smell of the road outside drifted through the open window in the summer.

Put that taste and smell into a paragraph. Be precise in the detail. Not just chewing gum but also the flavour and even the make if you can remember it. Re-introduce visual elements. Re-create the place as it existed in that particular period of your life live.

Now write around it. What were you doing back then? Where were you living? Who was your best friend? Write and don’t think about word counting. See what comes out.

Back to Creative Writing School is now only £4 – the lowest price it’s ever been because writing is one of the creative arts and being creative can help us to reduce stress. And right now that’s what we all need.

Over 140 reader ratings on Amazon (it scores 4.6 out of 5)

2 comments on “An exercise that can help you travel back in time – sensory description in memoir writing

  1. Rae Reads
    April 16, 2020

    Am enjoying your book on Kindle.

    • bridget whelan
      April 18, 2020

      That’s so lovely to hear. I would be be grateful for any comments – we’re writers, that’s how we grow and become better readers of our own work.

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