A Writer’s Palette

Summer heat crept through narrow slits around our front door. The cracked tile on one end of the foyer drew my eyes up to a hole in the drywall from a roller blade mishap. Mental note. Find a bigger rug.

I picked up a rumpled carpet runner to shake it outside. A crawdad fell out. A mother crawdad, giving birth to tiny crawdads spilling like Rice Krispies on the floor.

I shrieked. Just a little. Not like when I’d seen a tarantula exiting the mop with slow, deliberate spider steps on my kitchen floor.

Not like when I’d watched bloody footprints travel behind our five-year old’s limp home from a nearby drainage ditch. Or saw his brother’s bone stick out of tender skin after a misguided save on a backyard touch-down sent him elbow first into the privacy fence.

I loved order. Life didn’t cooperate. It was messy, often stinky and pretty much happened despite my best efforts to control it.

Little did I know those images mattered. That even as I include them in this blog, they catapult me into emotions that many mothers of young children share. They’ve become sensory pictures I can use to build a personal palette for my writing, much like an artist gathers her paints in vibrant hues.

In The Blue Carbuncle, by Arthur Conan Doyle, Watson holds a tattered black hat in his hands. “I can see nothing,” he says to his friend Sherlock.

“On the contrary, Watson, you can see everything. You fail, however, to reason from what you see.”

Writing well is all about seeing – creating images that pull our readers into a sensory experience that communicates more than the loveliest of prose.

Whether we’re writing fiction or non-fiction, imagery paints an indelible picture on our reader’s senses. It pulls on that shared part of us that knows what it feels like to run into a spider web. And how our fingers comb through strands of hair, hoping not to find its weaver.

Look how imagery is used to set the tone of fiction and nonfiction in setting.

“This was her river, smack-dab in the middle of Mississippi. Unpredictable and unsafe, it stunk when rain stirred its thick sludge of mud beneath brown pebbles and river stones. Its currents were hidden, dangerous to those foolish enough to jump into those waters without so much as a limb tossed in to discover what couldn’t be seen.”

River’s Call, Laurel Thomas

“The sound of moaning respirators and the putrid smell of burned flesh assailed me as I pushed my way through the double doors into the intensive care unit that afternoon. Before the doors shut behind me, I knew I was in for a hard shift…”

A Healing Touch, Melanie Hemry

Or how an antagonist is revealed in Finding Amanda by Robin Patchen.

“Dr. Gabriel Sheppard eyed the girl in the doorway. She’d be perfect. She paused at the threshold. Most people looked first at the windows, but she turned to his left, toward his massive cherry desk. There was a telephone, a notepad, a pen, and a picture frame that faced away from her, so she couldn’t see the images of his wife and children…”

What does your world look like? Keep a notebook of images that pull on your senses with such intensity that writing them causes you to relive the emotions. Like the time I tried to race an Escalade driving my ten-year old Taurus.

With my teenage son in the passenger seat.

Effective imagery explores unexpected parallels, like comparing grief to cheap plastic wrap that sticks in places you never intended it to.

You get the picture, right?

So, go ahead. Prepare a palette of images. You may not use them, but they’ll be good practice the next time you show, not tell!

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  1. I enjoyed this article. It was very helpful to illustrate show , not tell. I felt the emotional illustration through the imagery of words. I can use this to write better. Thank you Laurel.

  2. Laurel, your words are like a full-course meal for the senses! Can’t wait to read your book, River’s Call!!