The right, imaginative and clear use of details in a book, to me, is the single most important way a writer can improve their writing.
What makes a book become real to a reader, what transports them from the reality of their own life to the world of the book, are details. And the way details are conveyed is through the senses.
When I teach writing, I like to take my students on a sense walk.
This is often in the rural landscape, and is best if it is, and it can also be done by yourself exactly where you live.
For two minutes take in every visual detail and block out, as much as you can, the other senses: I see the sky, blue and clear of clouds, the shine of a river below in the sun, the shreddy bark of a tree, the green loop of a vine.
Now only take in, for two minutes, what you can smell. Explore with your nose that black-currant smell of the grass, the peppermint smell of penny royal, the pine sap of a needled branch, the damp-compost smell of the earth under the fallen needles, a sun-on-bark smell of a twig.
For two minutes disregard everything except touch: the ribbed and calloused texture of an old pine trunk, the sticky sap of a cut log, the velvet softness of long blades of grass, the tiny pricks at the end of a gorse bush, the satiny texture of a broadleaf, the brittle needles of a dead branch.
For two minutes, taste everything. Be a goat, or an animal. Nibble the end of gorse, tasting like peas. Or grass, like raw spinach. Lick the bark – warm and rough – of a tree. Put a small mouthful of soil in your mouth. Nibble a leaf. Suddenly the forest is alive to you through your tongue. (Keeping yourself safe, no berries or fungus, only tiny tastes of unknown plants.)
Now stand still, eyes shut, and listen. That sound of the river far away. Closer, the wind in the tree tops. A bird calling from way back in the forest. Above, a fluttering and chirping of a fantail. Your footsteps as they crunch over dried bracken and softer on the grassy track.
Now open your eyes and begin to walk around slowly, taking in everything – the colour, the texture, the smell, the taste of a leaf; the colour, the texture, the taste, the smell of a tree trunk. Walk with your eyes searching and recording, your fingers trailing over plants, your feet aware of the textures of land and the plants they walk on. Sniff in deeply; listen to the birds, the wind, vehicles far away, voices.
I guarantee in those few minutes you will be alive to the world in a way that maybe only great sadness or happiness had clarified for you.
Here, at any moment you choose, you can be in the world, taking it in in such rich layers that it almost overwhelms you with joy. The way you do it, is through your senses.
The world of your book comes to the reader through what the characters
and what they imagine of these.
And that is the only way.