If you’re in the middle of your NaNoWriMo draft and you feel like your novel lacks the kind of sensory detail that other authors seem to include naturally—the kind of writing that makes you feel like you’re inside the story, with the characters, feeling what they’re feeling—it might be time to start carrying an observational notebook.
This kind of notebook is less of a journal and more of a way to quickly jot down what you see, hear, smell, taste, feel—you get the idea. Once you get into the practice of observing this kind of sensory detail, you’ll be able to use your expanded sensory vocabulary in your own writing.
This will sharpen both your powers of observation and your expressive ability. A productive feedback loop is established: Through the habit of taking notes, you will inevitably come to observe more; observing more, you will have more to note down.
Davis suggests that you use your notebook to write down specific, detailed observations about everything from the posture of the person sitting by themselves at the coffee shop to the way the steam coming off your own cup of coffee temporarily thickens the air in front of your nose. (Not saying that you have to do this observational work at a coffee shop, of course, but writers in coffee shops are cliché for a reason.)
Here’s a sample from Davis’s notebook, on the way wind affects an outdoor patio:
High wind yesterday blew women’s long hair, women’s long skirts, crowns of trees, at dinner outdoors napkins off laps, lettuce off plates, flakes of pastry off plates onto footpath.
As you take the time to both observe and describe your surroundings, as well as how those surroundings affect your body and the bodies of the people you see around you, you’ll have a greater wealth of detail and sense memory to draw from as you draft your novel.
They say you’re supposed to write what you know, after all—so use your observational notebook to ensure you know what a windy day does to a flaky pastry, or what a hot cup of coffee does to your nostrils, or what sitting alone in a bustling café does to someone’s shoulders.
Then get back to your NaNoWriMo draft, and see how many of those observations end up finding a way into your story.