I'm Rebecca Mahoney, a freelance journalist, fiction writer & manuscript editor who likes to chat about books & writing, share editing tips, and muse about the freelance life. Visit my full website at rebeccamahoney.com.
In creative writing, we often hear the phrase, “show, don’t tell.” That means you want the reader to feel like they’re experiencing the moment. One way to do this is to include specific, unique details, including sensory descriptions. This is a great strategy to bring any kind of writing to life, from fiction to memoir.
Here’s an excerpt from my novel, The Wanting Place, in which the protagonist experiences a transformative afternoon when she returns to one of her favorite London markets. Here, I show the reader the significance of this moment through specific details and sensory descriptions:
For days, Phoebe avoided going to Borough Market, afraid it would remind her too much of Luke. But on Monday morning, she decided it was time to return.
She kept her expectations in check as she emerged from the London Bridge Tube station and sloshed her way through the damp streets toward the market. So much in London had changed since she’d been a student. The South Bank had been revitalized. The London Eye loomed over the Thames. Trafalgar Square had been exorcised of pigeons. The city’s evolution made her feel awed but regretful, as though she had failed to keep in touch with a close friend.
As she passed under the brick archway into Jubilee Hall, however, Phoebe caught a whiff of baking bread. Déjà vu swept over her, so powerful she almost swayed.
It was all there: The braids of golden bread. The sweet homemade sausages as thick as her arm. Mrs. King’s Pork Pies, crusty and bubbling. Wooden barrels of perfect, glossy olives. Balls of mozzarella swimming in a milky brine. The air was rich with the aromas of fresh coffee and toasting cheese, molten chocolate and frying onions
It was dizzying. It was magnificent. For the first time in weeks, Phoebe felt her stomach awaken. She wasn’t just hungry – she was ravenous.
She grabbed a shopping basket and worked her way through Jubilee Hall, wandering among tables of glossy purple eggplants and lemons as bright and plump as the sun, nibbling bite-sized portions of cherry almond tart, spicy Cioppino and crunchy pork belly. Her feet traced their own familiar path, past the fishmonger with his tanks of eerie, translucent creatures, and around the game table, where a line of dead rabbits dangled from hooks, their bellies slit from throat to tail.
At the cheese tables, a woman wearing a knitted hat and fingerless gloves drew a wire over a round of cheese the size of a car tire and pressed down, slicing off a wafer-thin sample. Phoebe placed it on her tongue like a sinner receiving communion. It melted like chocolate, so creamy she almost sighed.
The market went on and on. Borough had exploded in size; tourists seemed to outnumber the locals. But the spirit was the same. Phoebe overheard a vendor explaining to a woman how to steam an artichoke, and remembered how the farmers and traders had provided her with instructions and recipes when she was first learning to cook. Without this market, she never would have become a chef.
She spotted a table lined with tubs of pale, frothy spreads, and made her way through the crowd. A slender man with a ponytail and soft Italian accent smothered a cracker and held it out to her. “Mushroom pate,” he said.
It was light and airy, like whipped cream, but with an earthy, pungent taste. She closed her eyes, thinking of fresh English grass, sea winds tinged with salt, a child running through a field. Phoebe smiled. “It’s lovely.”
For more about my novel, THE WANTING PLACE, check out my website at rebeccamahoney.com