by Dr. Miffie Seideman, Pharm.D.
Part of the “Over My Dead Body” Series
Sights, sounds, and smells often evoke very powerful memories. Consider your own emotions or memories, when you imagine the smell of freshly cut grass? Or the scent of a charred marshmallow clinging to a stick over a campfire? What feelings surface while imagining the deep sound of rolling thunder or the sight of a lightning-streaked sky?
As writers, most of us use sensory descriptors to engage our readers more fully. It wouldn’t seem unusual to spend time deciding how to describe the eye color of a character or the smell of his after-dinner coffee, sipped on the veranda. We may add the aroma of his cherry pipe tobacco or the amber glow of the brandy swirling in his snifter. These descriptors add a more three-dimensional experience for our readers.
But what if our brandy-sipping character leans down and snorts a line of cocaine from the crystal serving tray? Would you consider describing the pungently bitter taste of cocaine dripping down the back of his throat, before he chases it down with a bit more brandy? Describing drug-related sensory details can be very powerful for the reader and the story.
Some suggestions for incorporating drug sensory descriptions into your scenes:
Use scents to build tension.
Which is more powerful? Reading how a teen character gets grounded, when his parent catches him smoking pot? Or putting the reader in Mom’s point of view, as she first recognizes the distinct skunk-like odor coming from under her son’s bedroom door? And what an opportunity to hint at why Mom knows that smell so well!
Drug odors can be used to validate a character’s next action.
Maybe the sweet, nail-polish-like breath of an unconscious patient helps the emergency room doctor suspect isopropyl alcohol poisoning. Or the lingering odor of cat urine mixed with burnt marshmallows at a drug bust makes the officer search for a cache of meth.
Colors are another great way to add dimension to drug-related scenes.
Scene tension can change dramatically, when the reader realizes the sky-blue pills at the party are just like the lethal fentanyl-tainted pills from an earlier drug bust. Yellow nicotine-stained fingers can betray a character’s smoking habit. The blue-lips and almost imperceptible breathing of a teen found lying next to an empty syringe will cause the paramedic to grab the opioid antidote.
Don’t be afraid to use sound.
Consider how a character’s chattering teeth during meth withdrawal or the strenuous, whistling sound of him gasping for air from an opioid overdose can intensify a scene. Even small sounds, such as the repetitive sniffing from snorting cocaine or the bubbling sound of a marijuana bong being smoked, add depth to a reader’s experience.
How to sound familiar with the unfamiliar, or illegal?
The problem with writing sensory description is that it often relies on past experiences- ours or those of people we know. Not knowing what a certain drug looks, smells, sounds, or feels like is a barrier I hear from authors. “If I haven’t seen or used crack, how could I know how to describe it?” I completely understand. I haven’t seen crack cocaine in person either (except for a baggie left in the hospital bathroom by a patient once). Just being a pharmacist doesn’t mean I automatically know what all drugs look or smell like.
Thankfully, the internet has a number of good places to research this information, especially parent and addiction support sites. In my work, I’ve had to use online resources to identify pills found near patients or partially eaten by a family dog. In my writing, I use them to garner description for scenes.
For prescription drugs: Free online pill identifiers, such as the one at Drugs.com can be searched by color, shape, or imprint number to find pictures of capsules or pills fitting the description. Searching by a drug name shows pictures of the actual medication, with links to information, such as usage and side effects.
For illegal drugs: Drugabuse.com offers a parent guide, listing some distinct sensory characteristics for a number of abused drugs. Getsmartaboutdrugs.gov/drugs contains a wealth of information regarding abused drugs.
Finally, poison control centers and first responders, including paramedics, medical personnel, and police can be invaluable in providing accurate information for many drug-related details.
Hopefully, these tips and resources will help make describing drug-related scenes a bit easier, offering yet one more way to add dimension to your writing.
Do you have examples of drug-related sensory descriptors you have used to enhance your writing? How have you used them to strengthen your readers’ experiences? I’d love to chat about it down in the comments!
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Miffie Seideman has been a pharmacist for over 30 years, with a passion for helping others. As a published non-fiction author, her articles have appeared in several professional pharmacy journals. An avid triathlete, she spends countless hours training in the deserts of Arizona, devising drug-related plot twists. She can be found hanging around onwemerrilystumble.com and on Twitter @MiffieSeideman.