September 30th, 2020

Including Believable Sensory Details for Unfamiliar Experiences

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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About Miffie

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.

16 responses to “Including Believable Sensory Details for Unfamiliar Experiences”

  1. Jenny Hansen says:

    Really, really cool post, Miffie! I have one short story with drugs in it - it's actually set back in the early Nineties, right before Desert Storm, and the heroine ingests drugs without her express knowledge. I need a drug that will take the heroine out of her body and mind, coupled with frenetic energy and a strong internal focus or expanded consciousness. It would help if she was fairly compliant as well.

    I thought about LSD, but any suggestions you have are welcome! It would need to be easily available on the street and it would fit the story best if at least some of the effects were from a drug that was injectable. Something edible, or something with smoke would work too since I want her to be drugged without effort on her part. A combination of multiple drugs is fine. Do you have any ideas?

    • Thank you, Jenny. There are several drugs that cause 'out of body' experiences- most of them, though, do cause a sedative-type effect, since they come to us from development of anesthetics for surgery. I think you're on the right track to use a combination of drugs. LSD would be a good choice, combined with Ecstasy (called Candy Flipping). This was popular in the 90's, and continues today. Generally, the LSD is taken first, then Ecstasy an hour or more later- to even things out, so to speak. Turning that the other way around, could start the high energy effects of Ecstasy, then adding on the hallucinations of LSD for your specific scenario. Everyone's experience with the combination is different, so you could easily exploit the high energy effects of Ecstasy with the mind altering effects of LSD. There are online discussions about the combination. and the outcome are quite varied, leaving room for you as an author. Ecstasy is usually taken as a pill or snorted. And PCP can be laced onto cigarettes or taken as pills. Hope that helps!

      • Jenny Hansen says:

        She's actually assaulted in this story while she's out of it/in her own head. Then she is given an additional drug that sends her flying - heart pounding, dancing, talking to herself. I'll look into those combinations and see if there are any more that would apply. Thank you! This is WAY out of my area, but the story came fully formed in a dream.

        • Oh, that sounds very interesting! With that additional detail, here is another suggestion that might work even better. I might consider a club drug, like ketamine, GHB, or rohypnol when she is assaulted. IN general they will make her very docile and compliant. Ketamine would fit with being inside her mind and an expanded view of the world, and depending on the dose, she can have anything from sedation to hallucinations. She may talk to herself or people that are not there. She wouldn't remember the assault. Adding a high dose of an amphetamine-like drug (such as Ritalin) later would send her heart rate high, with something like a cocaine-type high. She would be restless, energetic, talkative (even dance!). Because of delusions and hallucination, she might be talking aloud ( or thinking she is talking to someone else that isn't there). The delusions are often paranoid, so if it fits to have her paranoid that someone is following her or that she is in danger, that would also be a possibility. Ketamine can be injected, or the powder sprinkled on cigarettes or snorted. If ketamine powder is to be put into a drink, it must be a strong flavored drink like orange juice to mask the very bitter taste. Methylphenidate is often in pill form, but some people have crushed them and snorted or injected.

          Just some extra ideas!

          • Jenny Hansen says:

            These are VERY good ideas! Now I need to check and see if all of those would have been easily in use in 1991.

            • Rohypnol was definitely used in that timeframe. Ritalin was being prescribed for ADHD by then, and could have been pilfered from someone. More widely available at that time were amphetamines (a relative of Ritalin), so you could generically go for amphetamine due to similar effects. Ketamine was already being abuse in the club scenes by the early 90's and had been a popular drug of abuse before that. Hopefully, that will cover you and save you some research!

  2. ecellenb says:

    Great post, Miffie! I am familiar with the Drugs.com site but didn't know about the others you mention in this post.

    In my WIP, the protagonist passes by an opium den. Knowing what the scent is like would help make the scene come alive. But since I have no idea, I didn't include that sensory information. Now I have useful resources. Thanks!!

    • Thanks, Ellen. I hope you find them useful. Opium is often described by a variety of very general terms, like 'characteristically pungent" odor. I have found rare reference to a range of odors due to differing quality of the opium or if used opium crumbles are added to a new batch to smoke. I have found terms like 'burnt rope', old tires, slightly sweet ammonia smell", and even one reference to it smelling of a mix of undercooked brownies with a faint hint of fish. Good luck with your writing.

  3. Jacquolyn McMurray says:

    Love it! Thanks for the references.

  4. tljewett says:

    Thank you so much this is great information!

  5. dholcomb1 says:

    Wonderful information.

    I probably wouldn't use it because it doesn't really fit with my genre and I have family members with addiction, but I can see how to use the sensory focus for other scents and smells.

    denise

  6. Dorothy Grant says:

    For another resource, I tend to hit erowid. They have an extremely extensive database that includes not only street names, chemical composition, legality, dosage tables, but also, ah, trip reports for everything from cocaine to jimson weed to nutmeg.

  7. […] crafting, Janice Hardy lists 5 ways to fix too-perfect characters, Dr. Miffie Seideman explains how to write believable sensory details for unfamiliar experiences, and Dustin Grinnell explores 8 journeys and motives behind evildoers, antiheroes, and […]

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