Add Sensory Detail to Your Memoir Draft

Tracy Lee Karner

Where I come from, you can build a fish-house village on a lake and drive your pick-up across that lake in winter…

If you have done the sketch exercise I posted on New Year’s Day, you’ve got an idea for a plot, a story to start building your memoir.

Today we’ll be adding sensory detail to that plot.

I did the sketching exercise, too. When I review it now, I notice there’s not a single lively or interesting word. And I wrote 326 words–every one of them dull and overused. My little sketch is full of boring abstractions, brave, dewy, broke her heart

But that’s how it always goes, whenever I start working on a new story or essay. I begin with a lot of boring words, blah, blah, blah. All I’ve got, right now, is an idea for a plot. But that’s all I expected, and it’s enough to start something.

My sketch starts– The year was 1969, Christmas time in southeastern Minnesota, our house on 5th Street.

To build on the foundation of this sketch, I’m going to add lots of freewriting. Freewriting is simply the technique of keeping the pen moving and keeping words spilling out.

Write and write and write and don’t stop writing (or typing, whichever works best for you…)

The year was 1969, Christmas time in southeastern Minnesota, our living room.

My goal is to add sensory detail–sight, sound, smell, taste, tactile sensation and the physical effects of emotion.

You, of course, will start with  your own time and place. I’m starting with December 1969, southeastern Minnesota. When I can’t think of what to write, I write, “I see”…. and then I write about whatever I can see with my memory’s eye–the red and black loop-pile carpet in our living room, the red and gold flocked wallpaper. Then I write, “I hear Walter Cronkite telling the evening news….I taste, the chocolate chip cookie I snitched from the kitchen….I smell the meatloaf Mom is baking… I feel the hot air from the heating vent...”

I was seven going on eight. The problem is, I don’t remember very much about that year. So I’m going to “cheat.” I’m going to Google it. This always works to remind me of things I thought I had forgotten.

I look at Wikipedia, and decide to add political and social context to my story by beginning,

In December 1969, when the United States held its first draft lottery since World War II and the Boeing 747 made its first flight from Seattle to New York City, I was almost eight years old…” 

and then I’m off and freewriting. For 10-15 minutes. I’m thinking about that time, trying to tap my memory to find tastes, sights, sounds, smells, sensations… Here I go…

and had I cared about what Walter Cronkite meant when he reported the nightly news, I might have asked my parents to explain. But what would they have been able to tell me? Surrounded all their lives by the cornfields and lakes of southeastern Minnesota, they had never flown in a plane. They had never seen a war, a riot or even an ocean. Imagine, a body of water that never freezes solid enough to drive a pick-up truck across! 

One evening while we were eating supper–meatloaf made from a pound of hamburger, a package of Lipton’s freeze-dried onion soup, an egg and crushed saltine crackers, baked with ketchup smeared on top–my brother asked why President Nixon was drafting the neighbor boy. 

I pictured President Nixon, wearing that smile even an eight-year-old could see was fakey. The president was opening a window. In that same room with the open window,  our freckled neighbor boy stood, damp from a recent shower with a terry-cloth towel wrapped around his hips. He stood in the draft, sneezing. 

The news in 1969 was strange and confusing, so I never paid attention the broadcaster, the one my dad called “Walter Conkout.” Instead of listening to him, I listened to the commercials. More specifically, that December I spent all my free time as far away from the icy, single-glazed windows in our living room as I could get.  Flat on my back on the red and black carpet, right beside the heating vent, with my feet resting comfortably on the edge of the walnut console television/stereo, I waited for the Chrissy Doll commercial.  


Now it’s your turn. Play some music if you wish (a song from the era might inspire you). Grab an old photo album and look at pictures from that time. Then write for as long as you can, about the little plot you created. Add details about what you saw, heard, smelled, tasted and touched. GO!

Whenever my memory runs dry, when I can’t grab onto any concrete, sensory images, I do some quick research.

So I went to YouTube, to search for the Chrissy doll commercial. This not only jogged my memory (and was fun!) but it also gave me interesting information to share with the reader. It’s the writer’s job, to be informative.

If you can’t think of anything to write, find a YouTube video that fits the era you’re writing about. Play it five or six times while you write and write, and keep writing.

Free writing is about keeping the pen moving. It doesn’t matter what comes out. This is the right-brain creative stage. Next time, we’ll let the rational left brain futz around and do some editing. Your goal right now is simply to get a lot of words and a lot of details (at least a few pages) written. Don’t worry about sequence, or grammar or spelling. Just write and write around your plot.


I’m wondering–which time and place are you writing about right now?