To Catch a Husband by Sophia Holloway : The Sensory Prompt | Magazine | Historical Fiction | Interviews
To Catch A Husband

By Sophia Holloway

Author Sophia Holloway on how she brings the past to life through sensory details . . .

I have always felt that the phrase ‘A picture paints a thousand words’ is rather unfair on words. A visual image has immediacy and impact, and can impart a situation, even elicit an emotional response, more swiftly than a written passage, but the alchemy of words is their ability to draw us into an entire world, not meet it at an interface. They fire the imagination, making reading a far from passive activity, and one of the most useful ways an author can create a world is by feeding the reader’s senses. If all one does is draw pictures with words, sketching only how things look, one is depriving the reader of the full sensory experience within their imagination. Describing not just the visual surroundings, but sounds, smells, and even sometimes the feel or taste of something, enables the reader to immerse themselves fully in the world created upon the page.

The imagery and adjectives an author uses to enhance their descriptions obviously link to the senses,  but I think it important to intentionally use sense specific prompts for the reader. Those that are visual are not all about colourful description, but delicate brush strokes that drop hints about a scene, with the occasional ‘pop of colour from a detail, such as the red earth dust on a boot, or the spangled gauze scarf with which a lady adorns herself before an evening party. The author has to give enough detail, yet leave space for the reader to fill in the gaps with imagination. The result is ideally something similar to that which the author saw  when writing the situation, though the beauty of a book is that every reader’s image will be slightly different. One only has to remember the cries of disappointment when a book has been brought to the screen and the leading characters were not the way some pictured them. For all those who swooned over Colin Firth in the BBC’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice there were others muttering he was ‘nothing like Mr Darcy’.

Sophia Holloway

As a writer of historical novels, both my Bradecote and Catchpoll twelfth-century murder mysteries and my traditional Regency romances which follow the lead of Georgette Heyer, I know that I have to provide even more sensory information because I am writing about worlds with which most readers are not instantly familiar. If I wrote a contemporary novel and a character went to a fish and chip shop, I could simply use the sizzle as the fresh batch of battered fish was lowered into the fryer and the smell of the paper wrapping as the malt vinegar seeped into its fibres, and the reader would be ‘there’. Nearly everyone has experience of a chippy. When the setting of an entire novel cannot be familiar to the reader, the author has to tread the fine line between giving enough sensory prompts without the pages dripping with description to the detriment of the plot and pacing.

Whilst not perhaps the most obvious use of sounds, I think one of the most effective ways to create the historical world is through the dialogue, and I count this as sensory prompting  since the reader ‘hears’ it as they read. It needs to flow and sound natural, and definitely has to be intelligible to the modern reader, but making the speech patterns subtly different from contemporary speech, utilizing terms used in the period, local accents and differentiations in social class, means the reader registers those differences and the feeling of period is enhanced. When I swap from writing the twelfth century to the Regency period I have a totally different mindset, vocabulary and even slightly altered syntax, and it now comes quite naturally. Another useful thing with auditory prompts is that few sounds would be so alien to a modern reader as to be useless, even if, for example, someone has never actually heard a hammer on an anvil, or a stonemason’s bite of chisel into stone. I like to augment description with sound to add colour to the time of day, weather, season and location. I often use birdsong in my mediaeval novels, whether at dawn, dusk, or after rain, and perhaps an alarm call to alert both a character and the reader. There is also the sound that is an absence of noise, so the description of silence can be most evocative.

I believe olfactory prompts should be used sparingly, because we do not notice those smells which are normal for our surroundings. When a character enters a new environment, however, they will be struck by odours that no longer exist for the person who lives and works with it about them all the time. Unpleasant smells generally register more highly, since our brain reacts quickly to things which may indicate danger. However, in a romantic setting, the association of a particular perfume might be even more important. In my latest Regency novel, To Catch A Husband, I actually decided to use a whole scene centred upon perfume. As an historian by training, I like to use genuine locations and businesses where possible, and Floris, at 89 Jermyn Street, London, has been in the same premises since it opened in 1730. Not only do they have the ‘recipes’ for their early fragrances, but even sell some which have changed very little since the period in which my novel is set. So, I was able to use the fragrance notes and my own appreciation of White Rose, which was created in 1806, to build the scene.

The sensory prompt is such a useful tool in the author’s box of tricks that I cannot imagine even attempting to create a world within a novel without it.

(c) Sophia Holloway

About To Catch A Husband by Sophia Holloway:

To Catch A Husband

Gloucestershire, 1813. Miss Mary Lound of Tapley End would be the first to say that she demonstrates more grace with a fishing rod in her hand than she might ever twirling in a ballroom. This was not, however, a problem until her ne’er-do-well brother sold the family estate, leaving Mary and her mother in very straitened circumstances. When the new owner, Sir Rowland Kempsey, takes up residence, Mary decides to direct her energies into recovering her beloved home by catching a husband.

Promisingly, Sir Rowland thinks Miss Lound is a breath of fresh air. But with awkward attempts at flirtation, a duplicitous predator at large in the neighbourhood and the emergence of feelings that complicate her pragmatic goal, Mary discovers that landing the man she wants is more difficult than she had anticipated.

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About the author

Sophia Holloway, who writes under the name of her great grandmother (hence the photo), read Modern History at St Hugh’s, Oxford, and is an unashamed ‘Heyerite’ when it comes to Regency romances.
You can read about her and her writing at
She is already an established author of mediaeval crime novels under another pen name.

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