Using Sensory Triggers to Prime Your Brain for Writing

By Holly Henderson

As much as science fiction and fantasy writers love wandering the vast worlds that exist in our imaginations, the journey there can be difficult when we have the weight of daily life to carry with us. Forge a shortcut by creating a writing ambience that’s custom-made for your story. 

Getting all your senses involved when setting up your writing space means that as soon as you enter it, you’ll be immersed in the feeling of your story. Concrete details like the clang of swords or the smokiness of a bonfire transport you before you’ve written a single word. 

You don’t need a dedicated writing desk to do this. Even with a tablet on the couch, you can use what you see, hear, smell, touch, taste, and beyond to reflect the details of your speculative setting. These sensory cues not only get you in the mind space of your particular story, but also signal your brain that it’s time to write. We are both Pavlov and his dogs, creating conditions for ourselves that trigger a subconscious dive into our work.

Start with the Five Senses

When building a writing ambience, the wide range of possibilities can be overwhelming. Start by closing your eyes for sixty seconds to immerse yourself in your setting. Zero in on the small details that make your world feel real to you, including the ones that don’t show up on the page. Then pull some of them out into your writing environment through your senses, starting with the main five.


Wall decorations like posters or shelves of knickknacks can transport you anywhere from a dappled forest to a seedy bar. Set up a Pinterest board or use a program like Canva to make a digital vision board for your computer’s background. Design a mock-up of your dream book cover then slip it around a book that you keep next to your writing space. Turn some of the visualization you do in your head into something solid and real.  


Like many other authors, I have entire playlists of music for the stories I work on—usually two, one with lyrics and one without. I imagine what my characters would listen to or what the music of their culture would sound like. 

YouTube has an abundance of ambience videos with hours of themed music, including ones like “fantasy bookstore” and “galactic coffee shop.” Or you can mix your own ambience with players like that have templates to start from. If you want a ticking clock, rustling wind, or book pages turning in the background, you can easily create it. 


Smells are uniquely linked to memories. Whether it’s your grandmother’s baking or the whiff of your first boyfriend’s cologne, smells have a special way of taking us back to a specific time and place. So by lighting the same candle or diffusing the same essential oil whenever you work on a story, you’re bringing yourself back to its creative energy. 

Be inspired by book-themed candles. Create your own blend of essential oils that smells like your protagonist’s love interest or the flowers they plant in their garden. Passive essential oil diffusers can be small enough to fit on a piece of jewelry. 


While enjoying the feel of your keyboard or pen and paper is important, consider other touchpoints as well. Wear clothes with fabrics similar to what your characters would wear—for example, modern jeans versus a cotton dress. Would your setting have quilts and afghans or utilitarian blankets? If there’s an item that’s important to your story, like a necklace or key, have one to fidget with as your protagonist might. 

Touch, especially, may seem like it wouldn’t make a difference, but don’t underestimate how much these sensory cues can enhance your writing experience and your perception of the world you’ve created. 


If you’re a writer, I’m going to assume you’ve looked up a copycat recipe from a beloved novel at least once in your life. That’s the idea behind using taste as a part of ambience. The urge to connect more deeply with the world of a story through food is already there, so we can use it for our own work, too.

Make yourself a cup of tea each time you write. Or snack on something your protagonist would take with them on their journey (I love the idea of munching on astronaut food while writing a space opera).

Go Beyond the Main Senses

The five main senses are what we’re most familiar with, but don’t limit yourself to those. Look at things like temperature, balance, and proprioception (the sense of where your body is in space) as well. Writing about a snowstorm while sitting in the summer sun means your brain has farther to go, so pick up ice cubes between writing sprints to remind yourself what it feels like when your fingers go numb from cold. 

Sit on an exercise ball to mimic that off-kilter feeling of being in zero gravity. Or use a treadmill desk to walk alongside your protagonist as they trek across the continent. Whatever you try, tie it in to your story. And when you find what works, make it part of your routine. 

Set the Scene for Yourself First 

With so many possibilities, it can be tempting to try All the Things. So keep in mind that creating a writing ambience is like method acting. It’s meant to be immersive, but don’t overdo it to the point that you lose sight of your goal, which is to sit down and write. 

Once you find an ambience that works for you, it will smooth the journey from daily life to your science fiction or fantasy world because you’re setting the scene for yourself before you do it for your reader. Then when you ask them to come along, your readers will be transported from their daily life right along with you. And isn’t that the beauty of fiction? 

Holly Henderson is an award-winning poet, Georgia-based freelance writer, and novelist of introspective fantasy stories. Her article “Romancing the B Story” was previously published by the SFWA Blog. If you’d like to connect, you can find her on LinkedIn or Instagram @hollyhenderson.writer.