Tuesday, June 4, 2013

That Metallic Taste

Tom Schreck writes the Duffy Dombrowski Mysteries

I was doing some editing and I came across something I wrote.

My character Duffy took a shot and got knocked out. When he came to he noticed the familiar metallic taste of blood in his mouth.

I stopped for a second and reread “metallic taste.” I’ve fought for years and have bled in the mouth. The  most recent time was two weeks ago, though I took a shot far less dramatic than Duff.

Why did I describe the taste as metallic? I gave it a little thought and came to the answer quite quickly.

Because I read that blood tastes metallic.

I’ve never sucked on a steel lozenger or licked a metal pipe like the kid in A Christmas Story, so how did I know blood tasted metallic.

I’ve also read about the smell of cordite after a gun has been shot. I’ve written that too and am embarrassed to say I have no idea if that happens or if it has a distinctive smell. In other words I was bullshitting.

Stephen King says you can write about anything as long as it is true. Neither of these were true for me. I’m at my best when I take the time to come up with my own descriptions not what has been ingrained in me from others.

I should be original and authentic and I should work on my own descriptions even though it takes more work. The writing will be better.

Am I alone here? Do you sometimes phone it in because you can? Do you really on tried and true descriptions of things that you've never really experienced?

Does it cause problems?

I'd really like to know.


  1. Yeah, I found out from Lee Lofland that the cordite thing is false (cordite hasn't been used since the Civil War, I guess), so now I just use some vague notion of a gunshot odor that no one seems to mind.

    As far as the metallic taste: I actually have tasted metal. I'd like to say it was in my youth, but if I'm juggling a bunch of stuff, my key ring often goes into my mouth so I won't drop the keys. Does blood taste like my key ring? Kinda. They have the same sharpness to them, I think. I could still use metallic terms to describe the taste of blood and feel confident.

    As to everything else, though, I just make crap up. ;-)

  2. What does blood taste like? What does fresh cut grass smell like? I struggle to describe unique sensory details, but I never stop trying to be fresh and accurate. Thanks for the post. I'll be looking at my manuscript with a more critical eye today.

  3. When I "try to phone it in" and recognize my fingers punching the numbers, I really try to come up with some fresh way to say something. The trick is to catch it like you did.

  4. One of my classmates in medical school determined to drink until he passed out, asking how he could expect to treat a hangover if he'd never had one. My response was that it was a good thing he wasn't going into OB. (He ended up as a psychiatrist).

    So, yes, I think we sometimes have to depend on descriptions from others of what we write about.

  5. It seems to me, Tom, that you're raising three issues:
    1) How do we keep descriptions fresh? (Let's avoid Orwell's dying metaphors.) Peg and L.J. responded to the continual struggle to avoid the cliched and hackneyed.
    2) How do we keep descriptions accurate? If we have direct experience, we can draw on that. But we write about things we haven't, won't and often don't want to experience. Here we must rely on the imaginative faculty and
    2a) How do we research? (Maybe this last is a concession to my own background.) When I was working on my first published novel, I spent hours studying Louisiana inheritance law and the definition of undue influence as well as talking with (picking the brains of a lawyer). If I want to write about the feelings of a woman - I'm reminded of Stephen King's description of how his wife Tabitha saved "Carrie" from the garbage can and provided the research for the feelings and experiences of adolescent females.
    3) How do stop ourselves from "phoning it in"? (Wonder when that expression will become a head-scratcher.) Well, we don't, not in composition or draft mode. That's what revision and editing and editors (Hi, Jodie!) are for. Which is also the point, Tom - because that's when you caught it.


  6. I've actually tasted my own blood (I've been hit in the head a few times over the years), and it did indeed taste metallic. Because I'm such a research geek, I looked it up and found that it's caused by the iron, and if you bleed enough, it tastes like copper.

    Maybe you have iron poor blood?


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