Sniffing the Past

“Smell is of all senses by far the most evocative: perhaps because we have no vocabulary for it — nothing but a few poverty-stricken approximations to describe the whole vast complexity of odour — and therefore the scent, unnamed and unnamable, remains pure of association; it cannot be called upon again and again, and blunted, bringing with it all the circumstances of its perception. ” — Proust

I would say that coffee and perfume are the two scents that get a nod in romances. We each have a personal memory bank that bonds smells and memories. Mine includes: my mom and Chanel No. 5, my dad and pipe tobacco, things like that. But there are more subtle ones, and those can be very, very strong. Like pines heated by the sun=the days I walked a certain path in Greece, and all the emotions of that point in my life. Gasoline=a terrible car accident when I was sixteen, and the loss of my boyfriend. Even more subtle ones no doubt exist and register all the time, unconsciously. “Why did I just think of that?” Perhaps it was a scent.

We’re often told to use all the senses in our writing, but I think smell is a really tough one to get right. Sure, your character smells coffee. Most of our characters are coffee junkies, because writers are. Can we get a little more sophisticated than that? Do your characters have memories (not necessarily life-altering car crashes) that could flesh them out a bit?

Off to my WIP, to make it stink more. I mean, add a sense.


2 thoughts on “Sniffing the Past

  1. Seeley deBorn says:

    I think the only scent memory I’ve ever used in stories is that of blood.

    Um. Need to look at that.

    Me, I miss the smell of deadfall in the temperate rainforest, that sweet raspberry aroma of life being eaten by life.

  2. anny cook says:

    The scent of a new baby, maple syrup, gingerbread cookies, cow manure in the fields, honeysuckle and lilacs after the rain, the bitter tinge of the heater the first time you light it in the fall…

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