Ruth E. Walker
The other day, I was in the spare room, organizing some bedding when I brushed up against the jewellery armoire that belonged to my mother-in-law. It’s a treasure trove of costume jewellery – some high-end, some vintage and some just-fun pieces. Since her death in 2005, we’ve been slowly working through a lot of her belongings. Some were easy to move along. Some, like this cherry wood oversized chest still has a hold on me.
As I brushed past it, the front door popped open. Immediately, I was swept into a maelstrom of memories. It wasn’t the jangle of chains and beads that hung on the inside of the door. Nor was it the turquoises and greens and brilliant blues of those assorted beads. None of that.
It was the smell, the scent of her favourite perfume still clinging like flowering vines to each and every piece in there. After more than 15 years, I could hear her voice, her laugh, the whoosh of breath as she would collapse into a chair. It reminded me of the incredible of power that the senses, and in particular, the sense of smell, has for us human beings.
A writer’s power tool
Anyone who has taken a Writescape workshop, attended a Writescape retreat or received a substantive Writescape edit will have heard or seen how we emphasize the five senses in all forms of writing. We call it a power tool in all writers’ kits of technique and craft. Beyond sight – writers need to engage readers’ senses: taste, touch, sound…and the most powerful one? Yeah. You know it, don’t you. Smell.
Smell is the most evocative sense for triggering memories and connections. I suspect it has something to do with our hardwiring from when we first stepped down from the trees and stood upright in the savannah, raising our nostrils to the air, seeking food and water, avoiding things that smell “off” and staying alert for the whiff of sabre-toothed tigers, cave bears, and massive, roaming bison.
It smells like science
Scientific research affirms that our sense of smell is different from the rest of the senses. All the others – taste, touch, sound and sight – they get processed in the brain through our thalamus – the info relay station. In turn, the thalamus sends those sensations to the hippocampus (our memory manager) and the amygdala (our emotion processor.) But smell, it’s a bit of snob. It bypasses that trusty old thalamus and takes a direct path to the olfactory bulb which, in turn, has its own direct link to the hippocampus and amygdala.
Did you know that human beings have at least 1,000 different types of smell receptors but only four types of light sensors for sight and about four types of receptors for touch?
(Thanks discovery.com for helping me make sense of the human brain.)
So that, dear writers, is why this sense is supercharged and ready to ignite your stories. If you want to read more about how the olfactory bulb stores our long-term memories that influence our behaviours, the above-noted link to discovery.com will take you there. On the other hand, if you want a complete tour of the olfactory system, Wikipedia offers a dump truck load of scientific illustrations, terms and definitions.
Applying any sense in your writing works best when it:
- Is in the logical place (but sometimes the illogical place works best)
- Fits with your character (or maybe surprises your character)
- Fits with your setting (whoa! Where did that stink in my flower shop come from?)
- Fits with your story (a bakery should always smell like…rotting meat?)
The writer has several choices when incorporating a physical sense into a scene. As noted in the above “absolutes”, turning things around can be an effective tool for raising intensity in a scene.
Subvert the normal world
For example, your calm, cool and buttoned-down accountant might surround herself with comfort scents – a faint whiff of sandalwood in her study, an understated sniff of cedar in her walk-in closet, the dry musk of leatherbound account ledgers on her desk.
How can you shake up the predictable safety of her world?
What if she finds a street person perched on her desk, a decidedly unwashed individual with a preference for beans and cheap beer? Upside down goes her ordered world – and not just because of the surprise of the desk squatter, but the lovely scents you’ve surrounded her with up to this point fade from this nasal onslaught.
How can adding the street person to the story be logical? What if the accountant unknowingly holds the key to how the intruder lost everything: his job, reputation, wife and kids, home. Falsely accused and convicted, he’s finally out of prison. Our squatter is determined to restore his original life. The “stink” he brings into the room is a metaphor for all the terrible things that still cling to him.
Will she wash them away?
Apply with subtlety
On the other hand, when you want to be subtle with an emotional scene, tug at heartstrings or allude to themes in your story, you can use smell to underscore the moment. It’s easy to use the overpowering odour of flowers to evoke the floral perfumes so prevalent at funerals. But can we be more understated?
For example, a scene about dying could include something that doesn’t smell but hints at it. A painting of lilies or of mixed blooms. Silk or plastic flowers. A carpet with a chrysanthemum motif. A scented candle still wrapped in plastic. A bottle of hand sanitizer, so antiseptic…so embalming fluid-like.
Or a wooden jewellery armoire, tucked in the corner of your spare room.
Over to you. What are the scents that send your memories and emotions on a trip far away and long ago? Share them in the comments. Meanwhile, happy and slightly scented writing to you all.