When I was a second-year student at Hampshire College, I joined the food co-op, Mixed Nuts, which is a collectively-owned grocery store where students could (and still can) get wonderful natural, organic foods at affordable prices. Once a week, I would join other Hampsters in the co-op’s little store and help organize shipments of granola, dried fruits, whole wheat flour, seasonal veggies, chocolate chips, and, my personal favorite, bulk spices. To this day, every time I add cumin to a dish and enjoy that smoky scent, I am transported to that time and place. It always makes me smile.
As writers we all know the power of description to draw our readers to our setting and our moods, and there is quite possibly no other sense as evocative as smell. Some smells are universal; the smell of the ocean, salty, rich, sometimes sour with the tide. But others are more personal: ie, my cumin association.
Using the sense of smell in writing can be tricky. What evokes for one reader, may not for another. So what to do? All day long, we inhale and we smell. Some of us have stronger noses than others, and some of us find some smells comforting while others find the suggestion stomach-turning (See: Skunk musk).
Here’s a perfect example: as a child, I used to ride the bus from Portland, Maine with my grandmother to her home in New York City. This was in the 70’s, the old days when you could smoke in the back rows, and as a child I always waited for that first whiff of a freshly lit cigarette to waft down to the front where my grandmother and I always sat. To me, the smell meant travel, new places and the excitement of the road. Now, no matter the ill-advised health implications of this memory, to this day, if I am walking along and catch a faraway whiff of a just-lit cigarette, my mind returns immediately to that Greyhound bus and joyful thoughts of impending adventure. Not exactly a textbook scent to evoke warm, cozy feelings, is it? But to me, it’s as real as it gets.
So where am I going with all this smell talk? Well, I think as writers, scents are one of the hardest AND easiest ways to pull our readers into a scene, for the reason I just presented. Smells are so personal–and so powerful. How do we best harness that power in our writing?
What do you think?
And what smell association do you have in your bag of tricks that means the world to you?