A friend recently called to share a special moment with me. She had just gotten a whiff of a sweet smell that immediately made her think of her grandmother who had talcum powder that smelled like a sweet gardenia. My friend recalled childhood visits to her grandmother during which she would sneak away to sniff grandma's talc. "And of course the powder on my nose gave me away."
My friend, who says she is not a writer, but has written some of the most powerful poetry I have read, thought I would be interested in her little moment as an illustration of how to ground a character in a scene. We are urged to use all the senses to accomplish this, and we often mention smells. We have a character react to the odors of food cooking as they enter a restaurant. Or we have a character notice the tangy odor of salt by the sea. But how often do we go deeper to the memory the smell evokes? Or how often do we make an association to a pleasant, or not so pleasant, occurrence in the character's life?
Take for instance, the smell of baby powder or baby shampoo. Most of the time it is used to evoke that sense of awe and wonder of being a parent, but think of how memorable a moment in a story could be if the smell reminds a woman of the baby she lost.
The various odors of food often have pleasant associations, too. But what about the sour smell of garlic and onions on the breath of a rapist or murderer? That would be a detail not quickly forgotten by a reader.
What about you? How do you use smells in your writing? Can you think of ways to turn the ordinary reaction to an odor into something not so ordinary?
When I am editing I always remind my clients that we write the ordinary in the first draft - just getting things down on paper - and the extraordinary comes with careful thought about how we can turn things on end.
Posted by Maryann Miller, who has been on both sides of the editing table and appreciates a good editor. Visit Maryann's Web site for information about her editing services and her books. When she is not working, Maryann loves to play farmer on her little ranch in East Texas.