Authors are told to use all five senses to draw readers into a scene. We are to describe what characters see, taste, touch, hear, and smell. I tend to go a little light on the visuals, and often have to sketch those in during revisions. I’m pretty good with sounds (musician…) and I could probably do more with taste and texture. I am naturally drawn to the sense of smell, though.
I believe the historical world had far more olfactory variety and punch than we are used to today. Herbs and spices, medicinal plants, and homemade remedies took the place of our disinfectants, medicines, soaps, and cosmetics, and most of the historical concoctions would have had the pungent impact lent by fresh ingredients.
Hygiene was different 200 years ago, at all levels of society, and diets were much richer in fiber. Heating, lighting, and transportation were all odor-intensive, and getting any scent out of clothing, hair, or upholstery was a matter of some expertise and effort.
Neurologically, the olfactory part of the brain sends its impressions straight to the amygdala, our emotional memory storage unit. Other senses take a less direct route into memory, so smells tend to be more evocative than snippets of music or the feel of fuzzy socks. In terms of activating memory, smell is a superpower, and as an author, I need all the superpowers I can get.
As little old me, though, I am sometimes slow-witted. All around my house, honeysuckle is blooming in the hedges. This year must be ideal conditions for honeysuckle, because I just want to stand in the yard, close my eyes, and breathe through my nose. I am transported by that light, intense fragrance to a place where all is joy and benevolence and ease. If I could find a honeysuckle perfume that lived up to the natural article, I’d wear it.
When I first moved to this house decades ago, somebody had planted beds of mint and lemon balm near the kitchen door. Those beds faded, and I replaced them with annuals, but I well recall the pleasure of sitting on the porch and breathing in the fragrance of summer (and natural insect repellent).
For more than ten years, my dad’s research focus was flavors and fragrances, and that too might influence my natural affinity for scents. I do wonder, though, why it took me until this year, to plant petunias in my kitchen-door flower beds? To plant a lavender border against the side fence? To pick some of that lavender and have it sitting in a whisky glass by my little writing corner?
I know fragrances bring me joy and take me out of my overly busy mind to delight in the natural world. Why haven’t I done a better job of keeping that joy at hand? Sachets and potpourri, even scented candles, can help, but this is a lovely self-care job I have fallen down on. I hope I do better going forward, because the joy is real, and I need that too.
Do you have a favorite scent? A favorite means of keeping pleasant scents in your day? A favorite memory that’s evoked by a particular scent? Watch out how you comment, because I’m choosing a signature fragrance for Mrs. Matilda Merridew, our heroine in Miss Dauntless (pub date November).