Insects chirped in the background and a faint breeze filtered through the screened windows, cooling my cheeks and lifting the hair plastered to my scalp. I settled back in my chair and closed my eyes with a contented sigh, resting my hands palms up on the table to keep from aggravating the raw blisters I had earned while mowing Haitian style – with a machete. It had been a long day full of hard work, but much had been accomplished and we now sat around the table to eat and fellowship.
The pungent aroma of spicy chicken wafted across the table, but before I could eat, I had to participate in the ritual sanitizing of everything in sight. There was a cholera outbreak in Haiti and we were being more than usually cautious about sanitizing everything with purell or antibacterial wipes – our hands, plates, eating utensils, water bottles…
I poured a dollop on my hand and it seeped into my palms, setting the raw skin aflame. But even more than the sting, I remember the smell. The sharp clean fumes of the sanitizer covering everything in the dinning hall…
This was about my first trip to Haiti in early 2011. We used hand sanitizer to an extreme, but it worked! No one got sick that trip. To this day, the slightest whiff of purell brings me back to those wonderful meals we shared in the cramped dining hall, all squished around the table, sharing stories and exciting moments, talking about what the Lord was doing. I can’t even think about purell without thinking about those trips to Haiti.
It struck me the other day, that smell is a powerful tool for evoking memory, especially for writers.
We try to write with all five senses – sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell – to truly transport the reader from the words on the page into the middle of the scene itself. We want them to be able to feel the icy raindrops trickling down their cheeks, to smell the musty damp of a forest after a rain, to see the mountainous waves towering over a tiny craft, to hear the howling of a midnight storm, and to taste the chill freshness of a snowflake on their tongue.
But all of these things are not only powerful in the here and now of the story-world, but also as tools for resurrecting images of the past. When your character walks onto the page in the first scene, that is not the moment he is born. Your character has lived and fought and won and lost and run away many times before he ever shows up in the story. Knowing this is what will give your character that important third dimension so that he will stand out rather than blend into the flat page.
Our pasts define who we become and the same is true of characters in novels. But rather than giving the backstory download where you as the narrator outline your character’s entire history, you can drop snippets of backstory along the way, just enough to allow the reader to know who the character is today. One method for doing this is through memory.
But memory doesn’t spring out of nowhere. You need something to evoke the memory and that is where you can utilize your five senses to transport your character’s thoughts to the past.
Perhaps your character smells something that they smelled before when (insert important event) happened. Perhaps it is a taste that summons the memory, or a certain feeling, or the sight of something familiar.
Out of all of the five senses, the ones I tend to use the least are taste and smell. I’m not sure why. The other three senses appear so vividly to me while I’m writing. I can picture what the scene looks like, can hear the sounds, even feel the surroundings, but often I have to force myself to taste and smell. But taste and smell are no less powerful than the others and I’m going to continue looking for ways to better employ them in my writing.
For me, the smell of hand sanitizer evokes fond and extremely vivid memories of Haiti. Are there any scents, tastes, feels, sights, sounds that evoke fond (or otherwise) memories in you?