When I was 20, I thought I was in love. He was one of my best friends, and whenever I was around him The Wedding March started playing in my head. He was funny, good looking, and a great listener.
He also wore some damn sexy cologne.
Turns out he didn’t return my feelings, even though he encouraged them. Yeah, not as nice a guy as I’d thought.
Years later, a whiff of that same cologne can bring back all those decade-old feelings – the hope and expectation, along with the bitter anger. Funny thing is, I generally don’t think about him, and when I do I think about how lucky I was to avoid a relationship with him. (Hubby is light years better. And doesn’t wear cologne.)
But this one cologne is linked not just to memories, but to feelings.
It’s not new news that smell is so closely intertwined with memories and emotion (here’s a nice, short article that explains why. And no, I have no idea what Farley’s Rusks are.)
Since this blog isn’t just about me revealing my personal embarrassments and what kind of underwear my dad wears, here’s how smell is relevant to writing: backstory.
Backstory’s so tricky to work into a story without it feeling either shoehorned in or vomited onto the page. Tapping in to the sense of smell can be a realistic way of taking your character’s mind back in time, with a couple of warnings.
1) It should be something that’s linked to a strong memory – the smell of gas at a gas station reminding your heroine of a terrible accident she was in, when she was stuck in a car and smelled gas. Or a humiliating moment in her life.
And 2) as a reader, I’d say it has a high cliché risk factor – so use sparingly.
Can you think of any examples where smell has been used effectively to bring in backstory?
If you’re tired of talking about writing, tell me what your favorite smell is, or whether there’s a certain scent that brings back memories and emotions.
Or help me make a list of smells you never, ever want to read about.