Why smelly men bring back memories

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.

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6 Comments

Filed under Thoughtfulness

6 responses to “Why smelly men bring back memories

  1. Another interesting post. I love the line “the place smelled like Christmas.”
    Other smells? Supposedly…
    C4 smells like almonds
    Blood tastes like hot copper (I’ve also heard when it reaches oxygen, it smells awful)
    Amniotic fluid has a sweet smell
    So does burned flesh–but that one is a sickly sweet smell that sticks in the back of your throat
    One of my favorite indescribable scents is the smell of rain on hot, dry ground or hot asphalt.
    ‘Nuff playing. I have to get back to work. UGG

    • Katrina

      Great list, Kaki! I love “smells like Christmas”. Having spent several Christmases in the rural UK, where my mother-in-law always hosts a traditional British Christmas, my sense of Christmas smells has expanded – brandy butter, red wine good enough to save for a special occasion (instead of the kind that is sold in a box), dirty snow…ah, I want it to be Christmas.

      I had no idea that amniotic fluid had a smell, and I wouldn’t have guessed it was sweet. I guess that’s pretty telling about my lack of certain life experiences.

      And I’ve always thought blood tastes like iodine. Maybe hot copper has an iodine taste, too.

  2. Smell can trigger strong emotions. My mom and grandmother wore a very old-fashioned face powder called Coty’s. Now when my brother or I smell it, we think of mom. My brother said he almost followed a woman around a store once soon after my mom died because the woman smelled like our mom. Fortunately, he restrained himself.

    I terrible smell in our part of the world is an angry skunk. Ugh!

    • Katrina

      That’s a really powerful story about your brother, Caroline. I feel similarly about a perfume my great-grandma wore. She died when I was 19, and I was really close to her so I used to buy her her favorite perfume when I was in high school (she was in a home and couldn’t get out independently). Now when I smell it, I want to hug whoever’s wearing it.

      And I well remember the smell of skunk from growing up in San Diego. Mostly I remember the smell of smooshed skunk on the road and dog-covered-in-skunk-spray. That’s certainly a smell that stays in your nostril memory for years!

  3. Pingback: At first scent: exposing the secrets of chemical attraction | Reader, I created him

  4. Farley’s Rusks mmm, supposedly meant for babies and mushed up with hot milk. Loved ’em when I was a kid but not sure they’re made any more- and yes I can still remember the smell and the taste.

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