Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.
Last Friday we started a new series focusing on our writerly super powers. Just as our favorite super heroes have heightened senses, writers often interact with the world on a hyper-sensitive level. We listen and we smell and we watch and we touch--we experience--all while doing our darndest to connect these sensations to words. Because words are our artistic medium.
For those playing catch-up, here's last week's post on Super Hearing. This week, we're sniffing our way to super hero status. Let's look at smelling, as it relates to writing, from three different angles.
Last year, my son joined a junior football team. The practices and games were hosted at my old high school, a place I hadn't been back to since the day I graduated.
They'd repainted the school, upped their landscaping game, added a gym and a technology building. They made some upgrades to the existing facilities after a rainstorm a few years back, so in a lot of ways, it wasn't the same school any more.
I was not prepared for the wave of nostalgia that hit me like a Mack truck the moment I stepped onto campus. Redwood trees and ruddy brown earth baking in the sun, damp cement walls that had recently been power washed, the air gritty with dust kicked up by cleated football players. Football players who wreaked of unwashed gear and lucky socks. The smells of my high school experience.
Even more bizarre than the nostalgia, was the first memory this convocation of smells threw me into. It wasn't of my senior year as you might expect. Those memories should have been freshest in my mind. Instead, I was dropped cheer-sneaker first into my freshman year.
Pent-up excitement and anxiety warred in my gut as I lingered between the locker rooms waiting for dreamy boy of the month to maybe, accidentally, wander by. The laughter of my girlfriends as we circled up, commenting on new outfits and hair cuts, and the football game on Friday, and "Oh-my-gosh, do you think he'll be there?"
One sniff of the campus and I swear my gut filled with butterflies and I was fourteen again. I texted my old childhood friend just to see if she remembered the smell of the dirt. It was that powerful an experience for me.
Each sense has a way of taking us back in time, but smell is sneaky about it. It creeps up on us and brings back things we didn't know we even knew. When you have one of these moments, savor it. Whether the memory is a lush, fragrant one or rotten and fetid, engage your spidey-sense and see if you can get the world around you to slow down a bit. Long enough for you to think about the moment, to appreciate it, to tuck away a few words that might help you recall the experience later.
Free write about the smells that move you. Do you know what free writing is? Free writing is when you give yourself a set period of time--say five minutes--and you just write. You forget about all the rules, the grammar and the typos, and you just scribble the first things that spring to mind. Start simply: The smell of chocolate cake reminds me of . . .
You may never, every use what you pen in your free writing time, but it is an excellent way to get your words flowing and to tap into wells of thought deep in your soul. It's great practice for writers of every level.
2. What the CHARACTERS smell
Like you, your fictional characters are absorbing the smells of the world around them with every breath they take. Imagine that! Every life-giving inhalation brings with it a variety of fragrances. When you think about it that way, you realize that smell just might be underused in our stories.
It's not hard to understand why. Smell can be a difficult thing to describe. Unlike sound where we can engage with the reader using onomatopoeia (ding, sizzle, snap, hiss), with smell, we depend heavily on the other senses to get our point across. "His skin smelled like coffee," we might say, invoking a beverage we both smell and taste. "Her perfume was rose and light," we might describe, leaning on a comparison and the sense of sight.
But however you do it, don't neglect to engage your character's sense of smell. Stinky garbage or that poopy diaper smell you can't ever purge from your nose, cloying honeysuckle or bright citrus fruits--describing these very normal, very extraordinary things from your character's point of view will help you find their voice.
3. What the READER smells
Your reader's brain is an amazing thing. It has assigned memories to every fragrance it's ever smelled. Making a concerted effort to tap into that, just might give your audience the kind of sensory experience that keeps them turning pages. Every one of your readers will have smells they associate with life events, with seasons, with people, with places. My Nana's house smells like sandalwood soap and fresh baked bread. When I read the word sandalwood, I do not think of exotic locales or sandalwood's medicinal and religious value; I think of Nana and how I couldn't wait to wash my hands before dinner.
You can't know with any certainty just which smells will trigger something in your reader's mind, but choosing to describe scent and engage with his or her sense of smell can deepen the experience and make the story a personal one.
Today, let's give free writing another go. If you would rather do the exercise on your own, I completely understand. But I want to give you the opportunity to participate in the comments section below, if you'd like. It's healthy to share unstructured, unedited writing with others, so if you're feeling brave, I'd love to see what you come up with.
Write for five minutes--letting your thought process take you where it will--starting with:
The zoo smells like . . .