The power of smell

Did you know that of the five senses, the one that is the best memory inducer is smell? Scientists think this is because smell is the first sense that we develop as infants. It’s been proven that smells can take you right back to childhood. Heck, I experienced this myself a few weeks ago.

My daughter knocked a chair over on top of herself, breaking her big toe. I took her into an urgent care center for an x-ray, and the nurses came in with a juice box and a few scratch-and-sniff stickers for her to help calm her down. I caught a whiff while I was taking one off the paper roll and BAM! Just like that, I was transported back to my kindergarten classroom, lying on a cot next to a boy who was daring me to pick up a dead spider on the floor between us and trying to bribe me with a scratch-and-sniff sticker. I picked up the spider and wore that sticker for the rest of the day. I hadn’t thought of that story in years, but there it was, smacking me in the face in an urgent care center.

The sense of smell is a powerful one. I have a friend, a writing partner, who picks a brand new candle whenever she starts a new book and lights it when she’s writing. The smell of that candle will always remind her of that particular book. This is an absolutely genius idea, if you ask me, and one I’m going to steal when I start a new book. Thanks, Kerry!

Smell can also be a great unifier. I mean, we all know what the smell of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies is. Or fresh laundry. Or the ocean as it breaks against the sand. Using one of these common smells is a great way to draw readers deeper into your story. I read a story recently that talked about the smell of freshly cut grass. My mind immediately flashed back to running barefoot through backyards in the summer  as a child. Someone else might think of that one time the lawnmower broke and started smoking. But the point is that by using memory-invoking images in your writing, you make readers connect with your story on another level.

So describing what something looks like or sounds like is great (and absolutely necessary), but don’t forget about smell!

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12 Responses

  1. What you say about smell is true, but since that’s the case, why don’t most of us incorporate smell in our writing?

  2. Holly says:

    Smell is powerful, and it’s something I always try to remember to go back and add to my descriptions when I’m revising. Great post, Meredith!

  3. Bri says:

    It’s interesting, I’m always struck when smell comes up in a story, yet I always forget about it in my own work. This post is a great reminder!

  4. Karen Strong says:

    Aw, poor baby. I hope your daughter heals up good. 🙂

    I love the idea of a new candle for each book project.

    I’m always struck how smell can take us to particular moments. I’ve been trying to incorporate smells into my current project, which takes place in a bakery.

    • Meredith says:

      Thanks. She’s doing much better already. Kids heal quickly.

      And yeah, with a bakery as a setting, I think you almost HAVE to incorporate smell. Mmmm, I bet your current project makes your readers hungry!

  5. I actually have a horrible sense of smell, so that smells don’t really induce feelings and memories for me. I’m more of a texture person. 🙂

    I still like the candle idea though. Maybe I’ll try it for NaNo.

  6. I love using all the senses in writing! It makes it so much more three-dimensional. And yes tying it into a specific memory for the character is a GREAT idea!

  7. Hey, Mer. Thanks for the shout out. You can all free to steal my candle-per-book thingy. I really write best when it’s lit. My family comes home and they know I’ve been writing when they take a whiff of the air.

    I also use it as a goal. I try to finsih an entire draft plus revisions with one candle. Yes, I buy the giant willburnforabazillionhours candles now. lol

    Glad Viv is better.

  8. Dawn Luellan says:

    I had never considered that. I, too, love the idea of using a brand new candle when starting a new book. I might use Scentsy to associate with my current one.

    Thank you for passing the idea along!

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