Monday, July 07, 2008

The Power of Scent - in Life & Writing

I'm making fig preserves today. I've never made them before, at least not on my own, but when I was growing up I sure did help my mom put up enough fig preserves--and watermelon rinds, mayhaw jelly, pear butter, dew berry jelly, tomatoes, plums, peaches, okra, squash, ect...

Anyway, once those fig preserves got to boiling today, and that scent filled my home, suddenly I was back in my mom's kitchen, I could hear our chatter, the click on the glass jars, the little pops as the jars cooled and the lids seals, I could all but see the sun shinning in the kitchen window over the sink, feel the heat in the room from the big bowling pots, the stiffness in my fingers from using a knife for so long, the sweetness on my tongue because every now and then I'd pop a really rip fig into my mouth instead of tossing it into the bowl.

Funny how that one little scent dancing through my home took me back in time so easily, and how all of those other senses joined in to help me relive those days that I thought I couldn't stand, days that I would give anything to have now.

I hated canning time. It was hot, long work. Too bad I didn't notice all of the fun we had at the same time. Other ladies usually came and helped, some brought their own fruits and vegetables, jars and sugar, ect... Others who didn't have any or much, helped and left with some of the finished products for their time and effort.

I realize now as a grown woman with grown kids of my own, that those were really great days. My mom has been gone for over a decade, most of her friends, the ladies who gathered in our little kitchen and helped, are also gone, but thanks to a big pot of cooking figs, picked from one of my mom's old trees may I add, I spent a few moments in my her kitchen this morning, with all of those voices and sounds and smells and feels surrounding me.

That's how powerful our senses are.

When you are writing a scene, don't forget that power. If you do, you miss sharing a lot of your story with the reader. You miss the chance to bring a scene to life. What does the wind feel like, how warm is it in the living room, is there the sound of a train in the distance, are there wind chimes on the porch that the wind plays through and what does it sound like? How about that chair your character sits in, is it hard and cold, or over stuffed and soft so she sinks into it's comfort? When a character walks into a bar, what dose it smell like, sound like, look like, even feel like? What does the beer he orders taste like? What does it feel like to share a first kiss, to run for your life, to jump into that cold water, to cut your finger, to give up hope, to hold your baby for the first time? What dose an empty house sound like, what about an old car, a thunder storm, the wind through the trees? What does fear taste like, what about a warm plum your character just picked from the tree, or the blood where his lips split when he was punched, or the lips of the woman he loves? What does the sunlight look like through a dusty window, how does a field of wheat look with a storm coming, what about the moonlight on water? Don't forget scent, the sense we started this with. There's the smell of food cooking, of rain on the wind, of hay and horses in a barn, of soap or shaving cream on skin right after a bath, of fresh mowed grass, even of gunfire, traffic and death. After all, the bad things are as important to a story and the setting as the good things.

To wrap this post up without making it the length of a story, let me just say that there's an endless list of things we sense every day and often don't even notice.

Which leads me to a word of warning before I close. Don't overpower us and describe everything, but describe enough of what a character sees, hears, smells, feels, and tastes, to put us there with that character, to put us in the setting, in the moment, to ground us and involve us, but don't burry us. It's a balancing act, using enough without using too much, but most parts of good writing is some kind of balancing act. You'll get better at it the more you try to keep the balance.

(Yes, before you ask about me using the words grown and kids together, I do still call my daughter, who is twenty, a kid. Worse, I do the same to my son, and he's married and twenty-four. hehehe)

Happy writing!