The sense of smell, more than any of the other senses, can trigger strong emotional memories. The olfactory system is physically wired for it. Unlike the other sensory pathways, the olfactory bulb has a direct connection to the amygdala (emotion) and hippocampus (memory consolidation). When you want to trigger your fictional character’s memory, you may want to figure out why s/he likes, or dislikes certain smells.
Preparing to explore the sense of smell was an exercise in itself. In the search for smells to trigger memories, I went scavenging at my childhood home. I started in the kitchen, looked around my old room, but hit serious pay dirt in my sister’s and my bathroom. I found small bottles of perfume I had received as gifts, lotion, an empty bottle of shampoo that still had a strong smell, and other forgotten stinky treasures. This adventure to my childhood home on the hunt for scents inspired a piece of writing before even doing the exercise.
Smells Like Home
She looked around the cold, empty kitchen. She wanted to make it feel like home again; warm and inviting as if they were all together staring at the TV in a tired, after school daze. She chose the French vanilla coffee from the ten different bags, in variable stages of use, in the freezer and started the pot. Her mother didn’t drink coffee and her dad drank instant. Did he drink instant because making coffee was woman’s work, or did he never bother to figure out the coffee pot? She didn’t know the answer. The only time there was coffee in the pot was for special occasions. Though her coffee was dripping in a regular plastic coffee pot, the sound of the coffee brewing reminded her of the tall silver percolator her mother set on the counter for every social gathering. She smelled the familiar earthy musk mixed with sweet and nutty aromas and she imagined everyone squeezing into the kitchen to help prepare the huge family meal. She thought of the Christmas get together with the lively white elephant gift exchange and smiled.
She went to the refrigerator and pulled out the huge block of orange medium cheddar which her mother always kept in the clear center drawer. The bread was on top of the fridge, though not in the stack of bowls like it used to be. They didn’t have the wonderful, hazelnut bread for her today, so wheat would have to do. She buttered the bread and started to slice the cheese. Remembering her mission to explore the smells of her youth, she held the slice up to her nose. Instantly, she pictured the cat that had been so crazy about cheese you could get him to walk on his hind legs and turn in a circle if you held cheese over him. He would be in the kitchen meowing loudly before you could even get the cheese out of the plastic wrap. He was the only one of Tatiana’s kittens they kept. What was his name? The smell of cheese didn’t bring that back. What a strange thing to forget.
Exercise: Gather a large selection of smelly objects that may trigger memories (I tried a sampling of gum and candy from my childhood along with the things I found in my childhood home). Don’t just look for good smells try some bad ones as well (I tried Witch Hazel, Noxema, and stinky perfume. Be creative. Try everything you can think of). In a group, smell the different objects and write down everything that comes to mind. Pick one smell that affected you the most and write about it for 5 minutes.
I had heard Ivory soap was invented to float, so I picked up a bar to clean myself in the lake while my septic was backed up—again. This was the second time in three years and when it happened the first time, I’d been without water for three months. At least this time it was warm. I got up before light and ripped open the plastic coated paper wrapper. The strong smell of the freshly opened bar of soap reminded me of the upstairs bathroom in my grandfather’s house. Specifically sitting and reading the wallpaper that looked like pages from a catalog from the old west. I remember the brown drawings of high button boots and a wood stove with prices a child collecting her pennies could afford. I don’t remember using Ivory soap during my annual week long summer visits. The soaps in the dish were small and shaped like flowers, but this was the smell of that bathroom. I decided I didn’t want to smell like grandpa’s bathroom. I didn’t care if the soap sank to the bottom of the lake. I hunted around the cupboard beneath the sink and found some old body wash. It was probably more environmentally friendly anyway.
I hope you try this exercise and enjoy exploring sensory description. I’d love to hear from you. Please leave comments and suggestions. Thank you.