Friday, November 23, 2007

Making Scents of It

by Donna MacMeans

As I’m writing this, there’s a butter slathered turkey roasting to a delectable crispness in my oven. Can you smell it? I think the whole nation must. House after house, filled from the rafters to the basement with that mouth-watering scent, open their doors to welcome friends and relatives, and, in turn, release some of the roast turkey scent out to the world.

When the house fills with that familiar smell, I can almost hear a football game playing on the television (of course, it doesn’t hurt that there IS a football game currently playing on the TV – but I’m going for association here). I can almost envision pumpkin pie and all the must-have casseroles that accompany the bird. I once read that more than all the other senses, a smell can trigger deep subconscious memories both good and bad. Turkey roasting is a good one, connected with fond memories for me.

As a writer, we can use this. We can set a scene with a familiar scent and thus draw the reader into the story. My characters all tend to be coffee drinkers - just so I can evoke that wonderful scent of coffee first thing in the morning for my story.

We can associate a character with a unique scent. I decided I wanted Emma in The Education of Mrs. Brimley to smell like winter apples as that spoke of a wholesome quality to me. I gave the hero, Nicholas, basic manly scents, but with a slight trace of turpentine to identify him as an artist.

To help keep myself in the story, I burned a Macintosh apple candle that surrounded me in Emma’s scent. Soon, I began to associate the scent with writing and formed a desire to write whenever I smelled apples. Not a bad association to form for a procrastinator like me!

What scents, good and bad, evoke strong memories for you? Is there a memorable character that you associate with a scent? For the writers, do you, like me, tie an overall scent to a book, and then hunt for a candle to “cast a spell”? (Hey, I’ll do anything if it keeps me at the keyboard.) One commenter will win a copy of The Education of Mrs. Brimley.


p226 said...

Scents evoke memory in me like nothing else. I have no frame of reference for using them as motivation, though.

What's kind of weird, is that when I read, an author can mention a smell, and I cannot conjure the memory of it. I can't "remember" a smell, until I smell it again.

Helen said...

Congrats on scoring the golden rooster p226.
Scents bring back lots of memories for me cakes baking always remind me of my mother she always cooked cakes and this is a favourite memory, new born babies have a unique sent that makes me want to cuddle them.
I grew up during the 70's and incense was very popular but it always gave me headaches and if I smell it now it still reminds me of a headache, but I do like to scent of candles burning.
Good thinking post for me brings back a lot of memories when I was at school we had a paste called perkins paste and I can still remember that smell you can't buy it anymore but it was different. Thanks Donna
Have Fun

Donna MacMeans said...

P226, you scored the rooster! Good for you!

Interesting that you don't remember a smell. To me, it's always like taste. If I think about it, it's very vivid - not as vivid as smelling the scent in reality, but close.

Donna MacMeans said...

Helen - LOL on the incense. I was in college when incense was a big deal. It reminds me of certain...experimentations, shall we say *g*. But it is a heavy scent, not nearly subtle as a candle.

Baking scents trigger all kinds of good emotions, esp. baking bread - Yum. I believe I once read that the smell of pumpkin as in pumpkin pie is an aphrodisiac among men. Hmmm...that's a handy fact to know!

doglady said...

All I have to do to take myself back to my little cottage in Germany is remember the smell of snow. Snow in Germany smells different from snow anywhere else. Really! In my current WIP the hero realizes he is attracted to the heroine on a ride across the Yorkshire moors. Every time he sees her or thinks of her he smells wildflowers, the wind, and green moss. She wears lavender and that scent haunts him as well. My husband was a psychiatrist and he did experiments on the power of scents to trigger hunger. Pictures of delicious food contrasted with the actual scent - the actual scent got a much stronger reaction of course. My late Great Dane Glory had her own blankets and pillows. I have never washed them and the kitten Glory raised sleeps on her "Mama Glory's" pillow. You should hear her purr.

Dianna Love Snell said...

I love how a scent takes me back to a memory. One of the pleasures of riding a motorcycle through the country is smelling things you never get while traveling in a car. The scent of fresh cut grass reminds me of being a kid because we were always outside doing something. We've made hundreds of trips on the bikes, but I'll always remember one of our early ones from Atlanta to Jekyll Island, GA because we rode past a lumber mill and you could smell fresh cut oak.

p226 - congrats on snagging the rooster and winning one of my doorprizes from the other day. I hope when they say you "got" the rooster, it wasn't in your crosshairs. :)

Nancy, I love that you now associate the candle scent with writing. I know a multi-published author who says she burns a red candle while writing because that is for creativity. She gets into her story quickly that way.

Good post and happy holidays to everyone.

Donna MacMeans said...

Doglady - Snow smells different in different places? Who knew?

A had a friend whose son committed suicide last year. She found a place that outfits teddy bears in outfits made of the loved one's clothes. She swears the bear smells like her son. Those maternal memories are strong, but they are helping her to heal.

Donna MacMeans said...

Dianna - You hit on two of my favorites - cut grass and fresh sawdust. When I was an auditor, I had a lumberyard as a client. I loved counting their inventory *g*. Fresh grass signals spring to me and a much needed sign after a long, cold winter.

jo robertson said...

Yay, p226, for winning the GR!

Great topic, Donna! I'd never thought of using a candle to evoke a character.

After my mom died, I put her linen in baggies. The scent lingered -- my mom's laundry always had a certain sweet, homey smell -- but of course it finally went away. But I still sleep with the pillowcases.

I read an article that women are more easily aroused by scent and men by visualization. Hmmm, wonder if that's true?

Nancy said...

Donna, this is an interesting topic. I associate a particular, not-quite-sweet scent with golden retrievers. All of our goldens, when I hugged them, tickled my nose in the same way. The lab we now have smells just a little different.

My father wore Old Spice, which I think has gone out of favor with younger men. When I smell Old Spice or Old Spice Lime, his alternate, I think of him.

I haven't used scents much in my writing process. I went so far as to buy some candles once but never got around to lighting them! It's an interesting idea, though, and I do try to give characters a particular, consistent scent.

P226, congrats on the rooster! Ya gotta be quick to snag it. *g*

Suzanne Welsh said...

Morning Donna! Congrats on the Golden Rooseter p226!

I adore scents. One of my favorite is Old Spice aftershave. My dad always showered after work in the evenings, shaved and splashed a little Old Spice on. Then he'd hug me. That scent just reminds me of him and home.

Vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg always remind me of my mom baking in the fall. Apple pies, pumpkin pies, cookies or apple cake. Often I find myself calling her after I've made something apple-y for desert.

Jill James said...

My grandma had aluminum cups for us kids to drink out of. If I use one I'm instantly transported back to her kitchen with the smells of biscuits and country milk gravy.

Anna Campbell said...

Hey, p226, send us a photo of the rooster so we know he's still OK! ;-) Congratulations on snagging the bird!

Donna, lovely post. I try and use scents in my writing as I think they're so evocative and can take a person into the place so vividly. In Tempt the Devil, the hero walks out into the fresh dawn air of London (after a night with the heroine) and smells the sour tang of the river and coal dust. I was proud of that as I'd been reading a lot about London in the 19th century and I think it would have been a bit stinky. But I also think if you lived there, you'd be pretty used to the smell.

I love the smell of baking. I think it's a childhood thing plus baked food says, "I love you," doesn't it? Not sure why but it does. Just bought all my ingredients to make Christmas goodies so looking forward to that. I always feel like such a domestic goddess when the house smells of vanilla and cinnamon and cocoa and I've got trays of lovely things that I'm giving away to people I love.

Suzanne Welsh said...

While we're on the subject of scents. It drives me crazy when a writer lets the hero recognize the scent of jasmine or hyacinth. Uhm, unless he's a gardener, botanist or scent maker, I doubt most guys think of the actual names of flowers.

The same goes for color. Recently I read a book where the hero noticed the azure sky. Uh...unless he's an artist, I think more guys would think, "Clear blue sky, blue sky...etc."

Susan Seyfarth said...

Hi, Donna! I woke up in the middle of the night last night thinking, "Wow, who's cooking turkey at this hour??" I had forgotten that I'd put the turkey carcass in the crock pot overnight for soup. Smelling a smell (even a yummy one) at the wrong time is weird, & very disorienting.

Smells that I love --

The trunk I used to pack for camp every summer. It's a lovely combination of sand, damp swim wear & bug spray.

My mom's perfume.

My parents' bed.

New babies.

Old books.

My husband's shirts.

The first snow.

Warm dirt.

Thanks for a lovely post! I'm trying to get started on a new book & am now intrigued enough to go buy candles that smell like my hero. :-)


p226 said...

The GR is well protected. Rest assured.

And I'm smelling turkey cooking now.

At least I hope it's turkey. *g*

Nancy said...

Good point about scent recognition, Suzanne. I don't recognize most florals. I'm not a gardener, and I don't usually wear perfume. I can't tell a gardenia from a hyacinth without help!

Susan, I think sounds at odd times can also be disorienting. We had some work done on a bathroom and woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of water running. I felt so confused because I couldn't figure out why the washing machine was going at that hour. The dh leaped out of bed and ran into the bathroom, going "Oh,no. Oh, no." The hot water connector on the new sink had come loose and was spraying hot water all over the bathroom. It's good one of us was functional!

Jill, I don't have smells associated with my grandparents. I remember their refrigerator holding pudding in little glass dishes on stems and my grandfather making ice cream floats made with vanilla ice cream and ginger ale. Every time I make an ice cream float, which isn't as often as it was when I had more calorie leeway, I think of him.

Christine Wells said...

Gorgeous post, Donna. Love the way you described Emma as smelling of winter apples. It also showed how Nicholas thought of her, didn't it?

I don't seem able to smell things unless they're particularly pungent or unless I make an effort. Except when I'm pregnant, then my sense of smell goes into overdrive! So it's very difficult for me to remember to evoke scent in books. Typical of me, the heroine in my next book makes perfume and she will notice scent all the time. Nothing like setting myself a challenge:)

Freshly mown grass reminds me of my childhood in summer. We kids pick up all the sticks that fell from our gum trees in our back yard so they didn't catch in the mower, then my father would mow the lawn and we'd use the sticks to light the barbecue that afternoon. Roast lamb is another scent that brings back Sunday nights of my childhood. Great memories!

Donna MacMeans said...

Hi all -

Sorry had to dash out for a luncheon date and a (ugh) mammeogram. Necessary, but not fun.

Jo - You know, I think I read something similar that women recognize more varied scents than men. I know I can differeniate beteen the different kinds of food cooking, while my husband recognizes - food. That's it.

Isn't it intereseting that so many of our days wore Old Spice? I know my Dad did as well. However, I'm not fond of my husbannd smelling like my father (ewww). He wears Lagerfeld which I absolutely love, and has worn it so long it has permeated his clothes. I've threatened divorce if he ever uses anything else as I identify that scent to him.

Donna MacMeans said...

Nancy - I think I got the idea for lighting canles while I write from Suzanne Brockman. She uses it to focus her mind on writing, when the candle is lit - she writes. If she's interrupted, she blows the candle out until she can focus on writing again. In time, the lit candle is supposed to trigger the mind to slip into a creativity mode. I tried that and went through a pack of matches in a couple of hours with all the interruptions. I just use the scent now, as opposed to the focusing factor.

Donna MacMeans said...

Jill -

Were those the brightly colored aluminum cups in shades like teal and burnt orange? I remember those, although it's a visual thing as opposed to a scent. Nice way to pull a memory.

Suz - I love those fall baking scents. There's something about the crispness of the air, or maybe it's a scent in the air, that makes me want to bake - even though the waistline screams - NOT AGAIN!

Donna MacMeans said...

Anna -

There's a scratch 'n sniff children's book that features the smells of 19th century London - and believe me, they weren't pleasant smells! Another historical writer showed it to me (I'm drawing a blank on the name) and I meant to see if I could find it - but forgot about it. Now that you've reminded me, I'll have to check for it.

Donna MacMeans said...

Suz - Excellent point! In The Trouble with Moonlight, my hero smells an exotic floral scent that he recognizes as being unique to my heroine. In fact, he uses that to find her when she's invisible. But he doesn't associate it with moonflowers - he just knows it means Lusinda is about. How point about colors is well taken as well. Even if the hero is an artist, I think you're restricted to colors that you'd find on a tube of paint which may or may not relate to the common "fashion" description of a color.

Donna MacMeans said...

Hey Susan - Good luck on finding candles that smell like a hero, most are floral or fruit scents. Sometimes you can find sandlewood or musk in incense, but I have better luck finding candles for heroines than heros. I love your list - though the camp trunk does sound like it's an acquired taste *g*

P226 - That rooster is too tough for eating!!! Back away from the pot.

Donna MacMeans said...

Christine - I have to make an effort sometimes in the editing process to make sure the senses are used throughout a scene, but as it makes the scene so alive it's generally worth it. It's been too long since I've been pregnant (thank heavens) to remember the effect on the sense of smell, but I know if I'm in the throes of a migraine, smells really bother me. I wonder what makes these two events so similiar in the effect on the nose?

Nancy - I remember my mother putting custard in glasses like that. I'd forgotten until you put it in your post - made me smile.

I'm the one with the "maternal ears" that hears the "something's different" sounds in the night. Doesn't mean I investigate them, that's what my husband is for *g*
Good that yours knew what to do with that unplanned for washing of the bathroom!

ChristyJan said...

Baking scents ~ cinnamon, vanilla, etc. remind me of my childhood and my Mother in the kitchen.

Pine and Balsam scents remind me not only of fresh Christmas trees, but of being outdoors in the mountains.

ruth said...

I love the scent of roasting chestnuts, freshly baked apple pie and freshly mown grass. I remember these from when I was very young and lived in another time and place. Was fun then and different.

anne said...

My favorite scent is the salt water ocean smell which tears me up. The ocean has so many wonderful memories for me and it still beckons.

tetewa said...

The smell of Liliacs brings back the memory of my grandmother that I lost about 15 years ago. She always smelled like them as it was in the perfume that she wore.

Nathalie said...

my favorite scent is the one of the sea... it reminds me of my summers at my grand-parent's house next to the sea ;)

Donna MacMeans said...

Christyjan - I love the smell of balsam and pine as well. Unfortunately, that's one that candles just can't duplicate, can they? We abandoned using a real tree several years ago for a variety of reasons, but I miss that fresh pine smell.

ruth - I'm not sure what a roasting chestnut smells like, although I've heard it often in relation to Christmas. Do people still do that? Perhaps it's a regional thing. I'd like to try one sometime.

Anne & Nathalie - I love the briney scent of the ocean. It says home to me. My family, stauch midwesterners all, aren't fond of the smell, but they don't have my memories. I have to get back to the ocean every couple of years just for the rejeuvenation factor. Good scent!

tetwa - Lilacs! Good one. I planted some common lilacs by my porch just for the scent (and the big clusters of flowers). However, the really, really, really fragrant lilacs are the Korean Lilacs we have by the side of the house. One tiny little branch fills the entire house with fragrance. It's almost overwhelming.

Keira Soleore said...

From the land of Starbucks, comes a loud YAY for coffee drinkers around the world.

I must've been a dog in a past life. Smells are the most important sensory info in my life, yet for some reason, they're the hardest for me to incorporate into my writing. I should try your method of associating a scent with a character and burning that candle to get me thinking of including that sense.

Donna wrote, "the smell of pumpkin as in pumpkin pie is an aphrodisiac among men."

Tell that to all those women whose husbands were snoring on the couch in front of the football game after overeating their turkey dinners.

Jo wrote, "I read an article that women are more easily aroused by scent and men by visualization."

I don't know about the former, but the porn industry can certainly attest to the latter.

Doglady: You remind me of the Kate Shugak mystery stories. She's a character of Greenlandic descent and for her snow was a all-six-senses kind of experience.

Foanna, kudos to you for remembering the coal dust. Most writers make the mistake of using the stink of refuse, or in the Middle Ages remarking on the stink of the moat.

flchen1 said...

Scents do evoke strong associations. I always remember the original scent of Jergens lotion and that reminds me of my mom and her getting us ready for bed at night. And my dad used to wear Old Spice, too!

And I love lots of good food smells--things baking, roasts, spaghetti...

I do remember reading books where certain scents are associated with different characters. I think the one that sticks is The Sound and the Fury, where honeysuckles were the signature scent, so to speak.

KimW said...

I love the smell of apples, too. It reminds me of my mom when I was very young. She would often bake apples with cinnamon and sugar for us. Today, it's the smell of bacon. It reminds me of my own hero, my husband, because he's the one frying it on Sunday mornings.

Lily said...

I love the scent of hot chocolate... amkes me think of my childhood when mum used to prepare it when I used to study late at night!

Joan said...

Better late than never :-)

p226....cover the GR's ears.

Smelling baking or stewing chicken along with the mixture for stuffing brings back memories of childhood faster than anything.

Laundry off the clothesline on a spring day. That scent is just plain heaven!

My Daddy's sweater. My Mom saved it for me after he passed but I could not bring myself to even hold it for the longest time. He never wore Old Spice or anything but he smelled like...Daddy. And in that scent I felt loved and protected and cherished.

Having been a single lady for way too long (in my humble opinion)I've done a lot of "research" on scents for attracting the opposite sex. My studies show that a mix of pumpkin and lavender is suppose to drive the male of the species wild.

But it's so unattractive to smear pumpkin behind your ear :-)

I also, several years ago, purchased this perfume...I think from Estee Lauder...that was filled with phernomes (?sp). I dabbed that stuff on in all the stratigic places and almost gagged. The scent to ME...a woman...was awful.

I bravely wore it to work though, keeping my eyes and ears open for a spike in interest. The ONLY guy who reacted was our orderly a man 20 years older and a usual grouch. After that he STILL complained but at least he smiled.



doglady said...

Yes, Donna, snow does smell different in different places. In Germany it smells crisp and clean like freshly laundered sheets. In England it smells wet and green like grass after the rain. In Alabama (yes, we do get snow in Alabama at times) it smells damp, cold and like iron. In the Transylvania part of Romania it smells dark, clean and heavy like a thick forest.

I should probably have Glory's blanket made into a couple of teddy bears for the cat and the chihuahua because they fight over it at times. My deepest sympathy to your friend, but what a very healing thing for her to do with her son's clothes.

Donna MacMeans said...

Keira - Methinks one needs a delicate balance between scent and calories - go for the pumpkin candle next time.

fichen1 - The Sound and the Fury, that's a good one. I'd forgotten about the honeysuckle. The Jergens reference makes me wonder what scent my kids will associate with me when they tell their stories years from now. Hmmm...note to self - start wearing a really nice perfume.

Kimw - Your husband is truly a hero if he's frying bacon for you on a Sunday morning. Yummm. I fry bacon and everyone comes running for the kitchen. Good scent!

Lily - It's freezing outside, here. My car's thermometer keeps jumping between 30 degrees and 28. A perfect night for hot chocolate and marshmellows. I think that sense makes me sleepy and warm and cozy.

Donna MacMeans said...

Joan - Wait a minute - didn't you win that rooster a couple of days ago? P226 - better check to see if you got more than a carcass!

LOL on the pumpkin behind the ears. I remember that pheromone perfume and was curious if it worked. No cigar, huh? I think we need to get you away from that hospital so the scents don't get bogged down with medicinal overtones. No wonder it appealed to the geriatric set *g*.

Donna MacMeans said...

Doglady - How interesting! I'm jealous that you have experienced snow in so many environments - of course, I'd rather note the scent of sunshine when traveling, as opposed to snow *g*. I promise to be more attentive to the scent of snow in Ohio, though it's hard to separate it from the smell of the woodburning fireplace that would probably be operating at the same time.

Snow in Alabama? Do you actually get accumulation there? Does the population go into a panic? I always thought Alabama was too far south. I'm learning new things all the time *g*

flchen1 said...

Oh dear--Donna, I hadn't thought of it that way, in terms of my scent and my kids! Hmm... I'd better give that some thought, too!

Maybe bacon? ;)

Joan said...

Lord, no Donna. I've yet to snag the 14kt fowl. I USUALLY can't stay up that late! LOL. I'd have to type a response to the blog before it was written.

But maybe someday. :-)

doglady said...

Yes, Donna, we do get snow accumulations, though it only happens every ten years or so. We had a "bad" snowstorm in 1993, which means we had a few feet of snow on the ground for about a week. This was when my horse Taz was alive (short for Tazmanian Devil.) He was around 17 and had a ball with the snow. The thing was I had nothing in the house to eat so I needed to go to town, but my truck would not make it up the hill of my driveway. So, I saddled up Taz and rode the 8 miles to town to the grocery store. I hitched him to the newspaper box, bought my groceries and came out to find one of the local policemen standing next to Taz. I said "Officer, is there a problem?" He said "No ma'am, I just wanted to see who rode the horse to town." Hey, I made it there and back and did not get in a wreck or slide off the road which is more than I can say for most people on the road that day.

Donna MacMeans said...

LOL Doglady, I applaud your resourcefulness. I bet that policeman was surprised!

I was in Kansas City one January for some accounting training. They had a light covering of snow, maybe one quarter inch. A woman from San Antonio wanted to try to make a snowman when there wasn't enough white stuff to scrap up a snowball. She was so excited about snow. I'm afraid those of us from the northern climes just couldn't generate much enthusiasm. I love to watch the snow fall at night and see the pristine unbroken white expanse in the morning. But it turns sloppy and dirty all too soon.

Donna MacMeans said...

And the winner is....fichen1!
If you'll go to my website,, and leave your contact information, I'll get a copy of The Education of Mrs. Brimley in the mail to you. Thanks for stopping by everyone.

Karen H in NC said...

For me, it's Old Spice After Shave for my father and Emeraude or Tabu perfumes for my mother. Whenever I smell those scents, I will forever recall my parents and that's good.

On the other hand, whenever my mother cooked liver and onions, I always thought it smelled good, but you could chase me 10 miles with a plate of that stuff and I would NEVER touch it. Go figure.

Kate Carlisle said...

I love this subject, Donna! I could smell those green apples as I read your post. :-)

I totally agree that there is no better way to evoke an old memory than with certain scents and smells. To this day, if I smell a particular type of wood burning in the neighborhood, I'm instantly transported right back to age seven when our house burned down.

I do have a few pleasant scent memories, too, LOL. I have an old wooden box filled with my aunt's jewelry and whenever I open the box, it's like she's in the room with me.

The main character in my mystery series works with rare books, so I keep several very old books on my desk so I can smell the leather bindings and the musty scent of paper and ink from another age. Lovely!