Today is the 146th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, and the 99th anniversary of the sinking of the luxury liner Titanic. RIP.
Here’s another flower picture, but it has a purpose beyond making you wish you had a pretty garden, I promise. My lilac bush would probably have bloomed more if I had remembered to deadhead it last year before it made seed pods. And it’s tall and skinny, more like a tree. I’ll have to encourage the suckers at the bottom to make it fill out.
Lilacs are the best-smelling flower in the world. They have a sweet, powdery scent that somehow manages not to be cloying. They smell purple, the way that peonies smell pink and roses smell red even when they’re not. It’s so sad they don’t last very long.
Smell is the most powerful of all the senses. Olfactory memories stored in our brain can be accessed instantly by a wafting, familiar odor. The lingering smoke ghost on an old coat tucked in the very back of the closet, a whiff of your grandmother’s perfume in a crowded department store, the deep richness of freshly turned earth that catapults you back to your first garden.
Once, in high school, my drama class attended a speech tournament, and we found ourselves in a hallway at a college student union, near the cafeteria. The short space had an attic smell, of dusty wood and old fabric, which smelled exactly like my great-grandmother’s house. I stopped dead and just inhaled, while my classmates yelled at me to hurry up, come on, we had to be at the next event. No really, you go on.
So many writers choose visual terms to describe things, probably because we’re seeing the action in our heads, like watching an internal movie. It’s easy to forget that characters have other senses. They will perceive the world through other means: sound, touch, taste.
At one point in Rose’s Hostage, Libby is blindfolded and handcuffed, and she can only listen and smell. She catches a bit of someone’s body odor, hears trains rumbling when they change getaway cars and the thud of her fellow hostage falling when they get out of the vehicle.
Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is all about smell. The protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is born in mean circumstances with a gift: an incredibly powerful sense of smell. Alas, he has no scent of his own, and people react to him strangely. He drifts through a world of odors, both putrid and sublime, and learns to hold them through the art of perfume-making. Trouble starts when he finds the scent of a virgin girl enrapturing and desires to capture that.
The book is unique because it contains almost no dialogue. A decent film with Alan Rickman was made from it. Usually narration doesn’t work in a movie but it does here. It’s impossible to translate the scents visually, and it does lose something when you can’t imagine them as in the book. Smell-O-Vision would have been great for this one.
In prose, the only thing a reader has to go on is your description. Mix it up a little by including smells. Maybe your protagonist can walk into a bakery and smell a cinnamon bun that reminds him of the neighbor kid’s mother, the object of his most exquisitely tormented adolescent longings, who used to bake them. He turns and sees a pale reflection that looks just like her in the shop window. But it couldn’t be her; she died in a boat accident twelve years ago.
Write a scene using just sight. Then rewrite it with just smell, then sound, etc. See where your other senses lead you.