A Smelly Post (The Psychological Trigger of Scent)
“Olfaction, also known as sense of smell, is the most primal and mysterious of our six senses.”
So says author, world-class endurance athlete, coach, and political activist Christopher Bergland in an article for Psychology Today. I don’t think anyone would argue his statement. In fact, I’m betting most of us can, right off the top of our heads, think of more than one scent that creates in us a strong trigger effect.
For me, there are so many, it is hard to choose only one or two to share. I thought first of carnations, a strong negative trigger that reminds me of funerals. Sawdust is a positive trigger that reminds me of my dad. Hit me with the scent of Je Reviens perfume or Jergens face cream, and I’m teary-eyed for my mother. The smell of printed books is a heavenly nectar; incense is not, and it makes my nose itch. And don’t get me started on the triggers of food odors! Omigosh, you know that list is endless!
Last week I talked about sound triggers, and wind chimes for me personally. But scent is even more powerful, isn’t it? If you’re a writer, then you know how important it is to use all human senses to bring readers into a scene—but scent really seals the deal. If you’re a reader and not a writer, then you also know how the inclusion of the senses helps to bring a book alive for you. It’s something in every writer’s toolbox, and when it’s lacking, a story can seem flat.
In my current WIP, THE WRITE MAN (releasing on December 8th), the hero, Nick, associates the scent of warm vanilla with Merry, the heroine. For both of them, the aromas of tropical foliage and sounds of the surf are triggers because of the novel’s setting—the fictional Mimosa Key and Barefoot Bay, part of author Roxanne St. Claire’s Kindle Worlds. And if I’ve done it right, those sounds and scents will come alive for readers, as well.
In Kristan Higgins’s THE BEST MAN, the hero thinks the heroine smells like cake. I read that and knew the scent immediately. And that’s a perfect association to be made by a man, a war veteran, who doesn’t know the difference from one perfume to the next and who bakes cookies to self-soothe when he can’t sleep at night. That one simple thing, that he thought she smelled like cake, when combined with other details of his character, told me volumes. I thought it was brilliant.
Other wonderful examples of the use of scent as a literary device:
Anne Lamott, GRACE (EVENTUALLY), THOUGHTS ON FAITH
“After a while, I stretched out on one of the benches and closed my eyes. The kerosene smelled like lacquer, and I kept feeling waves of nausea. My bones were cold. I could isolate the icy scent of pine trees that sneaked through the walls. Sometimes grace is a ribbon of mountain air that gets in through the cracks.”
Helen Macdonald, H IS FOR HAWK
“The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.”
Nina MacLaughlin, HAMMERHEAD: THE MAKING OF A CARPENTER
“Sawdust spewed and dusted down onto the pavement, resting in craters in the cement, and the smell of pine moved with it, bright and clean, the smell of Christmas, renewal.”
Scent is an incredible image maker, isn’t it? It delivers us to new places and jolts us back to old ones. It creates physical responses and brings floods of memories, some good, some bad, some just at the edge of our grasp.
Here’s a link to the article I mentioned at the beginning of the post, written by Christopher Bergland for Psychology Today: How Does Scent Drive Human Behavior? Check it out. I think you’ll find the information fascinating.
What scents trigger you? Comment on a positive and a negative, and please share your reasons.
Two scents I don’t recommend to anyone: cinnamon haddock and cranberry pesticide. I’ll explain those crazy combinations in next week’s telling of the Naked Truth. See you then!
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