Saturday, September 22, 2007

Smelling and Tasting Your Memories

Our culture is visually oriented. If it weren’t, magazines wouldn’t have large cover photos to entice the readers to pick them up, and editors wouldn’t spend so much time on layout. Many, if not most, stories rely on visual details. Readers want to see the character or landscape.

Author Rebecca McClanahan wrote in Word Painting, “ . . . ignoring the other senses in your writing is like sitting in a gourmet restaurant, wearing ear plugs, work gloves, and a surgical mask over nose and mouth.” You see the candlelight flickering in your water goblet, the waiters bowing to patrons and balancing trays on their shoulders. If you disregard your other senses, you can’t hear forks clinking against the china or a popping champagne cork. You can’t feel the bubbles tickling your nose, nor smell sautéed garlic and fresh basil. When the dessert tray comes, you’ll be able to see the glazed fruit adorning a cheesecake wedge, but you won’t feel the creamy texture inside your mouth or taste a hint of lemon."

Out of all our senses, our sense of smell has the best memory. It’s probably the most neglected in writing. Using smells in your descriptions will bring another dimension to your writing. Think of the different smells you encounter on a typical day. What smells evoke memories for you? Dove soap reminds me of my grandmother. Chantilly perfume reminds me of my mother and all the women my father dated after her. Magnolias remind me of my high school prom.

I started burning scented candles long before the aromatherapy craze. I like bringing the scent of lilacs and gardenias indoors, or filling the house with vanilla and cinnamon, when I haven’t baked in weeks. Now one can buy candles scented like chocolate cake, coffee, cookies, and even mown grass.

Smells don’t always evoke pleasant or relaxing memories. What about being in a room with two wet dogs? The Polo cologne an old boyfriend wore—the one who cheated on you? Or the container of General Tso’s chicken you left in the refrigerator two weeks ago and now has a green fuzz? Milk a week after the expiration date? A cancer patient’s room? A house filled with sixty cats, and the elderly woman found inside three days after her death? (This recently happened in my home town.)

If you notice, most of the smells I’ve described were in terms of how it makes one react. Writer Diane Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses) refers to the sense of smell as “the mute sense, the one without words.” It’s much harder to describe smells, because the connection in our brains between the smell center and the language center isn’t as strong as the connection between our visual and language centers.

Make a list of smells you’d encounter on a typical day. If it helps, go to various rooms and locations and close your eyes. Concentrate on the smells around you. What connections can you make? Freewrite whatever comes to mind.

Without smell, you can’t have taste. Seventy-five percent of taste comes from smell. When we put something in our mouths, molecules that make up specific smells and that trigger our smell receptors, travel to the olfactory receptor cells. These specialized cells are located in your nasal cavity. If it is blocked, so is your ability to smell. That’s why children pinch their noses before taking bad tasting medicine, or things seem to have no taste when we have a cold.

Like smell, taste is another “mute” sense. We usually describe it in terms of how it makes us feel. Sometimes naming the food is enough. Mashed potatoes. Apple pie. Chocolate. Spinach. These food names conjure unique memories. Atmosphere is important in describing food. Ice cream consumed in an old-fashioned ice cream parlor tastes different from ice cream consumed alone in an apartment on a Saturday night while watching “Sex and the City.”

Taste isn’t limited to only food. After being punched in the nose, a man tastes blood. A teenager tries a cigarette for the first time. A woman diagnosed with cancer smokes her last one. The wheat paste our desk mate ate in kindergarten. Crayons. Pencil tips. A kiss.

Spend a few minutes jotting down as many foods you can name. Then make a separate list of non-food words you’ve tasted. When you’ve finished your lists, look over them and see what memories they evoke. Freewrite about them as time allows.

Here’s another variation: Choose one of the items (food or non-food) from your lists. Then list five different atmospheres and situations for each. Refer to the ice cream and cigarette examples to get you started.

The next module of the free course, Creating Memorable Characters, is posted. This one discusses sympathetic and unsympathetic characters. Go to the main CS Writing Workshop page and scroll down to access the link.

In addition to Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses, I recommend reading An Alchemy of the Mind. It's a fascinating look at the brain, its functions, and memory. To see what else I've been reading, check out the Buried Treasures Bookstore.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Your Local History

In his novel, Absalom, Absalom! William Faulkner included a map of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, a fictional place where fourteen novels and most of his short stories were set. The county is 2400 square miles and bordered by the Tallahatchie River to the north and the Yoknapatawpha River to the south. Before settlers began arriving in the 1800s, Chickasaw Indians inhabited the area. Through his fiction Faulkner readers become intimate with the histories and conflicts of the characters. Yoknapatawpha County developed its own history with landmarks including Sutpen’s Hundred and Frenchman’s Bend. Faulkner drew from his own experiences and history of Lafayette County where he lived.

Other authors have familiar places in their works. Gibbsville, Pennsylvania was the fictional setting for much of John O’Hara’s works. It was based on his hometown, Pottsville. Garrison Keillor actually grew up in Anoka, Minnesota, the inspiration for his Lake Wobegon. Stephen King modeled two of his fictional towns, Derry and Castle Rock, on real towns in Maine. They are Bangor and Durham, respectively. My own novel, Living in the City, is set in fictional towns based on towns where I’ve lived. Kiehlton County is was inspired by Annville, Hershey, and Lebanon—towns in Central Pennsylvania. Kiehlton County has become the setting of most of my short stories and my current novel-in-progress. Like Faulkner’s Yoknapaptawpha County, my fictional town is developing its own history and residents who appear in more than one story.

None of these locales are particularly exotic. Each has some universality, and they’re populated with people you might find in your own neighborhood. You don’t have to wander too far from your own backyard to find interesting stories. Every town has a history; some of it comprised of rumors and legends as well.

Draw a map of your town. This can be your own hometown, a fictional town, or a combination of both. Name the streets, streams, buildings and landmarks. Add whatever details you like. Write a history of the town. Who settled there? Who were the prominent families? Are the streets named after significant figures? How long has the hardware store been there? What was in the building before Starbucks arrived? To gather ideas, visit the library or local historical society. Ask older residents what they remember. Freewrite about whatever comes to mind. You can mix and match details from your research. What you don’t know, you can make up. The town is yours.

The fourth module of the free Creating Memorable Characters workshop is posted. You can find it on the main page of the CS Writing Workshop.

One of my friends at is hosting a writing contest. There is no entry fee. Check out the contest at:

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Where Were You When...?

On September 11, 2001 I was walking the last half mile of my morning walk on the cross country course. That morning on my headphones I was listening to a local talk radio station. The host and callers were discussing a freak accident at a nearby amusement park where a teenage boy fell off a rollercoaster to his death. The radio host interrupted his caller saying, “Ohmygod! We just got word that a plane hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center. What a freak accident.”

I shuddered, thinking, “What are the chances of that happening?”

The host broke in again with, “It was not a fluke. Another plane just crashed into the World Trade Center. It is a confirmed terrorist attack.”

I began running, panicked. Nonsensical thoughts flashed through my mind. It hadn’t quite registered, and I had many questions. The questions ranged from wondering about the safety of the people in the towers to wondering about the safety in our own small town hundreds of miles away. Should I pull the kids from school? Where was my husband?

At home I turned on the TV and switched between news stations. I sat frozen and stunned as I watched the World Trade Center collapse. I saw crowds covered with dust running in the streets of New York City. I heard screams. Crying. Sirens. Breathless reporters updating information while plumes of smoke rose in the distance. Years later the images remain fresh in my mind. I doubt I’ll ever erase them.

How many times have you heard people relay their experiences regarding significant and/or tragic historical events? They remember every detail of where they were or what they were doing when Kennedy was shot or Armistice was declared. Some of us may not remember what we ate for dinner two nights ago, but when exposed to a tragic event, our brains seem to record every sensory detail.

It’s your turn. Recall any historical events of your life. Write about the moment you heard the news. Where were you? What were you doing? Record sensory details. Describe the weather. What thoughts and physical sensations did you experience? Don’t worry about fact checking or the correct order of events. Focus on how it related to you. This is your experience.

I've added the next module of the Creating Memorable Characters workshop. You can access it from the main page at CSWriting Workshop.