The weather’s been rather reminiscent of Brisbane (Australia) this week – warm to hot, humid, with storms every afternoon. Even the blasted smell of the air is the same, that steamy mix of grass and water rising off tar and cement smell that comes when it starts to rain after a hot day.
It hasn’t been quite hot enough to include actual steam rising from the roads and driveways, but certainly enough to smell that way, and of course take me on a solid trip down memory lane.
See, smell (or scent, if you want to be refined about it) is probably the most evocative of the senses. Even though we humans have relatively weak sniffers, anything we pick up by smell has the ability to bypass what passes for our rational thought processes and go straight to the hindbrain – at levels that can be damned embarrassing (like the time I found gardenia in bloom in Texas, mentally went straight to Brisbane Christmases and got all weepy).
Everyone’s scent triggers are going to be different, of course, but they’re also going to be very strong – and anyone who’s had the misfortune to smell dying/rotting animal will never forget it. The roadkill dragged into those deep rainwater ditches on the side of Texas roads is not something you want to inhale after a few days of ninety-degree weather. Trust me on that one.
Of course, it’s also a relatively easy cheat for a writer, and one that rarely fails if you can Heinlein it in there. Throwing in smell cues every now and then, regardless of what they are, is enough to subconsciously cue a reader so they’re not smacked in the face when you bring out the smell that throws your character for a loop or evokes the big traumatic memory, or whatever the key thing you need the character to feel or do happens to be. It’s only a cheap trick if that’s the first time you’ve dropped a scent in.
Not to mention, something that someone can smell feels a lot more real than something that’s not described with scent. You can talk all you like about the look and feel of leather, but the smell…? You’ll have your readers mentally in a leather goods store in seconds.
Similarly, a place that smells sterile is going to evoke an image of somewhere stark and cold, where smells of baking bread will have readers thinking of homey places.
And there’s nothing that can quite match the smell of a hot day after a storm. That one will take me back to days when I would sit out on the back porch and watch the storms come in, thoroughly enjoying the cool wind that would take the worst of the day’s heat and staleness away, and letting the drum roll of rain on a metal roof relax my mind.
I miss that. Even though sometimes it would get so loud you couldn’t hear anyone speaking, the sound of rain on a metal roof is something that just doesn’t happen here. All the roofs here are that composite fake-tile stuff over a layer of tarry stuff laid on wood (I have no idea what it’s called, but it’s pretty much ubiquitous here in the USA, unlike Oz where it’s almost all either tile or metal roofs).
Oh, and have a picture of an itty-bitty-baby Buttercup with a sorely missed Baby