It’s been raining here since midnight, a thick and steady pelting. By morning, the flora had greened, and the air was thick with a pungent, earthy aroma. Technically, that particular scent is caused by a filamentous form of bacteria known as actinomycete that gets kicked up into the air by the force of rain, and perfumes it like an aerosol air freshener. But when we think of after-the-rain air, we don’t think of bacteria, we think of other things, often emotional: love, loss, joy, solitude, security. Or something else entirely. In fact, you could probably smell your way back to your childhood after a good rain.
The strong link between olfaction and memory has long been a subject of interest to scientists and writers alike. Johan Willander of Stockholm University writes in his thesis, Autobiographical Odor Memory: “olfactory memories are associated with a higher emotional arousal” and “events evoked by odor imagery are older than memories evoked by words.”
That is certainly true for me. Smells like raspberry Kool-Aid, chlorine, and Vienna sausages provoke strong memories of childhood. And every so often, I’ll inhale a scent that yanks me through an olfactory vortex back to a forgotten moment, and suddenly whatever recalled setting I’ve landed in is as real and vibrant as the one I’m in physically.
The novel, Swann’s Way is arguably Marcel Proust’s most famous work, in part because of its theme of involuntary memory—notably the episode of the madeleine. In it, the narrator has few memories of his country home in Combray until he takes a bite of a madeleine cake dipped in tea:
“The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday morning at Combray … my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea.”
Upon recognizing the flavor (which is perceived by a combination of taste and smell), more memories come rushing back:
“…the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.”
Another example, this one of rain, is by Neil Gaiman in the text that accompanies Tori Amos’s album Strange Little Girls. It’s not only an example of the linking power of smell, but its importance in storytelling.
“There are a hundred things she has tried to chase away the things she won’t remember and that she can’t even let herself think about because that’s when the birds scream and the worms crawl and somewhere in her mind it’s always raining a slow and endless drizzle.
You will hear that she has left the country, that there was a gift she wanted you to have, but it is lost before it reaches you. Late one night the telephone will sign, and a voice that might be hers will say something that you cannot interpret before the connection crackles and is broken.
Several years later, from a taxi, you will see someone in a doorway who looks like her, but she will be gone by the time you persuade the driver to stop. You will never see her again.
Whenever it rains you will think of her.”
Storytellers, don’t ignore your characters’ senses of smell—or the histories to which certain scents are connected. Such sensual description can be an interesting way to reveal their emotions, perspectives, fears, desires and more. You’ll also engage and satisfy your readers’ own sensuality.
Non-storytellers (of which there are few, I think—we all tell stories) this works for you, too. Take a break. Go outside. Breathe deeply.
Where does that certain smell take you?