In the middle of my current WIP I noticed that once again I’d fallen prey to my particular weakness in writing. I’m not the only one with this flaw but I have been working on correcting it. What is it? The tendency is something so obvious that I even wondered if I should write about it at all, but here it is. Despite all my workshops in which I encourage students to use all their senses when writing, I make the same mistake. I focus on the visual and sometimes the auditory and neglect the senses of taste and smell. (And in the above sentence I didn’t even mention the sense of touch.)
Writers are visual people. We tend to describe the landscape or an interior setting in great detail. We note clothing, especially as it indicates class or wealth, and physical mannerisms especially if they indicate emotional states or character. We tease out special feelings as two people become aware of each other, or we cogitate on clues, drawing the reader into the intricate web of evil. We feel the weather on our faces, our skin under a spring shower, or our fingers in thin gloves going numb in the cold. But we rarely catch a whiff of anything that matters–a lingering scent of a person we dislike or are suspicious of, a dinner of capons and carrots that distract us from a conversation we should be listening to.
In a recent mystery the protagonist enters a strange home where he will be staying and is visibly struck by the level of poverty of the village and the neglect in the home, but this is all visual. Poverty has a smell, and neglect has another smell. Because we don’t emphasize these experiences in our day-to-day lives, they may be harder to describe, but they are vivid for us when we undergo them.
When I’m confronted with a scene in which I want the olfactory sense to be dominant, I recall such experiences, usually around food but not always, and draw on those. These moments are never without people in them. I know these moments are important because I remember them so vividly, partly because of the unusual or captivating tastes and partly because of the environment or setting in which they occur and without which they would not.
During my first week in India, in 1976, I met a social worker who invited me to tea at her apartment. She was about my age, wearing a sweater over her sari (it was January in North India, which can get very chilly), and lived in an attractive two-bedroom apartment, small by Western standards but quite comfortable. She explained she was able to get this flat because of her occupation. (I’ve since learned that the job title Social Worker is closer to our Human Resources Director.) We sat on a small veranda/balcony for tea. Her maidservant (at that time, everyone in India had a maidservant, even the poor) brought in a plate of cheeses and samosas. The slice of cheese had been rolled in flour and dry roasted. I don’t know what kind of cheese, what flour, or what spices were used but to this day I remember this as one of the most succulent, delightful tastes my tongue has ever known.
When I walk through my neighborhood I sometimes notice a particular perfume and know that a certain woman has taken her afternoon walk. The fragrance isn’t strong in the usual sense but it does linger, and usually on the main street, rarely on side streets. Another aroma that still stands out is a cleaning material used mainly in Asia but starting to show up here. It was startling to encounter it in a store in New Hampshire until I remembered that this was an Asian grocery store.
All of these experiences remind me of how powerful taste and smell are in my life, and how effective they can be in deepening a mystery or adding to the description of a scene. One of my goals of the novel I’m currently working on is to use more of these two senses in the solution of the mystery as well as in the vividness of the story telling.