Stalking a woman in the tea aisle

“Young readers often think of description as the parts that they can skip. Naive as that may be, that impulse recognizes something crucial– the parts where the colors of the arroyo or the burnished glow of the furniture are described do not seem quite as . . . . But the creation of the physical world is as crucial to your story as action and dialogue. If your readers can be made to see the glove without fingers or the crumpled yellow tissue, the scene becomes vivid. Readers become present. Touch, sound, taste, and smell make reader feel as if their own fingers are pressing the sticky windowsill. . . . Whatever you’re describing, readers need a clear visual image. However, too much visual information is confusing. The mind loses track easily. A brown Naugahyde chair with a long gash in its seat can establish an interior. Big nostrils can make a person. Give one vivid detail, and readers will build the rest.” –Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction

I haven’t talked about “smell” in writing and yet “smell” is a sense and if you’re missing it in your details so are your readers.

My aunt Marge wore Tabu and last week I ran into the supermarket to pick up a few things and got stopped cold in the tea aisle. Someone was wearing Tabu. I stood behind the woman breathing in the spicy, evocative fragrance of roses, amber, musk, jasmine and the memories came flooding back. I tried not to stalk her but the more I smelled the perfume the more memories came. My aunt was an amazing, wonderful woman who added so many good times to my childhood but that’s another story or a hundred essays. The point is just that one whiff of perfume and I’m back there.

Today, think about smells that could add one more dimension to your writing, and if you’re a food writer that goes without saying. Write about food smells that could be story starters. Maybe it’s the smell of an overripe banana or Fritos that brings up childhood cafeteria memories. Now get back to work!


The Writing Nag

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