Smell is one of the least used elements in writing fiction. Interestingly, many scientists believe smell is our most primitive sense and can instantly generate deep memories and emotions.
Capturing smells, however, is hard. Yet, in nearly every book I’ve written, I try to tap into smell as a portal into characters’ pasts and into their feelings.
Since I like a challenge, I decided to introduce smell very early in my latest WIP. My goal is to show a strong conflict between the Main Character and her lover. He’s addicted to popcorn--the more butter, the better. She, having popped a ton in the vintage popper she gave him as a birthday gift years ago, fights gagging on the buttery fragrance. Well, she thinks stink.
So, why did I choose popcorn over grilled steak? Or baking brownies? Or fresh roses? Or just-squeezed lemons? Or dirty socks? Or cologne? Or Brussel sprouts? Or millions of other smells?
Answer? From my own memories of weekly trips to my great-grandmother’s house. Spring, summer, winter, or fall, almost as soon as my mother, sister and I arrived, Grannie went to the kitchen and popped a huge pan of popcorn. Sprawled on the floor on my stomach, I ate, listened to the grownups gossip, and felt so loved because Grannie never forgot to make this just-for-me treat.
The fragrance of corn popping brings an instant collage of me and my five siblings scarfing popcorn in front of the TV on Saturday nights. Squabbling over where to set the pan. Claiming, as the oldest kid, the right to hold the pan and mete out servings. Crunching the “old maids.” Feeling comforted by the ritual of using the special pan, having patience while the oil melted, measuring the popcorn, shaking the contents, and then pouring it into the bowl and topping with butter. TV without popcorn? A big waste of time. (I like to think I learned a few life lessons).
Today, a good book is my favorite popcorn-side dish. I’d rather eat cardboard than eat air-popped corn. Same for packaged, pre-popped corn sold in supermarkets. Movie-popcorn--well, the fragrance of the corn popping--ranks as near edible because of all the memories of going to matinees and spending my dime on the tender, fluffy kernels. (I know the earth is round, and I know that modern movies no longer use the Iowa-grown, hybrid stuff I grew up on).
As for storage, we always kept our unpopped corn in five-pound coffee cans. Still do. Moisture, doncha know? And OBTW, yellow is the popcorn of true aficionados.
What about you? What’s your favorite smell? What memories and feelings does the smell evoke?
**** AB Plum, aka Barbara Plum, writes dark psychological thrillers and whodunnits, along with light paranormal romance in Silicon Valley. A bowl of popcorn often sits next to her computer for inspiration.