Many, many, many, many, many, many (okay, I'll stop now), years ago in college, my favorite perfume was Je Reviens. This was a perfume that stopped men in their tracks, causing them to ask me why I smelled so good. I clearly recall one instance of this when I sat studying in the EMU Fishbowl.* A frat boy sitting two booths away yelled over to ask the name of the perfume that was distracting him. There was just something about this scent–and maybe the way it reacted to my skin–that enticed people, including me.
Now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure my sister Alice, who was an airline stewardess for TWA back in the days when they were still called stewardesses and TWA still existed, must have brought me bottles of Je Reviens from Paris. I quit wearing perfume for a long time and forgot about Je Reviens. But flash forward a gazillion years, to last summer, when the hub and I were in Paris on our way home from Pezenas. I decided to try to find a bottle of Je Reviens to take home. The glitzy–and intimidating–perfume store on the Champs Elysees, which sells every perfume known to man, didn't have it. And the bored ladies who worked there hadn't heard of it. I asked everywhere I found a place they sold perfume–at a cute little store at the base of the Sacre-Coeur Cathedral in Montmarte, at a shop in Montparnasse, where we stayed. But nobody seemed to have heard of it. (I'm certain my terrible French pronunciation had nothing to do with it.)
Upon my return home, it finally occurred to me to ask my friend Angela about the perfume. She is a perfume writer, you see (as well as being a wonderful mystery writer). She immediately told me she had some vintage Je Reviens she'd found in an antique shop and she would decant some for me. (See photo.) She also explained that the perfume had gone through several incarnations recently and was still available, albeit in a watered-down, drugstore version. I carried my sample home with reverence and stuck it in my bathroom cabinet to use for special occasions.
I am wearing it today. I'm not going anywhere special–I'm not going anywhere at all. I sprayed it on to cheer myself up after the WORST allergy attack that anybody has endured, ever, happened to me yesterday. And it has done the job. It brought back all kinds of pleasant memories, as noted above, and it has also made me ponder the power of scent in writing.
Firstly, smells transport us to other times and places. A whiff of a hawthorne bush, and I'm a little kid again, at my Aunt Betty's house in Hillsborough, California. The smell of corndogs and I'm at the Rose Festival Fun Center carnival that assembles itself every year along the waterfront here in town. (They call it CityFair now to try to jazz it up.) The aroma of sage transports me to New Mexico. Inhaling Je Reviens brought back all the memories I wrote about above. And these are rich veins, people, rich veins. You could do worse than to line up some smells to use as prompts. Take a whiff and start writing.
And second, smells can be just as evocative in our writing. Adding aroma to your descriptions helps to bring it alive–and yet it is probably the least taken-advantage-of sense. In my just-submitted novel, The Bonne Chance Bakery, my agent challenged me to do a better job of evoking the smell of the protagonist's macaron shop. Erp. Here's what I came up with:
And there was no other word for the smell of it but heavenly—that faint whiff of sugar, like cotton candy at the fair, or an ice cream cone on a hot summer day, the aroma that called to mind the best day of your childhood, or maybe your whole life.
Not holding myself up as the paragon of descriptive writing here, but rather illustrating how I equated smell with emotion rather than try to evoke it exactly. Because, how do you describe smells, other than to use the noun of what they come from–rose, for instance, or grass? I think that's why writers shy away from using smell in their descriptions. But I urge you to try.
So, yeah, 700-some words later and I've written a blog post, all inspired by my perfume. The power of scent, indeed.
*The EMU at the University of Oregon was the scene of the famous food fight in the movie Animal House, and also one of my favorite scenes of all time, when John Belushi says, "I'm a zit." Just to balance the sweetness of this post, here's the clip:
How do you use smell in your writing?