|by Danielle Marroquin|
This is a trend I'd like to see changed.
I believe that scent experiences are particularly fitting in young adult novels and works for other youngsters, thanks to neurobiology and the way that odor works. The human olfactory system has close ties to the hippocampus and limbic system, located near the base of the brain, where memories both short and long term are stored. This is why a single smell can bring back intimate childhood memories, experiences you consciously believed you'd forgotten.
Not only is scent highly linked to memory, but perceptions of smell change as we get older--mostly growing duller as time marches on. Babies can distinguish between the scent of their mother's breastmilk and the milk from other women, but by the time we're in our late teens, olfactory perceptions peak, and then eventually decline. This means that teenagers are particularly attuned to scent--far more than their adult counterparts might be.
My interest in olfactory writing began with Lynda Barry's 2002 graphic novel One Hundred Demons. Barry's book features a comic called "Common Scents" where she recounts the smells of the homes she knew in her childhood neighborhood--one smells like "fresh bus bathroom," another smells like "mint, tangerines, and library books." Barry's book reminded me of the smells of the homes I knew in my own childhood: the kid whose house always smelled like fresh laundry, yeast, and pine cleaner; another, whose home smelled like animal fur, cheddar popcorn, and the dried saliva on the stuffed animal she carried everywhere; my grandmother's apartment, which smelled like linoleum, cats, and oatmeal cookies. Even my own house was a pungent mixture of cigarettes, guitar strings, thrift store furniture, and crayola crayons.
These smells, I came to realize, did more than just evoke memories I thought I'd buried. They also described socioeconomic status, diet, and casual lifestyle details. But scent isn't only useful for describing domestic scenes. There's also the woodsmoke, bug spray, and moss of summer camp; the ozone, cedar, and asphalt of walking at night during a fresh snow; the clover and dandelions and lawn mower gas of early spring.
In including olfactory descriptions, you can imbibe your writing with a much more convincing--and evocative--sense of place. These details can remind your readers of deeply personal moments in their own lives (moments they thought they missed), revealing hidden depths of emotion. A little smell goes a long way.