Alright, not Teen Spirit although Nirvana might have been onto something.
Olfaction and petrichor? How can two seemingly bland words mean so much?
While writing yesterday, I found myself struggling with finding the right words to convey how something smelled. Of all the senses, I seem to find the most difficulty in this descriptive arena and I’m not sure why. It’s not for lack of having a sense of smell; it’s just my difficulty in describing it. A scene in my story takes place late morning in a diner. A small town diner to be exact, where the dining space is limited, sounds reverberate throughout the rooms, and smells permeate your being the moment you walk in.
So what does breakfast smell like? To me, it usually smells like eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, and coffee. Sometimes there is a hint of maple or fresh fruit. Other times it smells like chorizo, warm tortillas and beans. When summer arrives, it often smells like a mixture of all of the above in addition to campfire and pine scents. Breakfast is a beginning, a huge “hello world” to start the day. It could also be the end of a day, say Denny’s at one in the morning. Maybe that is my dilemma. My scene takes place late morning. Breakfast at this time of day in my story serves two purposes: my character is simply hungry and needs to be seen. Maybe the smells don’t really matter here or maybe there is an association with the smells of breakfast that fits my plot. Damn, I might have solved my own problem.
Smell association? I could run with that. Hotdogs smell like baseball. Hot buttered popcorn smells like the movie theater. Turkey and stuffing smell like a well-deserved after dinner nap. Patchouli smells like the seventies, although I hear it’s making a comeback. And then there is rain.
Of all the smells that stimulate my senses, next to breakfast, my favorite is the smell of rain. Having spent the majority of my life in the Southwest, rains were not as common as they are now. We would get a rain during the monsoon season that was usually preceded by a smell of dust or dirt in the air. Of course the ominous purplish brown sky moving slowly in our direction was a hint of things to come. The smell always hit us first and remained during the first few hours of rain. I loved those rains. Now living in a rural area in the Northeast, we get rain year round. I haven’t figured out winter rains yet but spring, summer, and fall all have very distinct smells associated with each.
Maybe it’s the novelty of year round rain that I find myself using it in my stories. Rain is more than a smell here. It is a time of year, a sense of peacefulness and beginnings, or a reminder of nature’s strength. It’s about both solitude and love. It’s about springs first planting and fall’s last leaves blanketing the forest floor. My favorite rain by far is summer rain accompanied by a lightning storm. We have a covered porch off the back of our house that faces the woods and I can sit out there for hours taking in a summer rain. This rain to me is intimate. It’s about both humility and power. It’s about amazing light shows and musical sounds that tickle your senses. It’s about the dampness that caresses your skin or the way an evening coffee just tastes different. And when it’s all over, just as it began, it’s all about the smell.
By the way, olfaction is the sense of smell and petrichor is the scent of air after a rain. Yeah… my thoughts exactly.
If I could sum up my feelings of a summer rain storm in a song it would be this one. Go ahead, take my hand, close your eyes, turn up the volume and listen. Tell me if you smell the rain.