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09 December 2013

Sense Memory & Evoking the Past

Lately, I’ve been struck by the way smells and sights and sounds bring feelings from the past welling to the surface, even before my mind consciously frames the memory. The whiff of jet fuel as my daughter Mélanie and I walked to the gate on our recent trip to New York brought the anticipation of childhood travel. The sight of autumn leaves clustering on trees and lying in drifts on the ground while bare branches make a tracery against the rose gold sky (in Ashland, Oregon, in New York, at home) evokes thoughts of pumpkin lattes, crisp days at football games, evenings by the fire, and a whiff of anticipation of the holidays, along with the more grown up reminder that there’s a lot to get done before the end of December. The taste instant hot chocolate takes me back to skating rinks and ferry rides. The smell of fresh cut evergreens can't but evoke the holidays for me. Lately, whenever I walked downstairs in the morning, the cool air combined with the heat rising from the ground floor instantly conjures up the wonder of Christmas morning. When I blogged about this topic on my own website, readers brought up wonderfully evocative sense memories such as crisp apples, music, cold air and candlelight, train whistles, and fog horns.

I try to weave in all of the five senses when I write. Sometimes I even make lists of what sights, sounds, tastes, touches, and smells I can use in a particular scene (I did this a lot years ago when I was consciously making an effort to do more with the five senses to evoke my settings). But I don’t know that I think enough about how the five senses can evoke memories from my characters’ pasts. Without consciously trying to, I did use a scene in the theatre in my forthcoming The Berkeley Square Affair to bring up Suzanne’s childhood memories:

Even an almost empty theatre had its own smell. Sawdust, the oil of rehearsal lamps, drying paint, the sweat of active bodies that could never quite be banished. After all these years, it still sent an indefinable thrill of magic through Suzanne. Jessica seemed to sense it from her mother, for she gave a crow of delight in Suzanne’s arms and waved her hands.

I’m going to try to do more of this, evoking memories specific to different characters’ pasts. The autumn leaf image could translate to many historical settings. So could the cold air and warmth of a banked fire. What would evoke the excitement of travel? The jangle of bridles? The smell of carriage leather or horses? The thud of portmanteaux being loaded? The smell of tallow candles or rush lights could take a character back to an impoverished childhood. The rustle of silk skirts could bring memories of a mother coming in to say goodnight. A particular perfume or shaving soap could evoke a lost lover. My WIP has a character who has been long exiled both from England and from a childhood in India. A sip of tea could conjure both for her.

What specific sense memories evoke the past for you? What conjures up thoughts of autumn and the holidays? Writers, do you try to use the five sense to evoke your character’s pasts?

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2 Comments:

Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Tracy, you have always done this so well. And of course, I go back to Proust and the aroma of madeleines to evoke a lifetime of memories.

I have always tried to evoke the 5 senses in my writing, no matter the period. Autumn is a particularly evocative time, and so many things can take me back to my childhood in NYC: the smell of roasting chestnuts or pretzels on a vendor's cart, the sound of crunching leaves, the taste and scent of crisp apples, or cider, or a warm, fresh donut, the texture of fall and winter fabrics -- velvets, leathers, suedes, and tweeds -- hot chocolate on its own or flavored with peppermint, Chambord, Kahlua, or Amaretto; the hoofbeats of the Central Park carriage horses, the bells of the sidewalk Santas, the holiday window displays along Fifth Avenue; the scent of fresh pine every time I pass a Christmas tree vendor, and memories of haggling the price for a tree, schlepping it home, decorating it to the accompaniment of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass; baking and decorating holiday cookies and the delicious aromas emanating from the oven...

3:31 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Leslie, you're right, Proust and the madeleines is the epitome of sense memory in literature.

I *love* your evocation of autumn and the holidays in NYC!

4:21 PM  

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