I recently visited Ottawa, and I had a chance to try the new transit line. A former Carleton student, I’d used the north-south diesel trains serving the university for years, but the east-west electric light-rail line, running underground through downtown, had just opened. I wanted to check it out. In the 1980s, I lived in downtown Toronto, and frequently used the subway then, but otherwise my subway rides have been rare.
Ottawa’s Rideau station looks typical of the urban subway stations I’ve been in, and that I have seen in movies. It’s a collection of entrances scattered around local storefronts and malls, leading to tunnels and long escalators down to the platforms. Unlike suburban stations, with their eclectic mix of public art and low-bid functionalism, the entrances to urban stations are practical and blend into the connecting structures.
Once on transit property, the design goal is resistance to vandalism and ease of cleaning. Grey tiles abound. More distinctive than the familiar look is the smell – a not unpleasant mix of oil, burned electrical connections, and musty moisture. One whiff, and I was transported back to Toronto, decades ago. I recalled commuting to early jobs, mentally drafting my contributions to an APA (imagine blog posts printed and mailed to subscribers), trips to bookstores, and less wholesome outings. The rush of memories verged on disorienting.
Like hearing, we have little control of what we smell, but we cannot record smells. My recollections of the sights and sounds of subways are reinforced routinely through movies, and other recordings, but smell is absent.
And we get used to smells. Those always present disappear, and we notice them again after an absence. I love the salt air of living near the ocean, but I am most aware of it when I return home from travelling.
Smells are a momentary impact, when new, or recollected, yet on recollection they can bring a host of attached memories, for better or worse. Decades ago, I briefly knew someone who wore a distinctive perfume. Since then, thanks in part to the growing support for scent-free places, I rarely encounter it, but when I do, all the pleasures, disappointments, and mistakes of that relationship come flooding back.
I’m thinking about the sense of smell not just to wallow in nostalgia for my adventures in my younger days … wallow, wallow … but to remind myself, when writing, not to overlook my characters’ sense of smell, and to take full advantage of it.
Setting is typically described visually when a scene begins, so we know where the characters are. Sound and smell might play roles then too, but we don’t want to dwell too much on descriptions. However, a smell, and its associations, can be brought in almost anytime, and they can be subjective – something only one character notices. It can be connected to the action of a scene, bring in backstory, or both.
Romance novels typically mention personal scents when a couple are close, to indicate awareness of the other person’s physicality, suggest intimacy, and later, suggest familiarity. But characters may encounter other smells. An unusual hand or dish soap might bring up memories, good or bad, of a previous relationship, house, store, childhood, etc.
Smells don’t need to be objectively unusual. A common smell such as sawdust or bleach might be unusual for a character, yet still have associations from a past exposure. And even without associations, if a smell is unusual for a character, it should be noted. Mentioning a character’s awareness of the salt air when they arrive at an ocean beach tells us they’ve been away, or perhaps never been there, while not mentioning it suggests they live in the area.
Smells, and their associations, can be powerful. Having been recently reminded of that, I must remember to use them effectively when writing.