Reader Friday: Memorable Scents

Smell is often underused in novels. Yet it can be the most powerful of all the senses for readers. Certain scents arouse memories from a special time in our lives.

On this Reader Friday, please share a smell that transports you to the past, and why.

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About Sue Coletta

Member of MWA, Sisters in Crime, and ITW, Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer of psychological thrillers. She also writes true crime: PRETTY EVIL NEW ENGLAND hits bookstores by Nov. 1, 2020 (Globe Pequot, trade division of Rowman & Littlefield). Feedspot & Expertido.org honored Sue's blog with the Top 100 Crime Blogs on the Net award (Murder Blog sits at #5). Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

50 thoughts on “Reader Friday: Memorable Scents

  1. Sandalwood. A woman who I was involved with during my misspent college years used sandalwood scented soap. She still does.

    Have a terrific weekend, Sue!

  2. Vics VapoRub. Don’t want to say when or why I used the stuff in the filter of a gas mask, but the thought of it still makes me want to puke. Enjoy your day, Sue, and I hope the food-stealing turkeys have moved on πŸ™‚

  3. Muriatic acid (concentrated hydrochloric acid used by masons to clean dried mortar from bricks). As a high school sophomore on my first job, I took a whiff from a bottle, to find the right bottle. It knocked out my olfactory nerve for a year. I still don’t smell well.

    • Wow, Steve! That’s quite a story. On the bright side, if you ever need to use it as a murder weapon you’re one of the few who can describe the smell. πŸ™‚

  4. I have two that evoke happy childhood memories:

    1) Chanel #5, the only perfume my mother would wear. My parents went dancing once a week and the scent of Chanel #5 reminds me of my mother all dressed up, her dark hair smoothed back into a chignon, as she kissed me goodnight before going out.

    2) The combination or rancid & sweet smells of a swimming pool locker room: damp towels, feet, chlorine, shampoo, and soap remind me of my daily trips to a public swimming pool with friends during my preteen and teenage years.

  5. Rutabaga boiling on the stove instantly takes me back to my Grandmother’s house when I was young. She would boil it like potatoes, mash it and fill a frying pan with the rutabagas (which my Dad still insists on calling turnips even though they aren’t), onions and mashed potatoes. Fried the whole thing up and called it “Bubble & Squeak”.
    It is a comfort food for me to this day.

  6. The sweet smell of Prince Albert tobacco smoke my ancient great grandfather poured from a red metal can, tapped into his pipe, then lit with a wooden match.

    • Betty, you remind me of another smell that brings back fond memories. Before he quit, my Dad used to smoke Salem cigarettes. Before they were lit, they actually smelled pretty good. I will always associate that with my Dad.

  7. Though I don’t miss the state I grew up in, I do miss living in the country. Which reminds me of 2 scent-related things.

    #1 I miss the smell of Sweetina (I think that’s how it was spelled) horse feed. Awesome smelling stuff!

    #2 Living in the city, when you drive outwards and catch a glimpse of an open field that has been fertilized with manure, 99.9% of the people complain about the smell. I’m not saying it smells as fun as fresh leather or vanilla, but every time I smell the smell of manure, I’m reminded how grateful I am that there is still a little bit of country and natural land left in the United States that hasn’t been consumed by cities. That’s a reason to celebrate cowpies!

  8. The great science fiction and fantasy author, Poul Anderson, said that each scene should have at least three of six senses. I’ve always tried to follow that advice.

    Brain science now says that scent is the strongest gateway to memory and emotion. Marcel Proust, author of REMEMBERANCES OF THINGS PAST, would agree because his kind-of-an-autobiography started when he smelled a cookie from his childhood.

    So many good memory scents, but a powerful if stinky one is collards. One night, one of the coldest nights on record, Mom decided to cook collards. My bedroom is the collection point for all the household aromas, and the lingering smell was so strong I couldn’t sleep so I had to open my bedroom windows and freeze for several hours.

    • Excellent advice, Marilynn!

      Are collards called “greens” in the south? Years ago, my ex and I drove to Alabama to visit his extended family. His aunt had such a thick southern accent I could barely understand her. At the cookout she asked me to pass the “greens” but I heard it as “brains.” LOL

      • “Greens” is the generic term for all types of leafy foods including collards and mustard greens. Collards look more like cabbage in texture, and the other greens look closer to lettuce. Collards are usually cooked separately because they take much longer to cook, but the other greens are mixed together. None are suitable for eating raw.

      • I lived in the south for 9-10 years and while there picked up a slight southern accent (and I was elated! I love the southern accent.) Unfortunately, after moving away, my southern accent melted away too. Bummer.

  9. In the 50s my dad wanted to smooth the backyard so he could lay sod or scatter seeds or whatever was popular then. He tried doing it with a rake but it was more work than he wanted to tackle since the area was almost an acre. So he talked to some friends and they suggested he get a cheap old military Jeep then fashion something like a bulldozer scoop to the front end. He bought the Jeep (I think it was from WWII), attached a joist-sized board, and smoothed the ground without a lot of labor and in considerably less time.

    I used to ride with him as he went back and forth, back and forth across the lot. The amount of hours I spent doing this showed how much I loved my dad because this Jeep had an aroma that was slightly unforgettable. It was oddly pungent. Really oddly pungent. Thankfully the Jeep was open-air or the smell probably would have taken both of us down. Somewhere I remember Daddy saying the seats were stuffed with horsehair. And he guessed the Jeep had been submerged at some time (it was really cheap) and probably the padding in the seats absorbed whatever the Jeep was submerged in. The best I can describe the smell — worse than a wet dog but not quite as powerful as a skunk.

    Also from my childhood — the smell of Jello when Mother poured boiling water over the pink powder. And her chocolate cake baking in the oven. Lots of fond memories of all those wonderful aromas as she taught me how to cook. (I no longer make Jello — red dye and all that.)

    • Love the memory of your dad, Laurie! As you told the story I could picture the two of you in that Jeep, sitting on molded horsehair seats. That’d make a great scene in a novel. πŸ™‚

    • You remind of another smell. Growing up in the mid-Atlantic, my family loved seafood. Being the black sheep, I’ve always hated seafood’s taste AND smell. One of the more unpleasant smells of growing up was on the occasions when my mom made salmon patties. UGH. I much preferred it when she filled the kitchen with the smell of cinnamon rolls instead. 😎

      Which reminds me of yet another smell I hate that everyone else loves–the smell of coffee. BUT, I have to give coffee some slack because it’s another memory associated with my Dad–sitting at the table in the morning jiggling his knee up & down, sipping his coffee and eating breakfast before he went to work at the air base.

      Gosh, we all could write our own “scent diaries” from all the memories this one little topic is bringing up! 😎 Thanks for this topic!

  10. Before my memories, I am a car nut. But my children can’t be at car shows for very long. The fumes from pre 1990’s cars knock them out. We think the air is bad now, imagine rush hour 1971 with hundreds of cars dumping pounds of unburned hydrocarbons in the air every day?

    Oscar DeLarenta – I am of an age when scented letters were a thing. (try THAT in an email). My then girlfriend would send me letters that I would read in class, in a cloud of love/lust.

    Halston – My first job in high school was as an usher at the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Tom dressed as Frank N Furter and showered in Halston. It is hard to tell a woman her perfume reminds me of a transvestite. I knew Tom for years before I ever saw “regular” Tom who wore pants and no eye makeup.

  11. My wife and I toured the Jack Daniels Distillery. I great tour if you are that direction. The tour group is in the charcoal mellowing room. Tanks of mash doing their thing. The tour guide starts to waft the plexiglass cover. The smell of corn mash starts to fill the room. We here “Ewww”s around us and people are moving away from the tank. We stand there. He starts to beat harder. We stand there. He beats harder. Finally I say, “We are from St. Louis. The Anheuser-Busch brewery smells like this when you are five miles away. You can stop now.”

    The smell of beer brewing. It is a St. Louis thing.

  12. The scent of freshly baked cinnamon rolls. Takes me back to the Christmases of my youth so many years ago, when my mother would bake them fresh each Christmas morning.

  13. Great question, Sue. Since some others mentioned smells that are special to me (e.g., Christmas trees, chocolate chip cookies, tobacco), I’ll go with something new. Perhaps a scent most people wouldn’t consider pleasant: the smell of horses. Takes me back to Old Dan, the giant gelding my cousins and I would ride (three at a time!) around my uncle’s farm when I was a child.

  14. Okay, I’ll play…really enjoyed all y’alls’ memories!

    The smell of an old-fashioned gas station, the kind from the ’60s. The kind where you pull up, sit in your car, and wait for the station-whites-clad attendant to run out and fill up your car, wash your windows, check your tires and oil, then ask if there’s anything else you need.

    My dad, when I was in grade school, was one of those attendants. Then, he went on to become the owner of that gas station…Bruce’s Flying A Service. My grade school was right across the street, and I spent many an after-school hour lurking in the three service bays, watching Dad wrangle an engine into submission.

    And he always brought unneeded car/engine parts home for me to hide under my bed and play with…I was a spoiled little girl for sure! πŸ™‚

  15. Model airplane glueβ€”not the scent, but the glue itself. They removed whatever the kids were sniffing in the 1960’s and now the glue dosen’t stick worth a damn.

    • Good one, Tom! Can’t speak to the “new and improved” version, but the old stuff had a very distinctive smell. I remember it well. My brother’s room reeked of it. πŸ™‚

  16. Petrichor – not only is it my favourite smell – it’s my favourite word. The smell of the earth breathing after rain. Dry summer grass becomes so sweet. Sun-baked rocks give a certain metallic something. Even city streets puff out a tangy smell as though sighing after rain.

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