Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Scent of Lilacs

I’m lucky to live on Cape Cod for many reasons.  One of them is that this year’s crop of lilacs is amazing.  Intoxicating. Stunning.  Sometimes, I’m working in the garden, have to stop what I’m doing, and inhale.  Other times, I’ll be inside, with the windows open, in mid-word, and do the same.  If I’m outside on the deck, reading, I’ll put the book down, close my eyes, and breathe.

Lilacs remind me of happy days spent at my grandmother’s, in a different section of Massachusetts.  She had a lovely house next to a bog which offered wild raspberries and blackberries all summer.  On the other side of the bog was a wood, where I could play imaginative games among the mysterious trees and boulders.  Between my grandmother’s house and her neighbor’s, and between my grandmother’s house and the road, were lilac hedges.  Visiting her in the spring, I’d fall asleep to the peepers singing in the bog; in the summer, I’d sleep on the screened-in porch, falling asleep and waking up to the scent of lilacs.

How is this important as a writer?  Scent is one of our strongest triggers, both positive and negative.  A scent we associate with something good will trigger that association, as will a scent associated with something negative.  Because readers like the live the stories through character, layering in scent makes the story more experiential to the reader.  Not only will the reader experience specific associations with a scent, but, if the writer evocatively creates the scent through words and shows the reader the character’s response, the reader gets a double experience.  I might have strong positive associations with the scent of lilac, and be able to describe it in detail -- but what if my character has negative associations with the scent?  How does that change the experience for the reader?  We filter everything through our own frame of reference as humans, but, when we write, it’s even more important to filter it through the character’s frame of reference.  We tell stories through characters and through their direct experience, but it does not necessarily reflect our own.

That’s part of the fascinating with writing or acting -- getting inside a different character’s head or skin, and depicting the character from the inside out.  Sensory detail is part of that -- not just the detail as it is, but as it affects the characters.

Writers are lucky -- all of our senses are engaged all the time, and everything we experience, on any level, is material.  Last month, I talked about the garden is inspiration.  Although lilacs, in particular, have me musing this month, I’m in revisions for a book, and I’m especially sensitive to how I’m layering in the sensory detail -- and where I missed it, and need to add more.  The book is set in New York City.   I can close my eyes, pull up the scents, and put myself back in that emotional geography.

--Annabel Aidan is a full-time writer publishing under a half a dozen names in fiction and non-fiction.  Her paranormal romantic suspense, ASSUMPTION OF RIGHT, named a “hot book for cold Cape Cod nights” by the CAPE COD TIMES, is available from Champagne Books.  Visit her website,, her Amazon author page, and on Facebook.


Anonymous said...

I'm a guy. We don't generally relate to flower scent, yet Lilacs are my favorite. I too imprint smells on the senses of my readers, especially the raw fragrance of a woman. OMG. Even my old engine revs at the sweet mellow, and sometimes spicy scent. Grrrrr.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2011)

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Down, Mike, wer'e talking flowershere.

I grew up around all kinds of floweres in PA, and when we moved to Lombard, Il, we were in The Lilac City, complete with festivals, parades and that heady aroma of lilacs.

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Down, Mike, wer'e talking flowershere.

I grew up around all kinds of floweres in PA, and when we moved to Lombard, Il, we were in The Lilac City, complete with festivals, parades and that heady aroma of lilacs.

Rohit Singh Jain said...

Haha..bemused..Not bad, sometimes I'm too mesmerised by flower scent..lovely post.

Jennifer @ Bad Bird Reads said...

OMG, Lilacs are my favorite scent. They have the most relaxing scent ever.

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