Sunday, February 22, 2009

Evoking a Sense of Place

As a writer, I am constantly trying to convey a sense of place in my books.  Describing the visuals of a setting is one way, but a better way is to appeal to some of the other senses:  not just sight, but sound, smell, taste, touch.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how smells can instantly call up memories as fresh and green as the day they were laid down.  The topic struck a chord with many of you who  shared your own memories with me.  One reader wrote, “My grandmother had a rosemary shrub by her back porch and thirty years after that plant ceased to exist, the smell of rosemary reminds me of leaving her house, my mom grabbing a sprig of rosemary, and clipping it to the visor in her car to scent it for days afterward.”

Another reader recalled a fragrant yellow rose that rambled across a rustic log railing on the porch of a mountain cabin where they vacationed when she was a child.  Another, her grandmother’s “Estee Lauder Youth Dew cologne.”

Still others spoke of popcorn, sauerkraut, and Christmas tangerines.

Helen Keller, who could not see or hear but who did have a functioning nose, wrote that "Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived."  Whenever I begin to write a new scene, I figuratively sniff the air to see if there’s some distinctive aroma I can mention to give immediacy to the narrative.  Edna Millay was good at that.  Her poems are full of fragrance.  I planted tansy in our herb garden after reading a line from “My Heart Being Hungry” — “. . . nor linger in the rain to mark / The smell of tansy through the dark.”

Another way to bring my readers into Deborah Knott’s world is with the use of common names for our native plants.  “Wild Ginger” is a perfectly adequate name for a leathery leaf that smells like ginger when crushed, but my aunt used to call it “Heart’s Ease” and that’s what I call the plant, too, even though it isn’t in the viola family.

Ilex decidua is a deciduous holly with bright red berries on its bare branches, but the old people called it “Possumhaw,” and so do I.  And while “Strawberry Shrub” is an okay name for the Euonymus Americanus pictured above, don’t you like “Hearts A-Busting” better?   

Deborah does.  (And I do, too!)

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