Sunday, 23 February 2014

Musing on Mint - You Know it Makes Scents

A hot hibiscus bloom in  Crete
I recently read an article about the importance of teasing a reader's senses by evoking taste, smell, sounds and more in fiction. I wholeheartedly concur. No point in 'this happened', 'that happened' without wailing sirens gaining pace and assaulting your ears as you slip on spilled kebab meat in a filthy street, gagging on the stench of human waste from open sewers... that kind of thing.

Using the senses should come naturally when you get totally involved with creating a character, with the places they occupy and the scenes you set. But I do occasionally read fiction that seems to lack sensation (for want of a better word) and I genuinely wonder if some writers, laziness aside, simply don't experience sensory responses the same way others do? I'm throwing that question out there...

Describing the heat of Crete, for example, comes easily to me. As soon as I start to even contemplate it my skin starts to prickle. It's like being stroked with breathless sunshine, sultry and enticing with the risk of flames. An indelicate bloom of perspiration breaks out around my hairline, tickling my forehead, dampening the nape of my neck.

With this comes a dry tongue, waiting to salivate at the sight of squid and tzatziki on an over-sized plate, a glass of chilled rosé at its side, cool condensation rising in bubbles before dripping onto the tablecloth. And most of all - it's the scent of the place that accompanies the heat; wild thyme crushed beneath your boots as you wander the raw land of the island's hills, the omnipresent salt from the sea - you can even smell it up in the mountains, and the freshness of rain evaporating after a freak summer storm.

Tzatziki and Mint
Can't you see it?

Can't you smell it?

Can't you taste it?

Indeed it is smell that is most powerful for me. They say that an unexpected waft of some long-forgotten smell can make you giddy with nostalgia, trigger distant memories - happy or otherwise. That 'involuntary memory' - Proust's well discussed madeleine from 'À la Recherche du Temps Perdu'.

I passed the open door of a community hall the other day where they were polishing the wooden floor; I was instantly taken back to my childhood - dancing away at a holiday camp on Barry Island (crackin'). And last month a decrepit truck blasted me with dirty diesel-laden exhaust fumes but it got me thinking about the old Mr Whippy ice-cream van that used to tour our streets when I was a kid; you could smell the chugging engine before the discordant song announced its arrival.

But what about the bad memories? The stink of piss - thankfully not a common assault of the senses these days - reminds me of getting stuck in a public toilet at the age of thirteen or so, when two men came bundling into the cubicle beside me, beating each other to a pulp, their blood splattering over the cold tiles between our booths. Terrifying - I still feel traumatised by it even now.

And you'd think a pleasant fragrance should evoke equally pleasant memories but I came to regret buying a well-known brand's Raspberry Handwash because it smells of Cinzano (I've never had a real raspberry that smells of that weird old vermouth), and Cinzano was the first booze I ever puked on. A silly 16-year old, hanging out of my friend's bedroom window, making a mess (sorry J.) So this soap immediately makes me feel stupid and not a little humiliated. That's the power of a single whiff of (probably horribly chemical) scent.

All that said, I have what I'm told is an uncanny ability to actually smell/taste any scent you might care to mention. Immediately. Name a flower, for example, and its flavour is right there, in my nose, at the back of my throat, on the tip of my tongue - bringing all the emotions and qualities I associate with it too. I sometimes wonder if I have a mild form of olfactory synaesthesia. It's come in handy - I used to practise as an aromatherapist - but was using oils, herbs, gums, essences etc for years before taking any qualifications.

I've been making incense for meditation and other spiritual work for decades. Getting the blend right is a skill, but I find it comes naturally; there are rules about which perfume 'notes' blend best with others, and of course curative properties are also a consideration.
Ancient rose

Here are some of my favoured, and some more traditional ingredients for incense and oil blends, and what they mean to me:
  • Frankincense: soft, rich yet mellow, the oil is thick... viscous. The hard 'tears' - like little sugar-coated rocks of ginger which release the warm, heady fragrance as you grind them with your pestle. Frankincense heightens spiritual and sensorial awareness; it's meditational ambrosia.
  • Chamomile: has to me the pungent, unpleasant scent of banana skins in a rubbish bin, dropped onto the detritus of an emptied ashtray. Many therapists swear by it but I find it hard to work with. We're not keen on each other.
  • Mint: sharp peppermint is cooling in hot weather - of skin and of temperament. Sweet spearmint helps lift the soul, gently waking the tired and softly soothing the tearful.
  • Cedarwood: graveyards in Autumn (Fall), a smokiness to its perfume, a cleansing, decluttering quality to its intent
  • Cypress: coniferous pleasure; sweet and bold. It's all about breaking free, taking flight, soaring into empty blue skies. Letting go.
  • Rose: we all know what rose smells like... this most wondrous of flowers offers the deepest of meanings for me; ancient healing, visions of vaults brimming with petals. A restorative in - and for - every sense. Forget love, rose is for the self, for feeding your blood - your life-force, for nurturing the darkest corners of your spirit, bringing you the confidence to 'be yourself'.

    True attar of roses, or 'rose absolute' costs a fortune - but is worth a thousand times more to the soul than monetary value.

    And if you like your food spicy, use Rose Harissa in couscous, or to marinate meat/vegetables - allowing you to ingest this blessed bloom. Ah, I can smell it just thinking about it.

I'm rambling, as I am wont to do, but the point I'm trying to make from a writing perspective is that using the senses to reach your reader is not only an important but a powerful tool.

Whether prosaic and wistful or in-yer-face grit, whether summoning that oddly-cheesey stench of blueberry flesh as it bursts on the tongue, or fielding the foetid, death-breath reek of rotting gums as a zombie bears down on its victim... if you can smell the fear, let your readers in on the sensation too - don't make them sniff it out for themselves.

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Lily Childs is a writer of horror, esoteric, mystery and chilling fiction.

If you see her dancing outside in a thunder storm - don't try to bring her in. She's safe.