Last night my hubby brought me two brand-new-40-years-ago 8-track car radios. (You think that’s romantic? Shoulda seen the toilet seat I got for Valentine’s Day! But I confess, I begged for it – that thing is awesome.). Anyway, I opened the box and somehow expected that new electronics smell to hit me. Needless to say, it did not. But what did waft out of the box took me back almost three decades, flooding me with a memory I haven’t felt with such clarity in any one of those 30 years.
It’s 4am, cold outside, and I’m just a tot laying across the back seat of my grandfather’s car watching the stars stream over the back window. (Those were the days before seat belts were required, when getting tossed around because the driver slammed on the brakes was met with an unsympathetic “that’ll learn you.”) We’re on our way to the bus station to meet my grandma’s bus to or from her mama’s house, 20 hours and a handful of states away. Just out of the driveway, he’s taking off “like a bat out of you-know-where” (screeches my grandma, every time), and the radio is static. Maybe there were words in there somewhere, but all I remember is the static. That, and the smell, which for some odd reason was a perfect match for those “new” radios.
Scent is a powerful thing, especially if an old box can haul me back 30 years. But it can also offer mighty inspiration, as is the case with my house and my third novel, now my work-in-progress.
My WIP is modern, but deeply threaded with a piece of Colonial America. To steal my own words from a recent interview, it revisits a strand of American history known for a sordid, unsettled past with a way of leaching through to the present. To be honest, it’s bone-creepy at times.
But here’s the amazing thing. When fall rollicks across the landscape, every now and then a cool gust of air will coil down the chimney just so. It’ll breach the barrier of the woodstove – still locked up tight from the summer – and permeate the house with the scent of history. It’s the smell of an old fire, of 400-year-old timbers steeped in dust, of a war fought (and lost – I’m a southerner, ya’ll) on the very ground beneath my feet.
It’s always fleeting, this whisper of scent from the woodstove, but it carries with it the heart of my novel. Like the 8-track player and my grandfather’s car, this smell takes me back a few years, to the moment I stepped through the threshold of history responsible for inspiring my story.
You don’t have to be a writer to imagine the impact of having your story move in and plant its freeloading butt right there on the hardwood. The visits are unpredictable and consistent all at once – I know it’ll find me, but it strikes on its own time, carrying me into the world of my characters, begging me to bring them to life.
It’s real, and with it so are my characters. It’s a beautiful way to write.