I woke up the other day to the sound of car tires going through slush. Not water, not snow, but the very distinct sound of slush. It resonated within me, making me think about wet shoes and cold feet, about pools thick and gray forming around the sewer grates, about dirty splashes over every car and pedestrian. I was safe in my bedroom, but that one familiar sound brought back a payload of sensory awareness. Was I alone in this? I doubt it. Maybe people who have spent a lifetime in the southern part of the country are not as programmed as I am, but they have their own sounds that set them off.
Sticking with the wintry theme, let's talk about taste. It can be easy enough to put someone in a holiday state of mind by talking about a juicy turkey or holiday ham, but the trick really works when we try and bundle several feelings together. Like any properly raised child of the Midwest, the winter comfort lunch was a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup. Say what you will about hot dogs and apple pie, soup and a sandwich is America. Now, toasted up and served on a little placemat, this is not just a recollection of lunch on a winter's day, but of warmth and security from the elements outside. And what happens when you describe how a character yearns for that soup/sandwich combo - you instantly describe a desire for those comforts from long ago.
I've heard that smell is the strongest memory trigger. I don't know if it's backed by science, but the association is definitely there. The smell of my mother's perfume or my father's pipe tobacco of choice will open a floodgate of memories, but those descriptors aren't much help to a reader who didn't live in my house. Rather, aromas and odors have to evoke more universal feelings, and not in the cliché way often used by describing a woman's perfume. Fresh-mown grass will take people back, just like the smell of clothes just out of the dryer or an old gym bag. Everyone knows new-car smell, and has a memory to go with it.
The secret to these triggers is not just using all the senses, but dragging memories out of the reader with very specific, exotic examples. You definitely get more mileage out of a description when you put those poetic details in it. And to do this, you need to mine your own experiences to figure out just what gets a response. Give yourself a chance to write down some of your most vivid memories, and start fishing around for the sensory cues that really fill in the moment. When you expand on those details, you will start feeling more of the scene. The more you feel, the more you get involved. And the more you are involved, the more your readers will appreciate those little sensory triggers.
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