It amazes me how the senses are so closely connected with our memories. Sean McElgunn, in ‘World Without Women’, writes “…memories were linked in some mysterious combination with all five senses”. Sights, sounds and smells all conjure up memories for him as they do for most of us – and mostly these recollections transport him back through the years to his family home. It’s amazing how the senses can bring back memories to us so vividly – even ones from years ago.
A couple days ago I was walking along the lane near our farm. It was one of the rare dry days we’ve had recently and I noticed that the temperature had dipped. The cool, clear air brushing my face and making me shiver suddenly brought a Canadian autumn to my mind. I looked around me and could imagine the leaves turning vivid colours and swirling to the ground. I expected to find that I was back in Canada. It just felt like I should be there; it didn’t seem like an Irish day at all.
When I spot a Canada goose fly overhead or hear it’s honk I immediately think of Canada. It seems incongruous that they live in Ireland too. Music also instantly brings places and people to life in my mind. Roger Miller’s country hit ‘King of the Road’ conjures up my mother washing the dishes in our apartment, with the radio playing that song, when I was about 8 years old. Billy Joel’s ‘Only the Good Die Young’ will always be associated with doing my homework, at the table in my grandmother’s house, while my grandmother cooked dinner in the next room. An Irish melody, The Wise Maid, brings back music sessions in a pub in County Clare and people I haven’t seen in more than a decade.
Since our senses are so important to our lives, I always try to incorporate them into my writing. I try to show what’s happening through my characters’ eyes. A simple scene, shown through one or more of a character’s senses, can be much more effective than a long, rambling account of an event by the writer. I like simple writing that brings characters to life – they should jump off the page. Or even better, just step off gracefully as if they belong in your world. People have told me that they find themselves engrossed in Erich’s world, in ‘Hitler and Mars Bars’, and that’s exactly what I wanted. When people care what happens to your characters, a writer has done a good job.