Monday, November 3, 2008

The Scent of a Hero

My relationship with the hero of the novel I'm still diddling with, The Night Caller, has crossed firmly over into the he-refuses-to-pick-up-his-socks phase. We've surpassed the honeymoon first draft, navigated the second draft plot hole bruises where each of us refused to see eye to eye and are in the final edits before the pages are shoved into submission. We're languishing in the too-familiar zone. I know as much about how he looks as the back of my own hands against the keyboard. I know he clips the first word of his sentences when he's angry, drinks more coffee than my high school AP history teacher, works only in boots past midnight and hates American cheese.

So in final edits, while I polish every nuance of his character, I'm struggling to find the one thing about him that will breathe fresh life-the turn of a phrase or description where I'll remember discovering him for the first time in that blissful first draft. Enter semi-neurotic writer on a quest for the perfect hero-scent.

It started innocently enough. A postcard-sized card tucked into a Belks sales ad. I rarely smell the women's perfume samples that pass through my hand. We all know on us they transform magically into God-that-smelled-so-much-better-on-the-card-stock-wand. Male fragrance samples I always embrace, because I know they'll stay manufactured and uncompromised by the seven other warring cosmetic products on my skin.

This one was called Unforgivable. Am I supposed to know who Sean John is? I'm guessing from the "vibe that is explosive yet chill" description, he's firmly off my pop culture radar in the netherworld of hip hop. But the name, ahh, that had me. What man in his right mind would perpetuate a state of erotic allure and proclaim his unworthiness all in one breath-or inhale-in this case? Does the black bottle further this dangerous enticement for the woman who dares to purchase this for her man? Does the scent resemble anything of the unforgivable nature of my hero? I had to know.

I unfolded the flap, closed my eyes and firmly entered the Unforgivable vibe. My first thought was the back room of my grandfather's house when I was ten. Utilitarian red carpet, scorpions in the shower, black vinyl pull-out sofa my cousins were forever using as a whoopie cushion. Not exactly the "explosive, yet chill" Sean John was hoping for, I'm guessing. It did whet my appetite to find the one scent that was my hero-the final touch of realism that would evoke that writer-reader magic.

Armed with enough card stock wands to stretch from here to a NY editor's desk, I braved the male fragrance counter and spritzed until the nostrils of the Katie Holmes wanna-be salesgirl flared from the ambush and she offered her services to narrow the search. I smiled politely and said, "Research."

By the time I reached home, even the Kleenex wad in my purse begged for mercy from the metrosexual locker room ambiance I'd created. I laid each one out, disappointed I'd not had the wherewithall to write the cologne's name on each wand. No, that would have been neurotic. My hero wasn't in the name, anyway. He isn't explosive, yet chill or any of a dozen other empty words crafted by ad teams in high rise buildings. He's not on any of the soggy cardstock wands or in any glossy black bottle. The time has come for him to stop breathing in my mind and start anew with someone else. A reader who'll bring her own scent-memories and olfactory tastes to the pages. Someone who'll complete that writer-reader contract where I've left off.

Somehow, it feels unforgivable that I'll move on. Take a new story on a honeymoon. Dance words around another hero. But the real betrayal lies in not letting go. Writing is a balance of many things, the hardest of which might be knowing when a piece is truly finished. There will always be a different verb, a more specific noun. The real magic comes from a place not of pimped-out scents and glossy description but from the vibe within the writer all along.

Even Sean John would chill on that.

Too bad there's no Smell-O-Blog technology. I'd share Sean John's humid-August-crickets-through-the-screen-door vibe with you. Gah. And who knew cologne had trailers now? Get his vibe. Uh.

Your turn...what semi-neurotic thing do you do to jump into your story's reality?


Miladysa said...

Interesting - although I did struggle with Sean John as a name - with Sean being the Irish for John...

I think a black bottle is essential for a fragrance - my husband wears Chanel Antaeus - I couldn't live without it ;D

"Your turn...what semi-neurotic thing do you do to jump into your story's reality?"

Music - each scene I write has its own them tune - talk about neurotic *grin*

Vesper said...

Dance words around another hero. But the real betrayal lies in not letting go. Writing is a balance of many things, the hardest of which might be knowing when a piece is truly finished.

How beautiful and true...

Drakkar Noir - have you tried this? :-)

Charles Gramlich said...

ewww!. Your description was spot on, enough to make sure I'll never buy it. Even though I can't smell.

Melanie Atkins said...

How do you think of these things? I find your search for fragrance quite profound, and I'm sure I never would have thought to do that on my own. Very clever. Did you ever find one your really loved?

L.A. Mitchell said...

Miladysa...a song for every scene? Wow, you must have one serious soundtrack going at the end of each project. I, too, believe music is the shortcut to the soul.'s been forever since I smelled Drakkar. I don't even remember seeing it on my little field trip. I fear it would remind me of high school.'s really hard to put into words..I'm not sure how fragrance writers do it, but it smells time worn and saggy. That probably makes no sense, but it's not at all what I would have expected a hip hop artist to come up with. Seriously, next time you walk by the men's counter, take a whiff. Feet might be an improvement...haha.

Melanie...I did find two I loved, but I couldn't be sure if it was a bleed-over from the others and I didn't write the names down, so I guess they'll exist in obscurity.

Marilyn Brant said...

I loved this idea of finding the right scent for a character... I may have to try that. For the new book I'm working on (I'm about 100 pgs. into it), I already have 3 single-spaced pages of song titles for reference. I'm like Miladysa that way--I have mental music playing for just about every scene.

Barbara Martin said...

It has never occurred to me to provide scents for my characters. But now that you've brought it up I will give it some thought.

Normally, I come up with a birthdate, birth time and location for my characters and then do an astrology profile which brings up all kinds of variables. There have been times when I've had to change their birthdates because the sign didn't quite fit.

Billy said...

Saw you at Charles' blog. Yep, the vibe within the writer dictates all. And you do indeed have to know when to say when. Great post.

L.A. Mitchell said...'re the disc jockey of the literary world :)

Barbara...I know so many writers who do that. I tried it once, too. It's a good jumping off point early in character formation.

billy...thanks for stopping by :)