Sense Memory

I had an intense dream the other night (No! Not that kind of dream). In my dream I was hit with something, but in real life my muscles responded like they’d been actually hit – my body recoiled, the muscles contracted, I sucked in an oomph kind of breath. The action woke me up with the force of the response.

Muscle memory is nothing new. I can still play piano pieces I haven’t played since high school. My fingers just know where to go. Riding a bike. Typing (I can type and talk at the same time which drove one of my bosses absolutely crazy!). Practicing martial arts. It’s all based on a repetition of action which ingrains itself into procedural memory. There’s no conscience effort on our part to repeat the task. It just happens when certain criterion are presented. Put your hands on a keyboard. Sit on a bike.

It’s this same “memory” that connects certain senses to specific actions or phrases. It’s what we, as writers, want to tap into with our readers. The trick is to make the connection without becoming cliche and to evoke that memory in a variety of ways. Fresh baked cookies equate to mom and childhood, things that are positive and warming to the heart. A soft furry puppy or kitten. The smell of a new baby.

In my current WIP, Second Chance Romance, I used a burned birthday cake as a sense memory. Let’s be honest, how many of us have burned the Thanksgiving rolls or that special pot roast dad and the kids are making for Mother’s Day? The memory can be both positive and negative in these instances. Yes, the moment may have been a bit ruined but did you laugh afterwards? Is it a family joke, like in my family where my mom is never allowed to make the Thanksgiving rolls?

The burned birthday cake also ties in to other elements of my story. In the memory she burns her hand and remembers the taste of the smokey kitchen in her throat. There’s a fire that evokes these memories in my heroine – the heat of the blaze, the smell of ash, the soot coating her throat. Also a family singing ‘Happy Birthday’ and a stack of presents wrapped in holiday paper. I incorporate smell, sight, sound, taste and touch in as many ways as possible all to return this character to a life changing moment when her life went awry.

As much as we all like to think we are unique in this world, we all share elements of life that connect us. As writers, finding unique ways to share in those elements is vital to connecting with our readers. It’s what makes our work touch them, make them laugh or cry out loud while devouring our book. That’s what it’s about in the end: connection.




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4 responses to “Sense Memory

  1. Nice post, Kathleen. I’ve always heard about muscle memory in regards to ice skaters, but never quite understood it. You describe it very well.

  2. I needed this reminder about using sense memory. It might just help me figure out my heroine’s motivations! 🙂

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