There's a great line in "You've Got Mail" when Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are talking about the beginning of school and she mentions she loves the smell of new pencils. There are school smells that become ingrained into your nose and when you smell them you know you are in a school. For me it was the fresh paint and freshly waxed floors that I remembered. When I thought about the lunchrooms of the many schools in which I taught the odd combination of tuna fish and meatloaf was in my head. In classrooms the aroma of chalk dust and an indefinable smell of old books, a musty almost mildew smell telling me I was in a classroom. You could blindfold me and put me in the middle of a school and I could identify it on the first day of the year.
I think as a writer, the only way you can convey the idea of a place is by using your senses. Readers, and I am one of them too, love to be transported into the places you write about. They want to feel like they are standing in that hallway and talking to their friends. They want to know that they are experiencing what the character is doing in a way that explains the action so as a reader you don't have any questions about the scene. This is something that as a teacher I always tried to convey to my fledgeling writers I was teaching and I tried to tell them it would make their writing come alive!
This time of the year always reminds me of apples, since this was the decoration I used to place in my classrooms. The smells of fall and sights of fall are also there as the days grow colder. The leaves begin to turn and I have written several poems about the leaves as they change with the season. If your story is going to continue into fall I think it's important to bring the reader into it as well. Remember the day when the world was all golden from the leaves covering the ground and let the reader see and smell the scenery. I as a reader love to remember moments from my own experience and want to read those kinds of scenes in books that I read.
Also the beginning of school brings new relationships for kids who are just beginning to learn how to interact in a more independent way. When old friends are suddenly faced with a new person how do they react? How would you react if your old friend suddenly became friendly with her enemy? These are the kinds of questions kids face when they start a new school year. It's not all academics and the kids who can't get a handle on facing these kinds of relationship questions sometimes have problems in school. Many kids start to lose interest in academic subjects when their lives are filled with bullies or problems caused by circumstances beyond their control.
When I wrote my YA novel, If I Could Be Like Jennifer Taylor, I thought about all of the things we just discussed here. I started my novel on the first day of high school for a freshman girl who hated her own body and wanted to be like her enemy, Jennifer Taylor. When my main character, Carolyn Samuels, comes into school she is assaulted with the smell of the first day of school:
"The hallway has that first day of school smell: fresh paint and floor wax. Combined with the perfume and aftershave worn by everyone, the smell almost suffocates me."
When she walks into the gym she is assaulted with the smells of the gym:
"The smell of old sneakers and unwashed gym clothes mixes with shampoo."
Also the sense of sight and sound are important to convey to the reader. In this same paragraph:
"Becky and I can barely hear each other over the sound of the showers and the lockers slamming all around us."
As the sights, sounds, and smells of back to school wrap around you, the reader, I am hoping you will be transported into the world of high school whether you are still in a lower grade or you are years past your high school years. I know that as I was writing my novel my own experiences, though not at all like my character's experiences, helped me to put down what it felt like to be a freshman in high school. How do you deal with learning a new school and juggle being with your enemy who has bullied you all through middle school?
My YA novel, If I Could Be Like Jennifer Taylor, will be available on Friday, September 16th. If you are interested in learning more about it please go to the Muse Bookstore.