"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sense of Smell

It's been such a busy summer and I apologize for being so slow in writing this installment on The Five Senses.

Our sense of smell is another sense that tends to get downplayed in our writing. When I was able to find examples of it–after much searching–in my own or anybody else's work, it was usually used to alert the reader to something that could harm them, or to describe something that was extremely offensive. Maybe this is because we treat it the same way in our daily lives.

In a primeval world, your sense of smell could save you from a predator or help you track down your next meal. Imagine if you couldn't smell a brush fire bearing down on your home, or the biting smell of a poisonous substance in a juice bottle. What if you couldn't enjoy the smells of pumpkin pies and other spices during Christmas and Thanksgiving, or coffee brewing in the morning?

A few years ago, I worked as a technical editor and spent my nine hours a day in a cubicle that bordered the office's main hallway. I found I not only could recognize who was coming down the hall by their footsteps, but by their smell. The "smell" in this instance pertained to one guy in particular, not because he needed a bath, but because he wore so much cologne that it gave away his identity even when you couldn't see him.

Smells are all around us. Stop and sniff for a second. What do you smell right now? Nothing? Try again. Maybe it's your own perfume that you've grown accustomed to. Maybe it's that green tea with lemongrass that you just took a sip of. Or maybe you just removed your hot, sweaty feet from your tennis shoes. Phew! You get the picture.

As writers, we could have a lot of fun with this sense if we would only use it. Here are a few examples I found to get you thinking of how you can make sure you don't overlook it in your own writing.

From The White Mare by Jules Watson: "Outside, the tiny hut's reek of fish and dung smoke was washed away by the dawn air."

From Desire's Treasure by Linda Sandifer: "White hair poked out from under his mangled hat, and the rank smell of creosote and greasewood drifted up from his tattered britches."

From Fatal Voyage by Kathy Reichs: "The wind shifted and the smell of smoke grew stronger. I turned and saw a thin, black plume curling upward just beyond the next ridge. My stomach tightened, for I was close enough now to detect another odor mingling with the sharp, acrid scent. . . .the smell of charred flesh. One gorge over, people were burning."

From Last Breath by George D. Shuman: "There was a goldfish in a bowl, a ceramic angel on a clapboard dresser. She saw these things sideways, head on a bed, yellowed, stained sheets; the room smelled of cats and unwashed laundry."

From Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: "I smelled a faint flowery scent, as of lavender water, and something more spicy, mingled with the sharper reek of male perspiration."

Next up, the sense of touch. That one ought to be even more interesting!


Avril said...

A lovely post. I think smell is the most evocative of all the senses for me. Sometimes a smell comes at me out of nowhere, taking me by surpise and immediately rolling back time to; the house I grew up in, lupins and lavender polish,- my travels in India, jasmine and night soil, coconut oil and cardamom,- childhood, sun baked peppery skin, the iron smell of mud and... you've got me thinking now about what smells work for the protagonist in my new noveland how the scent of the city wher he lives is different from the scent of the countryside

Strange Fiction said...

Excellent post! Capturing the sense of smell adds so much to a piece of writing. I think it, more than any of the other senses has the power to invoke strong memories.

Your mention of brush fires hit home. We've had so many wildfires in the province this year--the smoke hovers and the bombers and choppers have been a constant presence...

Linda Sandifer said...

Avril and DL, I love your comments. I'm thinking of ways I can put more smells into my current novel that are not the usual, mundane ones. I liked Avril's "sun-baked peppery skin" and the "iron smell of mud."

Wes said...

I have discovered I can track deer and elk by smell. Bears are easy; I've smelled them from 200 yards away.

Wes said...

And who does't love the smell of a good horse?

Eunice Boeve said...

Just dropped in to see what you were doing. I like your post on the sense of smell and do so agree with the comment from Wes: "Who doesn't love the smell of a good horse." Also those first drops of rain in the dust. Babies just out of the bath, and pine trees. I dislike the smell of coconut oil at the beach. I remember how it permeated the air at Lake Tahoe one beautiful sunny day and now that's my first thoughts in remembering that otherwise lovely place.