Most of us try to incorporate descriptions of the five senses into our writing, but it’s not easy. Visual description tends to come the most naturally, followed by sound and touch. Taste and smell usually fall somewhere quite a bit further behind.
The olfactory sense is the one most closely linked with memory and it’s the only sense with direct access to the amygdala, which is the emotional center of the brain. With that in mind, the descriptive use of smell in fiction can be a powerful tool to further deepen our portrayal of a character. What can be even more interesting is an association of one object or person with a scent or odor that wouldn’t necessarily be apparent to all characters.
Maybe the smell of cherry pipe tobacco reminds one character of a kindly grandfather, or perhaps one not so kind. Freshly cut grass, lilacs, roses, the smell of the ocean, freshly baked cookies, baby shampoo, bubble gum, freshly cut pine boughs, vanilla, almond, citrus and specific perfumes generally have positive associations for most people, but not necessarily all.
In a workshop I took last year, one of the writers described a character as smelling like nail polish and cookie dough and that description has stayed with me since I read it. I find the most interesting descriptions are those that associate the smell of one object with another that wouldn't seem to have any association. I know someone who swears Fritos smell like feet.
Just before I joined the Air Force, my friend, Teresa and I rented rooms in a house that belonged to a foreign family. We were so worldly (not) that we had no idea where they were from, but it was a very large middle-eastern family and whatever it was they cooked all the time was pungent and the odor was not recognizable or pleasant to us. We had nothing we could compare the cooking smell to, but we would regularly ask each other, "do I smell like the house?"
I’m not sure what you have to eat to get it, but when someone describes puppy breath, I know exactly what they mean. Corn Nuts, I think.
Any smell can conjure up a negative association or trigger a memory. Whiskey breath, cigarettes, spoiled meat, burnt popcorn, decaying flesh, a certain aftershave, bicycle tires, brakes burning, mildew, ammonia, bleach, vomit, musk, horses, leather, sweat, hot asphalt, a sweaty penny...
Smelling Listerine or cinnamon gum may be torturous for a character that was attacked by someone with it on his breath. The smell of burning leaves in the fall may remind one person of Thanksgiving and another of a terrible house fire.
I will recognize the scent of the Jean Nate bath splash that my grandmother always used (and that we always gave her for Christmas) for the rest of my life, although I probably haven’t smelled it in over 30 years. My mother wore Chanel No. 5 and that will always be her smell. A wood burning stove makes me think of my cousin, Ruthie’s house, Noxzema reminds me of my Aunt Nancy, and the smell of old dog reminds me of the carpet in my grandparents' house. The smell of tequila reminds me that after swearing off it forever, I really mean it now. Patchouli makes me think of my friend Denise and of a guy I used to work with who clearly had no sense of smell because I could track everywhere he’d walked that day by following the smell.
Do you consciously try to use the sense of smell in your fiction? Care to share any examples? What smells trigger strong emotional reactions in you?
And now, for your auditory and possible olfactory amusement…