Monday, May 19, 2008

Aromatherapy


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…

29 comments:

Tim said...

Lisa --

Absolutely right. I think most of us know that the sense of smell is the one linked most directly to memory, but we (or at least I) rarely remember to focus on it, unless it's absolutely essential to the scene.

And I WILL be re-engaging in the DC as soon as I know I have the right vision for the Poke book I'm writing now, and probably after I get back to the States, where the Net is faster and more dependable.

And I'll see you in Denver some time in July.

Tim

The Writers' Group said...

Lisa, what a smart post. I always use scents in my descriptions because its the strongest of my six senses. I love the example you gave of nail polish and cookie dough.

Amy

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Oh, my, yes, smells convey so much . . . and can take me back to all sorts of people and places. I love how houses take on certain smells. And there's the smell of schools--although as dry erase boards replace chalkboards that might be changing. And one of my favorite smells that most others dislike? Wet dog.

susan said...

I'd just read in Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown this: "I had entered the atmosphere of the body of this alien girl and discovered there a medley of unexpected smells from home--varnish, chocolate, gasoline, bubblegum." I found it really to zero in on both 'incoming' and making the link to memory.

Which, by the way, you are so right in connecting to the nose. I enjoyed each and almost every scent you mention in this glorious post, but particularly, the Jean Nate with which I sprayed the sheets in my young and wayward days.

Vesper said...

What an interesting post, Lisa. I haven't given smell much thought in my writings - I guess I'll have to reconsider that... :-)

Patti said...

definitely use smell. and now i am curious just how much. i'm gonna go look thru some of my stuff to see.

and puppy breath smells like fritos to me...

Larramie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Larramie said...

Very clever and so true, Lisa, that the sense of scents breathes life into fiction and helps us believe it's real. Except how often do we take such writer's efforts for granted? Guess that's considered very good writing. ;)

Charles Gramlich said...

I find commentary on smells and so on very interesting because I actually completely lack a sense of smell myself.

Steve Malley said...

My current WiP is a very smelly book.

A sentence from the chapter I'm editing at the moment:

The smell of iodine mingled with the room’s background scents of bleach, floor wax and blood.

Ah, fun...

Lisa said...

Tim, Take all the time you need -- you're actually working on stuff that you get paid for! Scott and I are really looking forward to seeing you in Denver.

Amy, Good on you for including scents. For some reason, I don't think about them automatically, unless they're bad smells. I need to think about places where good or benign smells might add something. Nail polish and cookie dough is Rob Siders, the leader of my new critique group :)

Judy, Ooh -- houses. Certain houses definitely have very identifiable smells. My great-aunt's house had a smell that reminded me of ginger snaps. Wet dog -- I'm kind of with you since a wet dog is almost always a happy dog!

Susan, Great example! And Jean Nate on the sheets? Susan, you vixen!

Vesper, This is a reminder to myself too -- I find that when I read about scents, odors and smells, the description is powerful. Now if I could only remember to consider smell when I'm conjuring scene...

Patti, I think you do -- I smell delicious donuts :)

Larramie, So right! Whenever we take the author's efforts for granted, I'd say it's a compliment to him or her.

Charles, That's right!!! I had forgotten. Wow -- seems like it wouldn't matter too much. After all, we don't rely on smell like animals do (you know, unless there's a gas leak or something). I wonder if any of your other senses compensate for your inability to smell things. Maybe taste is intensified as it relates to memory. Any thoughts, Dr. Gramlich?

Steve, Whoa! I'm right there in a sentence. Great description. I think books that include blood and death offer extra opportunities to get all olfactory on the reader.

steve said...

Lisa, i just finished a chapter involving tear gas,and I didn't make any reference to the smell. and since I've never been gassed, I'm not sure how to describe it (acrid, maybe?). I used verbena for Helena's perfume because of its reputed magical properties, but I really need to go through with an eye (nose) to the olfactory.

P.S. I'm still posting on On The Slow Train until I can get the second draft onto your new DC site.

Lisa said...

Steve, Tear gas -- yes, that would be a great time to edit in something about the smell, although I've always heard that it's more of a burning sensation that gets into the throat and nose and eyes. I'll bet you could google around and find some first hand descriptions from people who've been tear gassed.

And I love Helena's verbena :)

Riss said...

I love using the sense of smell in writing. Mainly because I am so tuned to it...in a good way a lot of times. Sometimes not so good. I like the idea of "smelling like the house" For me, I have certain scents that rip through any thought or rational and cut to the quick-the smell of (if i can convey this right) fresh cigarette smoke, breakfast and sun warmed polyester carpet...I know...but it reminds me of waking up at my dad's apartment when I was little. Love it. I think it's a really interesting thing to think on too...sometimes (as in my case) smells=people=good or bad memories right? so how many times in our lives do we have relationships that follow us or evade us based on our olfactory perception of them (if that makes sense). What would that do to a character on a subconscious level to give them more depth? What does it to us? Anyway, just got me thinking. I have been stuck sans internet for a few days off and on so my chapter five is sitting in the wings. Chapter six is being worked on though...the DC lives on.

Bernita said...

Excellent post.
Yes, I dutifully try to insert smells in WsIP.
"He smelled of leather and darkness."
"the thin teethy smell of kerosene."

Yogamum said...

I do use smell in my writing, as much as possible. It can be very difficult to write about, though! Once you get past saying what the smell *is* (vanilla, leather, sweat), it is difficult to describe the essence of smell in words. At least I find it so!

Melissa Marsh said...

Terrific post, Lisa. Smells are definitely very powerful. I remember there was a toilet bowl cleaner we used when I was pregnant and nauseous - to this day, I cannot use the same cleaner. It brings back the nausea!

I am trying to be more conscious of incorporating smell into my novel because I think it adds a richness to the narrative that is lacking otherwise.

Ello said...

Ok this post is perfect for me because my sense of smell is both my keenest sense and the source of my greatest discomfort. I am allergic to most perfumes and strong odors always gets a reaction from me, not always good. Surprisingly, for someone so sensitive to it, I have not really incorporated it into my writing. but thanks for the reminder!

Lisa said...

Riss, This is turning out to be very interesting. There seems to be a wide variety of sensitivity to smells, depending on who you are. I have terrible allergies, so my sense of smell is probably not as acute as it once was. You've provided some great personal examples of associations -- love the polyester carpet. Looking forward to catching up on your DC chapters.

Bernita, Excellent descriptions! I especially love "the thin teethy smell of kerosene".

Yogamum, You're right that it gets tough to find unique ways to describe the most recognizable smells, but when someone finds a good one, it really sings.

Melissa, I have the same reaction to the smell of tequila that you do to toilet bowl cleaner ;)

Ello, That's right! You are a super sniffer :) It's funny about perfume. I used to wear it, but stopped years ago because I realized how many people are sensitive to it. We used to have a secretary that would get migraines from specific types of perfume.

Lana Gramlich said...

OMG...My Mom was a total Jean Nate fan!

Barrie said...

Great post! And I think some of us are attune to smells. I have one kid who smells everything. A treat for her: letting her choose the scent for the car after we've gone through the car wash!

Lisa said...

Lana, It seems like in the 60s and early 70s, most people shopped for their perfume and after shave at the drug store :)

Barrie, If only it was that easy to make everyone happy!

SzélsőFa said...

This is a great post, Lisa!
There was a piece I wrote when I tried to incorporate as much of the senses as possible, and I think it came out nicely.
I'm sorry for not being able to visit your site more often...
I feel ashamed: you come and comment and I, I neglect you. I'm so sorry.

Lisa said...

SzélsőFa, Don't be silly! You have no need to apologize. I have no expectations, so I am always happy whenever anyone stops by. Visit whenever you like :)

debra said...

Interesting how much the sense of smell impacts us. I am very sensitive to smell and can tell when those close to me are distressed or in a good place by how they smell.

My father's mother died when her was very young. He didn't remember much about her, but whenever he smelled peaches, he visualized her. Seems she used a peach-scented face cream.

I have a niece who has synesthesia. She uses her acute sensory view of the world in her work all the time.

Thanks for another thought provoking post, Lisa.

Sphinx Ink said...

Interesting post, Lisa. My sense of smell has never been great, and as I age I am gradually losing it. When other people comment on scents to which I am oblivious, I envy them. I regret the loss, because one misses so much of the world when one can't smell things. Marcel Proust was right...(see http://www.hhmi.org/senses/d110.html)

Lisa said...

Debra, Wow! There must be a genetic component to this. It almost sounds like you are sensitive to pheromones, even though I don't believe humans are supposed to be able to smell them. And synesthesia fascinates me. I would love to be able to "hear color". I just went out and read about it and it's almost as if people who have this have a part of their brains wired that most of us don't. Very cool!

Sphinx, I'm so glad someone mentioned Proust! I seem to be losing my sense of smell too. Except of course in extreme circumstances. This winter a mouse (we assume) died inside one of our basement walls and it was almost unbearable. I actually had to order something from a pest control company to help disperse the odor. Fortunately, it was completely gone within about 10 days.

Josephine Damian said...

"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."

Lisa, good job - this post reminds me I need to get busy on my master's thesis - all about how brain biology influences behavior.

Lisa said...

Josie, Sounds like you have your work cut out for you! It also sounds like a thesis I'd love to read. Get to work! :)

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