She was walking along quite happily when the acrid, tangy smell invaded her nostrils. Burning, hot, and somewhat sweet, the distinct odour of fresh tarmac being laid was unmistakable. Instantly and without warning, she was catapulted back into another summer, onto another road, and she saw herself strolling through carefully manicured front-gardens, their cherry trees in bloom but the sweet scent of spring flowers obliterated by the byproduct of road resurfacing. Images of friends and places left behind flooded her brain and she gave a deep sigh of longing.
“What’s the matter, mummy?” The cheerful voice of her son roused her from her nostalgia and she woke as though from a dream…
Instant olfactory transportation
Wouldn’t it be awesome if novels could smell? There’s nothing more powerful for stimulating both emotion and memory than the sense of smell, and the above vignette is taken from my own recent experience. Strange as it may seem, the strong smell of tarmac brought on the sweetest of memories from a different time in my life. I have other smells that transport me to different places, most of them good.For example, there’s a perfume that reminds me of a long-lost friend. Even today, if I get a whiff of this fragrance somewhere, I can hear my friend’s laughter and see his face in front of me. Likewise, my Mum’s perfume for special occasion takes me right back in time to being a little girl, when she and my father would go out at night and she would drop a little kiss on my head whilst I was (supposedly) fast asleep in bed.
The sea has its own special smell that reminds me of childhood holidays. There’s nothing quite like that tang of algae and seaweed drying on the rocks when the tide is out… Hand in hand with that smell goes the memory of hot Frankfurter sausages in bread rolls served with chips and tomato ketchup. Oh, and sunscreen, always sunscreen.
Hot water smells. Have you noticed that? Turn on your shower on a nice hot setting on a really cold day, perhaps when the bathroom is still waiting to heat up in the morning, and you’ll notice that hot water has its own distinct signature smell. I kid you not.
And houses. Houses definitely smell, and the very act of opening the front door and inhaling that first whiff of home turns your house into your castle. I could go on and on an on…. See, smell is powerful stuff. It’s evocative. It puts you in touch with events and emotions that you’d long forgotten; and every day, it makes more memories for you to discover in the future. And yet… does it feature in books?
The forgotten sense?
Books are full of vivid descriptions, many of them of a sensual nature. As authors, we focus on what our characters feel (emotionally), see, hear, sometimes taste, and occasionally touch (feel). But what about smell?
I guess smell is a little harder to put on the page. As perception goes, it’s highly individual; what smells good to one person may not be so appealing to the next. (Although there are exceptions, of course. I say cake. And coffee!). Moreover, the memories bound with smell are highly individual. I mean, who would have thought that the smell of a new road surface would bring on such an avalanche of happy memories for me? This makes it hard for the writer to predict, harness and manage the effect of portrayed smell in the novel.
Last but not least, smell poses a bit of a technical problem. You can’t see it and you can’t touch it. It’s hard to describe in absolute terms other than in similes or analogies. It’s not exactly red, blue or green. It’s not exactly tall, thin or round. Although I suppose it could be sweet, tangy, cloying, airy, sharp, acrid…. Yes, there are lots of adjectives, come to think about it.
Putting olfactory oomph into writing
I went back through my own books and did a little search. Do I appeal to the olfactory sense in my work? Do my novels have some fragrant oomph? And to what purpose? Here are some of my favourite highlights:
Describing an unpleasant reunion (from Sophie’s Turn)
“So anyway, he came back to bed, smelling of slug repellent and quite possibly dead slugs”—I gave an involuntary shudder—“and he tried to cuddle me.”
“Yeuch!” Rachel exclaimed.
Portraying attraction (from Sophie’s Turn)
But Dan laughed. “Easy now, there, tiger. You all right?” His arms were around me, and I could smell his aftershave. Yum. His chest exuded warmth, and his breath smelt of sweet apple. I could have happily taken a bite.
Portraying attraction (from Sophie’s Run)
He put his arms around me and we held each other in a long embrace, breathing deeply. He smelled good, like that first time I had caught his scent in the hospital. I hoped I smelled nice, too, not of illness anymore, but of me.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Steve cut into my musings.
I giggled. “I was thinking that you smell nice, and that your chest is very toned,” I confessed.
DESCRIBING A PLACE
Evoking newness (from Sophie’s Run)
The smell of fresh paint and new carpets greeted me as I unlocked the front door. Oh, lovely. It reeked of newness and a fresh start, and I knew that everything was all right.
Experiencing a new environment (from Sophie’s Turn)
I had never been in a stretch limo before, and I breathed in the heady scent of polished leather and wooden interiors—the smell of the rich.
Entering a coffee shop (from Sophie’s Run)
The door closed behind me, jauntily jingling the little bell attached to the top of the door jamb. I was instantly enveloped by the fragrant smell of strong, sweet tea and gulped greedily; I was gasping for a cuppa.
PROMOTING DRAMATIC TENSION
Signalling change (from Sophie’s Run)
The house was quiet. It smelled of furniture polish, fresh laundry, and Dan’s aftershave. Feeling like an unlawful intruder, I ambled through the downstairs first but Dan was not there.
Signalling a discovery (from Sophie’s Run)
Immediately he noticed that something was wrong. The flat smelled wrong; it didn’t smell of Sophie, or her perfume, or her things.
MY NOVELS… DON’T STINK! BUT THEY CERTAINLY TRY TO CAPTURE YOU BY WAY OF OLFACTORY ASSOCIATION.
So… wow. Yes, I’m impressed. I tried. I knew I was working on incorporating my character’s responses to certain smells, for I remember writing these scenes and the emotions the described smell provoked in me. Some of these examples may be more powerful than others, but I had no idea I had put so much smell in my novels. I like it. I hope my readers like it, too. And I think I might well explore this stylistic means a little further going forward.
Your turn to stick your nose in! What’s your favourite smell?
Readers ~ do you notice ‘smell’ in the books you read? Does it ‘do’ something for you?
Authors ~ What do you make of the smelly novel? Does your work smell? Have you any hot tips for creating the fragrant page?
In order for me to answer your questions, I’ve got to try and place two hats on my head. I haven’t had the opportunity to read any book which really used smell as an intricate part of the story, and my book might have one incident in which smell played a part, so allow me to write a small tidbit which uses a lot of the olfactory sense to set the mood of what’s happening.
It had only last week when Charlotte had off the bus on the country road in Henderson County with her husband of three days and walked the quarter mile to the home of her grandmother, Ellie Mae, so she showed her great guy she married from the big city. As soon as they reached her property and walked the path to the front door they could smell the wonderful fragrance of the freshly mowed grass. When they reach it, Charlotte reached into her bag to pull out the keys; the aroma of roast pig and freshly baked apple pie filled the air and thrilled their senses and roused the taste buds in their mouths of what waited for them to arrive. However, that was about to change drastically as the putrid sweet smell of death bombarded their senses the instant she opened the door, for there sitting on the huge armchair in the parlor sat her grandmother’s dead husband.
It had been several years since Charlotte last saw her, and since then Ellie Mae had gotten ill with several diseases including Alzheimer and had no idea of many of the things that were happening around her. Charlotte’s husband, who worked as a doctor, quickly looked at the deceased and deduced he had died from a heart attack.
In writing the above I endeavored to use association between what was there and something we all can easily relate to, using descriptives we all have come to know. This is also my suggestion to anyone who is trying to write smell into a story.
Hi Robin, thank you for that! Do you know, it just occurred to me this morning in the shower that there is at least one genre that I read that uses smell quite regularly; and that is crime. Descriptions of smell seem to abound when it comes to somebody finding a dead person! I loved the way you juxtaposed the innocence of apple pie with the discovery of the dead husband. That’s pretty powerful!
THANKS for your wonderful compliment. I had attempted to write an excerpt of what could have been a crime novel as you’ve stated, however I noticed now I wound up writing a Six Sentence Flash Fiction using SMELL as the prompt word.
You’ve got my creative juices flowing this morning, I might be able to get back to writing my second novel, a yet untitled Contemporary romance with a paranormal element running through it,
Smell is so evocative and at the same time, so difficult to control on its own. A few smells seem universal – fresh cut grass, sea ozone and of course real coffee have reasonable predictable associations, but Nicky’s hot tarmac (which works for me) might have a completely different association for you. Although we’re told show don’t tell, sometimes with smell you have to tell a little too.
Hi Mark, thank you so much for visiting and commenting and sharing some of your thoughts from our fabulous Facebook discussion. I really love how the ‘smell’ thing seems to strike a chord (is that a case of mixed metaphors?) and I’ll certainly be giving this more active, conscious thought in my work going forward. Rock on! 🙂
Excellent points, Nicky. I wonder how many of us don’t put enough emphasis on smell (pleasant or not) in our writing.
Hi Mel! Thanks for visiting! Can you tell I’m a bit smell-obsessed at the moment? I actually have a really acute sense of smell which can be a bit of a problem, and this whole tarmac-episode-memory-avalanche got me thinking. I’m definitely intrigued to hear everyone’s views!
Love the post Nicky! Am partial to coffee and caramel 🙂
Great reminder about using this important tool in writing!
Hi Lauren, thank you so much for visiting and taking the time to comment. I’m so happy you enjoyed the post and ooooh…. caramel! Or even caramel fudge, being made freshly in a little shop down Devon way… smell the burning sugar and the vanilla… YUM! Happy eating and happy writing. 🙂
Do you think Choc Lit will pick this one up? Love it! Fab post, Nicky – and reminder to use all the senses. 🙂 xx
Now there’s a thought, LOL. Very topical for them, isn’t it? Thanks for stopping by, glad you enjoyed it. Ever since I wrote it, I’ve been thinking of a certain Nirvana song. And I’m not even a special fan of that one, LOL. Ah well….
Excellent post, Nicky. Smell can be as evocative as music in creating memory. My agent told me when I was rewriting Every Step of the Way to ensure the reader could see, taste, smell, hear and feel everything the hero/heroine can. Many have said they can actually smell the Killer Smog in my book. As to my favourite smell – that has to be fresh coffee brewing and bread straight from the oven – always reminds of home and my childhood. Well rockin’! 🙂 xx
Oh Kit, I remember ~ your description of the smell and taste of that yellowish dense fog was so vivid, I was right there! Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for sharing your favourite smells.Can you keep a secret? I actually like the *smell* of coffee brewing more than the actual brew… I think as with you, it goes back to my childhood as Mum always had a pot of coffee on the go. Thanks for visiting and commenting! X
I think you need all your senses to really ‘feel’ something. Even if I’m writing and at ‘home alone’ I always wear perfume because I love wonderful smells around me. For me it’s coffee (essential Kit!), wood smoke, the sea breeze and roses… hot chocolate isn’t bad either…..
Ooh Linn, that’s so interesting! I only wear ‘proper’ perfrume (the expensive stuff) on special occasions but maybe I’ll Happy myself when I’m writing, too, what a grand idea! XX
For me it’s an essential indulgence! I do sometimes miss the morning routine of getting ready for work and leaving the house. I might be in jeans and T-shirt, but at least I’m ‘fragrant’….. ha! ha!
It is often thought of as the forgotten sense – thanks for the timely reminder. x
🙂 Thanks for visiting and commenting! X
I think you have a talent for evoking imaginative smells, Nicky. I loved your ‘smelly’ excerpts and swear they did it for me!!
Why, thank you so much for your fabulous comment, Janice, so happy you enjoyed the idea of the smelly post! XX
Nicky, thanks for your comments over on my blog, and I am looking forward to seeing you over at Tea and Talk at Sally Lunn’s on 31sdt March….should be fun.
I have also got an article on Morgen’s guest blog – re songwriting – so I am sure that will be of interest. Look out for the link on 4th April.
I use smells and feel a lot in my writing. Of course dead bodies smell and so does the morgue etc and so if describing action in a morgue with a dead person it is important to note the smell of disinfectants and so forth, rotting flesh has a certain smell and you often see bloody crime scenes having a ‘sweet, cloying odour,’ long before the body is found.
Smell – the sense of smell, is part of our DNA and of course certain smells set off warnings to us, the same as an animal will sense danger from smell. Strong smells and what we call unpleasant smells, warn us and deter us.
I have lived overseas a great deal and when I returned to live in Singapore as an adult, I was really surprised to get a waft of street cooking which immediately transported me back to my early childhood living there. I had a visual image in my head of where I had first smelled that food cooking. The same with Germany. Walking to work one day I passed some bushes and trees and it had just rained. I had to stop and go back and gaze at the bushes until it dawned on me why they smelled so familiar. I had encountered the same smell when out playing as a small child in Germany in the late 1950’s and again, a strong vision of a particular time and place came into my head as clear as if I had been transported back there.
If you have ever travelled on a tour bus with a sweaty band and crew following an energetic gig, believe me, that ‘fragrance,’ will never leave you.
Happy sniffing. 🙂
I will, that will be awesome!