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?