Our sense of smell

Linda’s Blog August 31st

I thought I’d go back to basics this week and talk about one of the SENSES that can get a little overlooked in creative writing – that’s the sense of SMELL. Many of us are probably pretty good at visual description – the most natural of the senses. And we’re not bad at bringing in sounds from time to time. But taste, touch, and smell? These can get neglected.

The other day I caught myself putting on some perfume in preparation for a Zoom meeting! Why, I asked myself? Technology hasn’t yet devised a way of transmitting smells around the Internet (I could be wrong here: I stand to be corrected) and would we want them if there was? But then I thought about it for a while and this is what I came up with:

  1. Wearing perfume makes us feel good.
  2. It makes us feel more confident.
  3. It’s part of getting dressed up (as Coco Chanel says).

The sense of smell is thought to be the oldest of our senses – vital, of course, for our ancestors, the hunters.

But perhaps the most important aspect of our sense of smell is the way in which it evokes MEMORIES. We all have them, some shared by others, some just of our own.

Vanilla always takes me back, quite a few years now, when I used to watch and ‘help’ my mum bake Victoria sponges.

And a few years ago, I was on a husky-sledging experience in Greenland. We each had a sled, a team of huskies and an Inuit driver. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Except that this was the view (behind the dog team!) I had all day long! Whenever we stopped for a hot chocolate break, I actively encouraged my driver to light up his pipe – oh, that Condor moment! So, doggie smells, hot chocolate and a smoker’s pipe instantly take me back to Greenland

There are three areas in which aromas can enhance our writing:

  • In creating mood: aromatherapy oils for a romantic meal; cut grass for the start of summer; flowers for a birthday.
  • On special occasions: bonfires and chestnuts on November 5th; turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas; candyfloss at the seaside.
  • Unpleasant or dangerous situations: eg smoke in a life-threatening house fire; the smell of bodies at a crime scene; dangerous chemicals; alcohol on someone’s breath.

One thing to remember is that different people will react differently to smells. Lilies might be the loveliest aroma to some people: the blogger Jules Horne says the smell of lilies is one she hates as it takes her back to her childhood when she spent time in a hospital ward full of them.

As with using all the senses, it is important not to descend into cliches.

Freshly-baked bread – find your own way of describing that tantalising smell. The same with the smell of the sea, bad eggs, expensive cologne or perfume.

Here’s a quote from the deaf-blind American writer Helen Keller who was clearly so attuned to her sense of smell.

Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived. The odours of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odours, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief. Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away. 

Have a go at one or two of the prompts I’m suggesting this week. Click here. And next time you write, add a scent or two.

Happy writing.

Linda