“Use the five senses,” is familiar advice to all writers. Just as news reporters use the 5 W’s — who, what, where, when, and why to check their stories, fiction writers can use sight, sound, smell, taste and touch to enhance the emotional impact of their tales.

 

Nothing triggers memory like a smell. I have two four-month old kittens. They were born in the country and at only eight weeks of age they related to smell. We had transported them 2500 miles, from the prairies to the coast, but when the scent of new-mown hay wafted through an open window, they stopped playing and sat up as tall as they could, their little noses twitching mightily as they inhaled the aroma of home.

Psychiatrists will tell you that smell can trigger forgotten memories, and stir the emotions. The perfume industry is built on that premise. A simple fragrance won’t make people spend hundreds of dollars on an ounce of liquid, but the emotions that fragrance elicits, will pry open the  purse.

Because scent has such a powerful effect on the emotions, good writers use that correlation not only to describe a scene but illuminate characters and draw the reader into an emotional  connection with the protagonist of the story.

Out on my bicycle I gloried in the number of summer smells I encountered on my ride–lavender, roses, ripe blackberries, fecund soil, dusty hay,  a horse barn . . . I inhaled them all with a smile to my face and joy to my heart.  I should be a natural when it comes to using scents in my novels. Sadly, while I enjoy the fragrance of my garden, I’m not good at incorporating the fifth sense into my writing.

In my wip I reference the smell of clean mountain air — a lost opportunity. Clean mountain air is generic. If I said, “clean mountain air filled her lungs, driving out the stench of the immigrant ship, erasing the odor of poverty and desperation” I’d have done a better job of placing the reader in the story and giving her a reason to root for the heroine.

There are many literary works devoted to smell, but I thought I’d investigate the romance genre for tips on how to include the forgotten sense in my writing.

“His face and eyelids were swollen and he was beginning to stink like rotten meat.” The Silver Lining by Maggie Osborne. Maggie Osborne is a favourite of mine, even though she is no longer writing. Notice the words here– “stink” “rotten–deeply evocative. She could have said “smelled bad,” and the impact would have been lost.

“When I pull loose wrap off the top of the bottle and  stick my nose in, it is agreeably, deeply sour.” How to Bake a Perfect Life, by Barbara Samuel. I knew I’d find examples of cooking smells in Barbara Samuel’s work. What I like about this example is the paradox of “agreeable” and “sour.” Most of us consider sour an unpleasant odor, not an agreeable one. However, it you are making sourdough starter, the concept changes.

“The scent of fresh blood on an undercurrent of primeval decay choked Elodie Rousseau, nearly bringing her to her knees.” Choosing Bravery by Jacqui Nelson.  Jacqui writes historical westerns. Aromas can conjure up the old west in a few words. The “scent of fresh blood” is a generic phrase, but “primeval decay” and “choked” lift this sentence from ordinary to memorable.

I’m now off to scour my work-in-progress for missed opportunities to use the power of scent in my story.

How about you? Any favourite “smelly” writing examples you’d like to share?

 

 

 

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