Justine: Using Your Nose

smells, scent, writing sensesThis probably goes without saying, but it gets hot in Arizona. Really hot. Sizzle-eggs-on-the-sidewalk hot. Naturally, when it’s hot,  everyone who can has their A/C on….in cars, trucks, and homes. One of the rather unpleasant side effects of A/C is the stale air you breathe. You don’t realize it’s stale, though, because you’re so obsessed with how HOT it is.

Then fall comes. The air grows cooler and more comfortable. I actually need a sweater in the mornings (it was 68 last week — positively chilly for Phoenix). I’ve stopped using the A/C in the car all the time, opting for fresh air from open windows, and I was completely taken aback at what I’d been missing all summer…


Believe it or not, there’s a lot of agriculture that goes on near me. Arizona has an extensive system of canals and aqueducts that deliver water pretty much anywhere. Around my house are fields of alfalfa and corn, dairy farms, and “farmettes” with perhaps some goats, chickens, horses, or a lone steer.

As I was driving by a corn field yesterday, I could smell the corn. It smelled like the big barrels of unshucked corn you see at the grocery store, their golden tassels peeking from behind their green skin, but it reminded me of my childhood, growing up behind a cornfield in rural Maryland.

I can also smell the dairy farm a few miles away. Perhaps not as nice as the corn, but still, it reminds me of what I’ve been missing. It also reminds me of my days in college at Clemson in South Carolina, and driving with friends past Dover Downs farm on the way to Wal-Mart in nearby Anderson, SC.

All this smelling has brought to mind what’s missing from my story…the ‘ol olfactory. Scent is a trigger for thoughts, feelings, and memories, and they can be an important tool for a writer. I’ve made a commitment to myself to go through each scene and try to put in one or two smells…something each character would notice, whether it’s the smell of old books (Susannah’s favorite) or floral perfume (Nate’s favorite). I need to consider street smells, sweat smells (I read in a book recently the “bitter smell from her armpit” and I spent a good 10 minutes thinking about that and how accurate it was!), food smells, ocean smells, and animal smells. What I have to do, at its essence, is put myself in the scene, close my eyes, and think about what my character’s noses would encounter, then figure out the importance of that smell to them.

I’m reading two books right now, both fiction, and both authors do a very good job of including smells into their settings. It’s made me realize how important it is, both to setting as well as character perception and feeling.

Think about a scene you’re working on right now…are you including things your characters might smell? If so, what are they? If not, what should you add?

12 thoughts on “Justine: Using Your Nose

  1. A sex scene often benefits from smells — maybe not all the earthy ones unless the writer keeps it suitably . . . generic. (I deleted example of something nobody wants to hear — because nobody wants to read that about the heroine. The villainess, maybe.) But a lover’s smell can often be delightful. My husband is a dairy farmer, and he’d come to me from the barn smelling of straw and milk and that fresh outdoor smell that you only get on a cold winter day. Nowadays, I work outside the home and I’m gone before he comes in, so I miss that. But that combination of smells always reminds me of young love.

    • I think it’s charming that dairy barn smells remind you of your husband and young love. 🙂 A friend of mine lost her father unexpectedly several years ago and she told me that her mom did not take his clothes out of her closet for many years…she used to go into the closet and bury her nose in his jackets and shirts to remind her of him.

  2. Researchers say that smell is the strongest trigger for memory, and I think that could be true. Every time I smell pine, I remember a particular walk I took as a child by a lake that was surrounded by pine woods, and I remember what I felt when I was on that trail.

    I’m all for incorporating the sense of smell into writing, but I think the smell itself should be significant to that moment in the story, and my own preference is that writers not overuse smell as a device. I’ve read a lot of manuscripts where clearly the author had followed advice to include all five senses—indeed, many contests have “incorporating the five senses” as a judging criterion. Some books I’ve read have characters walk into the room, and the first paragraph is what they see, hear, taste, smell, and feel, and some of that can feel awfully forced. And getting those five senses out of the way in description can delay the action, too.

    Adding critical smells, though, will add depth to your manuscript. Have fun with it!

    • Kay, I completely agree that the smell/scent must be part of the story. When Susannah enters her uncle’s study (which used to be her papa’s), she notices it doesn’t smell like musty books and beeswax polish anymore (gotta love that beeswax polish!). And I’m thinking of adding a little detail as Susannah is riding in a carriage in London about how she forgot how smelly London is…that while there were similar smells in Jamaica, the frequent ocean breezes dissipated them.

      The laundry list of 5 senses at the beginning of a scene is an opportunity to skim. I think the senses should be added like spices…a little at a time until you’ve got the right combination.

    • I love that, Jeanne! The smell of strawberries that you buy in the grocery are so different from those you pick. I remember several years ago, a co-worker brought in a bucket of strawberries he and his family had picked at a nearby farm to share with all of us. The smell was so overwhelming and so very strawberry! It immediately took me back to Glade Link Farms in Walkersville, where I grew up, and the summers my sister, dad, and I spent picking strawberries. In fact, I was quite surprised by the intensity of the memory.

  3. I agree, Kay, critical smells can add a lot, but just like every other scene, paragraph, and line, scent descriptions need to earn their keep. It’s also important to keep in mind who is actually likely to think about the smell. For instance, women (esp pregnant women) tend to have a better sense of smell than men, and certain smells make some pregnant women nauseous, so they would definitely be thinking about a problematic smell. A gentle bred lady walking into a stable would immediately notice the smell of horseflesh and manure, while a stable boy wouldn’t even think about it.

    One scent description that has stuck with me over the years is from the book Outlander, when Clair leans over a dead (or dying) man, smells almonds, and realizes he’s been poisoned.

    • My mom says I have a nose like a bloodhound. I was visiting my parents after they built their current house and while we were standing around in the kitchen, I told them I smelled natural gas (they had a gas stove). Neither my mom nor dad could smell it, but I assured them there was gas leaking somewhere.

      Sure enough, the gas company came out and the builder hadn’t hooked the stove up properly. Now, when I tell my family I smell something, they don’t question it.

  4. We should have a ‘like’ button for comments! I completely agree that the smell should be important to the story, not added to satisfy a competition requirement or revision checklist. My pet peeve is the formulaic description of the hero or heroine: he/she smelled of x, y, and a scent uniquely him/her. Grrr. Whatever other howlers I commit, I swear I’ll never be guilty of this one.

    One smell I have in my WIP is Prim Rose’s, the heroine’s aunt’s antique shop. It smells of lavender pot-pourri and beeswax polish. Rose has worked there ever since she left school, it’s a true home for her, and it’s about to close forever. I’m sure that lavender and beeswax polish will always smell like home to Rose, and I’m pretty sure that when she settles down with Ian she’ll be making her own lavender pot-pourri and polishing the furniture with beeswax.

    • Your Rose’s Prim Rose is Susannah’s papa’s study. 🙂 Do you think Ian will acknowledge the smell in their new home, too? I’m curious if he’ll tune in and realize that she’s using the same smells from the shop where she worked for so long.

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