Posted by: Jodi | April 6, 2011

Writing with your nose

Smell.  It’s everywhere we go.  It keeps us safe, helps us remember, it finds the goodies in the kitchen.  Yet, how often do we use this sense in writing? For the most part, thinking of a story as a series of images and dialogue is natural.  We are trained to think this way by watching television where sight and sound are the only senses we can experience.  However with the written word we can expand this experience by adding elements of touch, taste, and smell.

I began thinking about this last night as I was rocking my youngest before bed and was trying to capture the unique smell of her hair.  I struggled to find ways to describe it even though it was right under my nose.  I should be able to do it, I call myself a writer don’t I?  Isn’t it my job to be able to capturing things like that?  It got me to thinking, how can I better develop this sense so I can better capture it in writing?

Here’s a few ideas to help refine your nose for writing:

  • Be an active smeller – Be aware of the different odors around you and when possible jot down specifics.
  • Collect samples – if one of your scenes is in a pine forest go visit one and collect samples of different smells.  Store as many as you can in clean glass jars, pinecones and needles, dirt, firewood, charcoal, river rock, etc, so that later when sitting at the computer you can refresh your memory.  You can also use these items to help capture the sense of touch.
  • When smelling out in public, try to be discreet! Image credit: http://www.cheminteltech.com/

    Seek out new smell experiences – perhaps some of your settings or creations don’t exist in the real world, it is at times like these where you must seek alternatives.  Smells of a dank dungeon could be found in caves, damp basements, or old museums.  A dragon’s musk would be like that of other large reptiles so visit a zoo, handle a snake or lizard if you can.

  • Explore known spaces for the unusual – Sure you’ve been in your bedroom thousands of times but have you ever taken the time to smell the different elements?  What does the carpet smell like? The wood of the furniture?  Is there a collection of perfume on the dresser? Or a collection of unwashed socks on the floor?  What is the difference between the smell of clean and dirty sheets?  Identify the smells that create your world.
  • Explore new places for the familiar – Often characters are traveling to new places and taking the reader with them on their journey of exploration.  What do they find that reminds them of home?  When you visit a new place, say a friend’s home or a store you’ve never visited, see if you can find smells that are familiar.  Perhaps it is the same floor cleaner, or the smell of cookies baking, or perhaps a whiff of a messy diaper.  Bringing a sense of the familiar into the new helps ground your character and reader.
  • Associate emotion and memory with smell – Once you are able to pinpoint familiar smells try to associate an emotion and memory with them.  Baking cookies could bring back the memory of joyous times cooking with a beloved aunt in her kitchen.  The whiff of diaper, the time dearest baby decided to leave his loaded diaper in your closet and the amusement and frustration that went along with it.
  • See how other authors handle smell – When reading, pay attention to the use of smell.  When you find uses or description that you really like, jot them down for inspiration later.  You may also note how often it is used and what it adds to the scene, if the use was effective or not.

Being able to add the sense of smell to your writing will add an extra touch of realism that is greatly appreciated by your readers.  Along with effective use of sight, taste, touch, and sound, using the senses can transform a good story in to a great one.

Have a smelly experience you would like to share?  Let us hear it in the comments!

 

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Responses

  1. An important sense! A character that does not liberally use all 5 senses during the course of a story will come across as slightly less than real.

    • And yet, it’s so hard to do well! Future posts on the other senses to come. This post results from me realizing that most of my work leaves out most of the senses – something to work on. Always something to work on.

  2. I agree completely and try to be very aware of all the surroundings when writing. As a reader, I feel a sense of belonging when I can see, smell, here and feel it all. Good pointed post.

    • In revision I’m learning that I didn’t take as much time during the initial writing to consider all the elements that were interacting with my character – I’m paying for that now. In future projects I will most definitely pay more attention to all five senses! Ah, the things we learn with experience.

  3. Good stuff, Jodi.
    Something I might add is this:
    Our sense of smell is not processed the same way our other senses are. It’s a survival trait to be instantly alert if you smell an unexpected fire. You react, and THEN think about it.
    Further, your sense of smell can be (after the fact) evocative of important moments in your life. Certain smells will take you back in time to good (or bad) experiences.
    Amazing thing, is the sense of smell.

    • You are absolutely right – smell is linked to the primitive brain and can do some amazing things. The trick is to make ourselves aware of them and take the time to pinpoint what feelings and memories they trigger.

  4. I never thought about collecting items to help me describe smell. That’s some great advice. I struggle to use all the senses throughout my stories, especially since one of my characters loves to cook, so imagine smell and taste would be really important to her.

    • You can get small glass vials and jars from chemistry stores that are great for storing different samples, jelly jars work as well. I’d imagine for a cook you could collect all sorts of great scents! Luckily, many of the scents a cook would smell are hiding somewhere in your kitchen.

  5. I’ve got an amazing sense of smell, it’s a great thing, though quite unpleasant when living in a city at time…but I digress.
    There are certain pefumes that send me back in time. Food smells that remind me of certain moments. It’s amazing how powerful smell can really be. It’s something that’s very hard to describe at times in your writing.

    • Yes, city smells leave something to be desired. One of the first things I notice when I travel is the smell of a new city. Nothing says vacation than breathing in new air. But, like you said, being able to put it in writing is hard!

  6. Another great post, Jodi, and something I now realize has been lacking in my writing.

    More work to do. Oh, well. Once you get it right, there’s nothing to chase.

    • Progress not perfection – I think most writers will tell you that even after professional editing and publishing they still find things that they should have fixed or added to their work. At some point you have to decide that although it’s not perfect, it’s pretty darn great.

  7. Great ideas. I always struggle with describing scents. I like the idea of collecting scents say from a forest. I think I would also take a notebook with me and try to jot down the words and feelings that those scents evoke in me.

    • Amen to that! You can take pieces of the forest with you but it’s impossible to recreate the feeling and senses of being there unless you are there. Taking notes while in your setting enables you to catch those startling fresh details.

  8. Thanks for the reminder, I don’t think my characters use this important sense enough. Will remember this when I go and edit.

    • You and me both! Makes me glad that we can endlessly edit and revise until all the elements are there.

  9. […] Writing with your nose […]


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