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.
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!