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The Nose Knows

A friend recently called to share a special moment with me. She had just gotten a whiff of a sweet smell that immediately made her think of her grandmother who had talcum powder that smelled like a sweet gardenia. My friend recalled childhood visits to her grandmother during which she would sneak away to sniff grandma's talc. "And of course the powder on my nose gave me away."

My friend, who says she is not a writer, but has written some of the most powerful poetry I have read, thought I would be interested in her little moment as an illustration of how to ground a character in a scene. We are urged to use all the senses to accomplish this, and we often mention smells. We have a character react to the odors of food cooking as they enter a restaurant. Or we have a character notice the tangy odor of salt by the sea. But how often do we go deeper to the memory the smell evokes? Or how often do we make an association to a pleasant, or not so pleasant, occurrence in the character's life?

Take for instance, the smell of baby powder or baby shampoo. Most of the time it is used to evoke that sense of awe and wonder of being a parent, but think of how memorable a moment in a story could be if the smell reminds a woman of the baby she lost.

The various odors of food often have pleasant associations, too. But what about the sour smell of garlic and onions on the breath of a rapist or murderer? That would be a detail not quickly forgotten by a reader.

What about you? How do you use smells in your writing? Can you think of ways to turn the ordinary reaction to an odor into something not so ordinary?

When I am editing I always remind my clients that we write the ordinary in the first draft - just getting things down on paper - and the extraordinary comes with careful thought about how we can turn things on end.

Posted by Maryann Miller, who has been on both sides of the editing table and appreciates a good editor. Visit Maryann's Web site for information about her editing services and her books. When she is not working, Maryann loves to play farmer on her little ranch in East Texas.

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  1. I've been writing about a paranormal hero who's been sensory deprived in another dimension and becomes fascinated and addicted when he's bombarded by sensation in the modern world. This has given me some potent food for thought and ideas for making that concept more intriguing.

  2. I use the sense of smell often along with other senses. Recently, I was waiting outside the zoo for family and noticed the scent of sunscreen flow past me on the breeze. This is a scent that is like no other and I wondered, how would I describe this through the experience of someone who knew nothing about sunscreen.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  3. I haven't thought much about it. Thanks for this post! I'll definitely be keeping this in mind from now on.

  4. I pay a lot of attention to scent in my writing. And since I write a lot of fantasy and sf that has magical or psychic characters, I tend to use scent more as a factor of a psychic/magical synesthesia where someone else's emotion has the scent of pepper and motor oil, for example.

    But I definitely try to use scent, texture, etc. in my normal description, too.

  5. N. R. Williams, what an interesting question. Hmmmm. You might pick an adjective or two (no more) that desribe the scent for you and then relate it to a beach or swimming pool, where that odor is so prevalent that it can become overwhelming. Or perhaps choose another place where "sun-screened" people might gather. This provides a relationship to the odor while your adjectives categorize it as sweet, pungent, clean, crisp, whatever.

  6. Who would think a simple thing like smell would be so important in writing, but just reading the comments here makes that clear. And what interesting ways to use the sense. What you said Taryn about your central character reacting to a new sensation reminded me of a book I edited recently. The central character was a zombie, and while I am not a huge fan of books with zombies, it was very interesting to note how well the author used the sense of smell. Apparently zombies are the opposite of your character and have a super sensitive sense of smell.

  7. When I judge contests, the lack of the olfactory senses is a common weakness. Adding those descriptions adds depth to the manuscript, and can draw the reader into the story.

    And it's not just hero and heoine noticing each others' scents. Characters walking past bakeries, or into a stuffy room, or stepping outside after a rain--all these should be noticed.

    I can't open a container of bird seed without being transported to my great-uncle's chicken ranch, where I helped feed the chickens when I visited.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  8. Smells are often important when establishing the sea during storm, inside horse stables, driving past a sewage treatment plant. I can't imagine a scene that wouldn't be enhanced by mentioning smells.

    For me, the smell of old-fashioned lye soap transports me back to my grandparents' farm when the men slaughtered a hog and my grandmother fired up the outdoor kettle to make her soap.


  9. Sight and taste are most often used in writing. You're right, we need to not overlook the other senses - and smell is often overlooked. Use of the senses needs to be one of the things we look for when we're editing. It can make a huge difference in the work.

  10. There's a Japanese game called Kodo which focuses on the power of scent in stimulating our other senses. We in the West seem to relegate it to less importance. It can be a powerful tool when used in writing.

  11. The heroine in my mystery series (stop laughing! I finished writing the second book!) has what her boyfriend calls "a super-sniffer". I have great fun using her sense of smell to bring another dimension to the scenes.

    Gayle Carline, author of Freezer Burn

  12. Very good point Maryann. You and your friend are so right about the power of smell to evoke memories. It could be used to great effect in writing.

    Word 4 Writers on HearWriteNow
    Blood-Red Pencil

  13. Thanks for sharing all your stories and experiences. It is amazing how many smells are out there that we don't often pay attention to unless they are really strong.


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