Writing and the Dynamics of Smell

I watched a mother pass sample pots of dry teas to her young son in a local tea store. Oranges, he said, sniffing at the tin his mother held out while at the same time continuing to tease his little brother. Grapefruit. Vanilla. Mint. He got them all. I thought about writing and the sense of smell.

Smell for Narrative Energy

In Edinburgh last year, I was entranced by the installation “It Happens When The Body Is Anatomy Of Time” by Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. The fragrance of spices, cloves, cumin, turmeric, pervaded the room, bringing the visual artwork – lycra ‘skins’, the stitching details, the colour and lighting – alive, and making the installation a sensual and exciting experience.

Not easy to do in words of course, but why not try?

Smell and Characterization

People don’t just have broad brows, sallow complexions, wide hips, cascading red hair. They smell too.

When her elbow hurt she smelled like iguana oil, which she claimed cured her arthritis, and when plucking chickens, well, he didn’t want to think about that. At night after her bath Julia gave off the scent of a field of flowers, or what he imagined to be a field of flowers… Pablo Medina “The Cigar Roller”

flower garden

Last weekend in the country I lit the wood stove. The kindling soon caught and I added larger and larger pieces of wood. Suddenly black smoke started to billow into the room. I closed the stove door but still the smoke streamed out. My eyes watered and stung and I gagged on the foul sour smell and threw open the front door. Maybe some animal had made a nest up the chimney or perhaps the chimney was blocked by ice. Now back in the city, I keep catching a whiff of that pungent, acrid smoke on my coat. I wonder what people think when they catch it too.

Smell and Dreamtime

Foreboding, foretelling, forewarning, diving into a character’s imagination or dreamworld. Or into ghost or spirit worlds. Here the quotation refers to a sound but, as author Montague Rhodes James notes, it can work too for smell:

It was a sound, too, that seemed to have the power (which many scents possess) of forming pictures in the brain. He saw quite clearly for a moment a vision of a wide, dark expanse at night, with a fresh wind blowing, and in the midst a lonely figure–how employed, he could not tell. Montague Rhodes James in ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’

Smell and Backstory

“Nothing is more memorable than a smell.” Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses.

We all know what it’s like to get a whiff of…baking bread, apple blossom, a urine soaked stairwell… Back we go to a completely different time and place.

This is the “Proust phenomenon” – a quick way to trigger a character’s emotional memories and back story.

Smell as a Writing Prompt

I put an orange cut into pieces and sprinkled with cinnamon in a paper bag as a prompt for my writing group. I asked the writers not to look inside the bag, but to close their eyes and sniff. Not only were the writings full of fragrances, but they were also full of other sensory impressions, especially textures, sounds, movement (slipping, floating), colors, as well as strong emotional undercurrents.

Smell for Creative Play

A friend and I decided to become more knowledgeable about fragrances and perfumes so we rustled up some samples from friends and stores, and sniffed away, making ourselves come up with our own descriptions before turning to Perfumes: The Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez.

At first I was entirely literal and just focused on pinning down the actual ‘notes’ or smells (mint, lavender, woodsy…).

Then I followed Turin and Sanchez’ example of using expressive (non-literal smell) metaphors and images. This is Luca Turin describing Dior’s Fahrenheit 32: “It has the muted, cozy feeling of a gloomy day somewhere really hot, with that strange, cheerfully doom-laden TV-documentary look you get by using a gradient filter that makes the sky look darker than it should.”

What fun! And what a dynamic and original way to evoke elusive smells through words.

heavy horses in stablesSoon the snow will melt and we’ll see the first signs of spring. And smell them too! That smell of bright bug-eyed leprechauns dancing with green ribbons over the squelching peat bog that holds its secrets so close, and of grand draft horses, shoulders and flanks black with sweat, dinner plate hooves churning up clods of mud as they strain to drag their heavy loads up the mossy bank.



Try the interesting and fun prompts and suggestions using smell in “Follow Your Nose” by Anca Szilagyi on the Ploughshares Literary Magazine blog.


2 thoughts on “Writing and the Dynamics of Smell

  1. I love writing that awakens the senses. Thoroughly enjoyed the excerpts you’ve provided as examples, and I especially enjoyed the story of the little boy in the tea shop.


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