Scents in Fiction

Portraying the Senses in Fiction

To write captivating fiction requires the author to integrate human beings’ five developed senses—hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, and smelling—into their prose. A vivid sensory vocabulary enlivens the text while stimulating the reader. Each sense has a positive and negative valence. Sounds may be pleasant or irritating. The ability to see may be above normal or nonexistent. To experience touch may be desired or obnoxious. Food may taste delicious or horrible. Bodies may smell alluring or rank. As I have been exploring how best to write evocatively, I have looked into terminology for the sense of smell. Odors have a powerful role to play in engaging the reader.

Environmental Scents

Wherever one grows up, the air is filled with scents that mark changes in the weather.  I spent my childhood in a valley that had a Sulphur Spring on the west end of town. If the wind was coming from the West, the unpleasant smell of rotten eggs filled the air. Natives knew it meant that a storm was blowing in. Where I live now the air that sweeps down from the mountains on the West is fresh with the scent of pine forests. But in the winter when a cold front comes down from the north, the foul stench of the feed yards 70 miles to the North East floods over the city, announcing the arrival of a polar blizzard.

If I were writing about a big city, I would have to incorporate the odors of the alleys, the smell of the diesel buses, the perfumes or aftershaves of the crowds passing by. If I were writing about the sea, the smell of the salt water, the reek of rotten fish on the beach would fill my pages. Currently, I am writing about a period when there were no buses on the streets, and very little traffic (because most people walked and families only had one car, while university students had none). A few kids bicycled. The scents I remember from this era are the perfume of lilacs in the spring, the almost aftertaste of the wet grasses after an afternoon rainstorm, the smell of dry dust swirling from the dirt roads around town on a hot summer day.

Ceremonial Scents

Certain scents are associated with the observance of rituals. Most of these rituals have something to do with religion. I remember the pleasant cinnamon candles from the Christmas Eve services of my childhood. When I was in college, I studied abroad. The fragrance of burning wax in the cathedrals in France where visitors lit votive candles to send prayers to heaven for their loved ones inspired me—a Protestant—to plunk a couple of francs in the box. My spirit felt lighter after I had placed my burning votives snuggly in the metal holders.

In my 30’s, when I felt the need for guidance, I went to a Native American shaman who smudged me with smoking sage to clear my aura. I’ve never forgotten the pungent cloud swirling around me lifting the darkness away. The decisions she helped me make that day guided me along a path that allowed me to establish a successful career. I keep a bundle of sage sitting on the mantle in my living room, just in case I need another smudging!

Later in life, I attended a New Year’s Eve ceremony at a Buddhist temple perfumed with sandalwood incense. As we sat in a circle around a fire, we chanted while tossing grains of rice into the flames. With each grain we tossed, we voiced a blessing for a person we knew. First, I blessed my family, friends, and acquaintances. When I couldn’t think of any more individuals, I sent blessings to all sentient beings. The repetition gave rise to an experience that I can only express as bliss. Much later I read that sandalwood incense opens the heart and throat chakras.

Revolting Odors for Unpleasant Scenes

Fiction, of course, requires virtuosity in scents beyond the comforting or the ceremonial. A writer must master the vocabulary for odors that fall on the unpleasant side of the continuum—death, rot, mustiness, mold, oil fields, barnyards, mucky ponds, body odor. This vocabulary ranges from amusing to disgusting. I like the words the British use for strong unpleasant odors, such as pong as in the “pong of unwashed laundry.” Or frowsty, as in a “frowsty, moldy basement.” When I checked for malodorous words, I found about 60, so writers have many words to choose from to create a particularly malodorous scene.

Scents and Memory

As A la recherche du temps perdu taught us, scents stimulate memory. Anyone who is an aficionado of literature knows about Proust’s madeleines. I suspect that is why madeleines are available—much to my delight—at all the Starbucks I visit. They certainly were common nowhere but in France in my youth. For me, it is the scent of cinnamon rolls that sends my memory on a happy ride. My mother was a superb baker. As I crested the hill on the road to my house when I was a child on the way home from school, the elixir of her cinnamon rolls caused my pace to quicken. To this day, my mouth waters when someone mentions cinnamon rolls. My experience, along with Proust’s, suggests that writers can delve into their own pasts to create memorable experiences for their readers.

Writing Goals for 2019

This year my goals are to:

  1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019:

During the month of May, I have attempted to assure that the scenes I have drafted are animated with emotion, not just events. During my first draft, I definitely focused more on events in which my characters could be interacting with each other. This is an arduous process.

  1. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019:

During RMFW’s NovelRama, I worked on the first draft of my second novel. I used Marc LeBlanc’s “Eight Kinds of Fun” to stimulate my imagination. It worked. In four days, I generated drafts of 16 different chapters. In May, I used this personal experience as the basis of a workshop for the Boulder Writers Alliance. I shared my understanding of Marc LeBlanc’s model with the group. Then, I gave them a handout to help them sketch out ideas for their own novels. The participants were delighted with the insights they had into their own creative work. I intend to keep using this technique to reinvigorate myself when I am stuck.

  1. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019:

Today is June 7, 2019. This is my sixth blog of 2019. Almost half of 2019 has slipped away. Writing my blog has impacted my own reading. As I work on “emotion” as a driver for reader interest, I am paying close attention to how other authors put their scenes together. Since I am not writing an action novel, the emotional content in my own has to be more subtle. Finding a balance is tricky.

  1. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

As a current member of the Steering Committee for the Boulder Writers Alliance, I attended the Program Subcommittee meeting in May to consolidate plans for our programming for next year. The group is diverse. We all learn from each other. One mechanism of group development that fascinates me is how the content of the various BWA workshops has become the lingua franca of the group.


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