Writing by Nose: Use all the Senses

No, this is not a new version of two-finger-typing for those endowed like Cyrano de Bergerac. It is about adding a new layer of reality and depth to your setting and scene description, and about playing up the differences between characters.

Scent may be one of the senses least invoked in writing. When we describe a setting or individual, most of us start with physical characteristics (visual), then perhaps the sound of their voice or the sounds of a place. Then the personality, the overall emotional sense “feeling” of the person or location. Taste and smell come farther down the list, for good reasons. Unless you are writing about a chef, a professional “nose,” or a geologist, having a character think about taste and flavors may seem a touch strange. Having the protagonist taste people…. eh, unless you are doing something a la Silence of the Lambs, or some erotic scenes, probably not recommended. Touch likewise, although a pet owner (or mage with a Familiar) who hears that sound in the night and realizes that it came from between him and the light switch, and he has to get up to deal with the problem, and his foot touches…

Why geologists and taste? Is that gypsum or some other salt-rich mineral? Geologists around here seem prone to cleaning off samples and touching them with their tongues to verify mineral types. YMMV, and biologists do not do this, by in large.

So, what scents, and why? We are all familiar with someone who always used a certain perfume of aftershave, so much that it becomes difficult to separate the scent from memories of the individual. My great-aunt, the Southern Belle in the family, used Royal Secret. If I could find a bottle, I’d grab it in a heartbeat because of the memories that it evokes. There are also scents of times and events, like someone’s fresh-from-the-oven breads, or roast meat (turkey or goose or duck). Perhaps lemon trees from an especially memorable summer vacation, or the smell of the sea and first teenage love during a trip to the beach… Scent is visceral, tapping into something very old and strong in most people.

The absence of a scent can also be a warning. If you have a fantasy species that uses pheromones to communicate, what does it mean if an individual doesn’t produce a scent? What if a flower or other scented plant is not blooming when it should? Has someone been working forbidden magic? Or does your protagonist groan because it is the early warning that they need to get ready for early onset allergies or the Return of the Son of the Revenge of the Head Cold: Part Three the Sequel. I imagine that space ships and space stations smell metallic and a bit stale because of recycling the atmosphere. Or is stale a bad thing because it means the scrubbers have begun to fail and they’re dang near impossible to reach without taking the entire system apart?

The topic is on my mind in part because of working on a fifth Shikari book, and because of editing Miners and Empire. Part of the story takes place inside a mine, and wet mines have a certain scent to them. If they are “breathing,” it can be a good, familiar scent that means the old air is being pulled out and fresh drawn in, or it could be bad, with CO2 or flammable gasses starting to filter up from the lowest galleries. This particular mine, and the real one it is based on, smell a bit of chemicals and rock, because they are lead/silver/copper mines, with some iron and vitriol. The mine is not a wet mine per se, but it does have water in it, and so smells a bit like wet stone and metal. For the character, these are normal, healthy scents, a little comforting because it means there are no miasmas lurking where he intends to work. On the first day of the work week, the mine smells a little of smoke as well, because fire-miners have been at work cracking the rocks. The character also knows the smells of a medieval town, and what he should not smell.

When used well, scents pull the reader deeper into your world and make it more real. How real? that’s up to you. I’d just as soon only imagine what the area around an angry 100 lb skunk smells like, thank you. And you do not have to describe in detail the smell of human death. I know that one already.


19 thoughts on “Writing by Nose: Use all the Senses

  1. Using the nose can be interesting. Wrote an “opening” last summer while practicing my depth. MC was focusing on smelling a scene and cataloging scents. No, not a dog, a human I think. That lead me down a rabbit trail of how we describe smells. For example, can you describe the scent of grass without using grass in the description? 🙂

    1. It depends on the grass. Yard grass would be a challenge, although it me it is a little bitter but still “green” smelling. The native grasses around here are sweet and smell a little of dirt and cinnamon. When they dry and especially when they burn, the sweet, spicy overrides the darker smoke scent, at least until you get pretty close.

    2. how do you describe the scent of grass without using grass in the description without making your reader say “Why didn’t you just say smells like grass!?!?!”

      1. One attempt…

        The first time I cut the lawn, using the old rotary mower, after the rain, the wet, rich smell floated around me, an invisible mist as thick as fog in my nose. I worried, because that thick rich smell also meant the mower was likely to clog as the damp stalks wound around it, instead of chopping off as they would when drier. But the smell also reminded me of playing baseball, and lying on the lawn watching the stars, and so many other happy times. So I grinned as I mowed, pushing that old mower as straight as I could across the lawn, and back again.

        Okay, a lot of that isn’t just about the smell, but…

  2. Speaking as a geologist here, NEVER LICK THE CORE SAMPLES!!!

    Always spray or dip them in water.

    The drillers urinate in the mud pit.

    1. No, not cores. This is more while hiking along and “ooh, rock! What kind of rock?” (I may be one of the few historians who had to learn some basic seismograph-log reading for my dissertation, because of studying the effects of opening up the Borger Field on regional water supplies and systems. I’m Odd.)

  3. Good point about noticing sensory input that’s *absent*. Works really well to indicate unexpected change or hazard.

  4. All I will say is be glad war movies don’t have ‘smellovision’… Re scents, ships and military aircraft are the same, there IS a distinct odor to them, a mix of fuel oil, rust, paint, sweat, and fear.

    1. I served on the Midway back in the ‘70’s and remember the smell of fuel oil, kerosene, paint, grease and sweat. When I went to the museum in San Diego the first thing I noticed was the lack of the old familiar smells. They’ve done a great job with the museum but it’s still like a viewing at a funeral – your old friend isn’t there any more.

  5. https://www.ebay.com/bhp/royal-secret-perfume

    All the Titan II sites I was in all smelled about the same, and my nose acclimated in 5-10 minutes and noticed it no more…until we were relieved and went topside and could smell it in our uniforms. The museum site south of Tucson, though, doesn’t smell to me, which I attribute to the doors being open all the time. The Minuteman sites I was in, didn’t smell.

    1. 570 SMS 1980-1983.

      You’re right. I never thought about it, but there was a certain odor to the crew capsule. Occasionally, the crew would cook or burn something that would give a cover up for a while, but they all smelled the same. The thing I noticed the most was the smell when you went into the silo. Totally different and for lack of a better term, it smelled cold.

  6. Using all the senses is vital, as long as you keep it in context. And, sometimes, playing around with one sense being another is an interesting way to express things. Like for example “it smelled purple, flat but sweet.”

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