A nose for news. In journalism, the phrase means the ability to sniff out the newsworthy from the trivial. Good reporters have one. Give them a whiff of corruption and they’ll root it out like a pig diving for truffles. Narrative writers can ferret out the conflict in an event or situation that makes for compelling prose.
Write with the senses, editors and writing teachers demand. And most of us do that, providing our readers with vivid images and resonant sounds.
But hunt high and low in stories for a sense of smell and some days you feel like a bloodhound who’s lost the scent. Tastes abound, but smells, the scents that get the salivary juices running, are often absent. But look hard enough, and they seem to be found in the best writing.
“Smell,” wrote the blind and deaf writer Helen Keller, “is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived. The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief.”
Pick a smell and it will take you back to times past, remembered places. I need only catch a whiff of patchouli oil and it’s the ’60s again. Another scent catapults me back to my father’s wake when I was 10 years old. Bouquets of lilies and roses and sprays of mums and daisies surrounded his coffin, but the cloying, overripe scent of carnations summons that memory with its churning blend of grief, fear, and shock.
“Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences,” Diane Ackerman writes in “A Natural History of the Senses,” a sensory-rich journey. “Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.”
“Mention a smell,” says novelist fantasy and horror story writer,” Rayne Hall, “and the scene comes to life. Mention two or three, and the reader is pulled into the scene as if it were real.”
Bob Kerr, former Providence Journal columnist and a Vietnam veteran, said that jungle war is captured for him in the confluence of two smells generated by the malodorous duty that required soldiers to dispose of latrine contents with fire: “diesel fuel and burning shitters.”
No one has written more powerfully about the senses than Ackerman, whose book catalogs the potency of sensory data. “Nothing is more memorable than a smell,” she says. Or as evocative.
All of us have a lengthy catalog of smells that make us remember and feel. So why are we so reluctant to employ them in our writing?
Ackerman makes the case that the problem is in our head, in the connections that link our sense of smell with the parts of the brain where language forms. She calls smell “the mute sense, the one without words.”
Try describing a smell to someone who’s never smelled it, she says, and you’ll see how our olfactory precision quickly diffuses.
“The physiological links between the smell and language centers of the brain are pitifully weak,” compared with those “between the smell and the memory centers, a route that carries us nimbly across time and distance.”
“When we see something we can describe it in gushing detail, in a cascade of images … But who can map the features of a smell?”
Emily Grosvenor is a journalist and essayist who has written extensively about scents in fiction (the nostrils of novelists and short story writers seem more sensitive than most journalists). She has an inspiring online collection of examples that she calls the “Best Smelly Writing.” In fact, she won the the Perfumed Plume Awards for Fragrance Journalism. (There really is one.)
She also produced an olfactory exegisis of Paula Hawkins’ “The Girl on the Train,” that is a guide for writers in search of acutely described smells that will inspire writers who want to employ that sense.
There is another novelist I’ve studied who writes powerfully with his nose: Richard Price, the novelist (“Clockers” and “Freedomland“) and screenwriter (“The Color of Money” and “Sea of Love.”)
The novels of Price reek, in the very best sense of the word.
A close look at the way he uses the sense of smell in his novel, “Samaritan,” reveals a taxonomy of olfactory usage that any writer, of whatever genre or form, can profit from. (The italicized passages are from the novel.)
THE MADELEINE EFFECT
“Straightening up, he was struck with a humid waft of boiled hot dogs and some kind of furry bean-based soup that threw him right back into tenth grade.”
For French novelist Marcel Proust, taste was the bridge between present and past, captured in the legendary scene in “Remembrance of Things Past” when the act of dipping a madeleine, a small shell-shaped pastry, into a cup of lime-flower tea, enables the narrator to relive a moment from his past. In the gritty world of Price’s urban New Jersey wasteland, the smell of cafeteria food is an equally powerful time transporter.
SENSE OF SMELL AS PLACE
Price repeatedly uses smells to evoke a sense of place:
“Outdoors again, she inhaled a low-tied stench, funky but evocative, coming off the conjunction of river and bay.”
“The lobby of his old building, as he’d expected, seemed smaller to him but the smell caught him off guard: a claustrophic stankiness — urine, old bacon grease.”
“A greasy aroma drifted down from the third-floor food court — spare ribs and Cinnabons…”
SMELL AS CHARACTER TRAIT
Writers regularly use visual cues to distinguish one character from another. Price uses scents the same way, marking his characters with distinctive smells, like the tracks of a woman’s perfume and the effect it has on the hero.
“Danielle then embraced Ray. She was sporting some kind of vanilla-musk body spray, the scent so dense that it made him dizzy.”
“Wearing dry-cleaned jeans and a white T-shirt under a red bolero jacket, she gingerly wandered about, lightly touching things, her perfume, that vanilla musk, laying down a heavy sweetish track wherever she went.”
SMELL AS MOOD
Make cookies, real estate agents advise home sellers who know the smell evokes a homey atmosphere. (Or just sprinkle a few drops of vanilla on a hot lightbulb to get the same effect.) Price evokes mood with descriptions of odors.
“It was cold, the city-borne breeze damp and acrid, still damp with dread after all this time.”
“This time around, the hospital smelled like terror; a pervasively astringent reek that set up house between Ray’s eyes and made the two-month-old ‘Entertainment Weekly’ spread-eagled between his fists flutter as if caught in a gentle breeze.”
“Each day,” Ackerman writes, “we breathe about 23,040 times and move around 438 cubic feet of air. It takes us about five seconds to breathe — two seconds to inhale and three seconds to exhale — and, in that time, molecules of odor flood through our systems.”
“Unlike the other senses,” Ackerman explains, “smell needs no interpreter.”
But the twinned reflex of breathing described by scientists and the work of Richard Price suggests ways writers can use smell to convey information, memory, and emotion in their stories.
1. Breathe In.
“Over time, smell has become the least necessary of our senses,” Ackerman says, quoting Helen Keller’s name for it: “the fallen angel.”
Our antiseptic age seems designed to rob us of smells or confuse our nose with synthetic concoctions that mask noxious chemicals with the aromas of the orchard.
Cultivate your sense of smell by using it as much as you can.
2. Name that smell.
Diane Ackerman says, “We can detect over 10,000 different odors, so many, in fact, that our memories would fail us if we tried to jot down everything they represent.”
During workshops I’ve asked writers and editors to help me develop a catalog of smells. Here’s a sampling:
- New wood
- Horse manure
- Dried seaweed
- After summer rain
- Coffee with cream
- Sea air
3. Describe the smell.
Modifiers can heighten a smell’s impact. Price regularly uses them in his olfactory details.
“The air smelled of sea funk and overturned earth; the only thing Ray loved about living in Little Venice, the raw and heady scent made him think of new beginnings, of second and third chances to get things right.”
Price also describes the nature of odors, a technique that adds to the muscularity of his prose.
“Then, reentering the apartment from the terrace, she gave the living room a fresh look. Minus the caustic reek of mothballs … the place had the same vaguely geriatric un-lived-in feel as Mrs. Kuben’s digs next door…”
Nerese found herself walking into a living room adrift in malt liquor fumes, her son and three of his high school buddies playing at being players, sprawled on the couch, throwing back forties and clutching their nuts, a porno video playing on the TV.
Simile and metaphor, the workhorses of poetry, can help convey a smell’s power to a reader.
3. Find the Source.
Don’t just inhale the world. Identify and describe the smell and the memory or feeling it evokes.
Reading Richard Price and then noticing how few writers, myself included, take as full advantage of their sense of smell as he does, has made me more alert to the power of this sense.
It also reminded me that a scent can provide a story’s most haunting moment. Decades ago, I wrote a story called “The Death of a Smoker” as part of a series on early efforts to sue tobacco companies for smoking-related illnesses and deaths. The smoker’s widow was showing me around the home she had shared with her husband before lung cancer killed him. In her bedroom, she paused and told me something that I used to end the piece.
“It feels like one big nightmare,” she says. “Maybe I will wake up, and he will be in bed with me. But I know it’s not going to be so. Would you believe it? I take his aftershave lotion and spray it on his pillow just so I can smell him. Just the smell of it makes me feel like he’s with me.”