“There are fragrances. Beyond fragrances are smells, beyond smells are odors, and beyond odors are stenches. Beyond stenches is what I am about to write here.” — “The Pasture” from Kerplunk! by Patrick F. McManus
These three sentences are some of the best writing about the sense of smell that I’ve read. Using the sense of smell in my writing is something I need to work on. It’s the last sense of I think of because I have such a poor sense of smell. Unless a scent is especially strong, I just don’t notice it.
One way I have noticed the power of smell is its ability to trigger memories. No other sense works as well to recall past events. When I smell cooking onions, I immediately think I’m back at my grandmother’s house. Even if the smell is coming from the basement cafeteria at an elementary school, I still think of grandma. A smokey fire in reminds me of the wood burning stove that my grandparents had. Sunscreen, especially when mixed with the scent of bug repellant, sends me back to high school when I attended camp for marching band.
This unique aspect of smell inspires me as a crime writer. What if something tragic happened to a character at a young age, and now that the person is grown up, she can barely remember it? But when she encounters the same unusual odor that she smelled at the time of the tragedy, her memories come into focus.
Or a man is attacked and never saw who it was but did notice a distinct scent about the attacker. Months later, the man meets someone who smells the same way. With only this clue to go on, he begins digging into this person’s background.
In a lighter vein, describing horrible smells lends itself to humorous writing. The quote above comes from a story about how a terrible stench prevents a young man from enjoying his favorite fishing hole.
For more on how to use the sense of smell in your writing, click here for a previous post on the subject.
How would you write about the sense of smell?
I have a keen sense of smell. I smell things long before the rest of my family. It’s not always a plus! I agree with smell evoking memories. In fact, I have a scene in both my WIPs using that technique because it is a real thing in my life. Great post, JPC!
Thanks for stopping by! A smell is a great way to introduce a memory in a realistica way without a reader feeling like the author is shoving in backstory.