Using The Five Senses: Smell

Hey, SE Readers. Joan with you with the second in a series of posts using the five senses in writing. To read the first part on sight, click here. Today I’m writing about smell.

I probably overlook using smell more than any other of the other senses, but it is often the most powerful. Certain smells can bring back memories, invoke emotion, and draw the reader into the story.

Both of my maternal grandparents passed away when I was twelve years old. They lived in another state, so I rarely saw them more than once a year. Many of those times were when they visited us.

Despite that, there are times when I will catch a whiff of something that reminds me of their home. Describing the smell is difficult. It’s probably a combination of my grandfather’s cigars, my grandmother’s cooking, the cleaning products she used (the place was spotless), and perhaps the apartment itself. The building was constructed during World War I.

What are the odds for me to encounter all these things at once—decades later and over five hundred miles away? Yet there are times when I’m taken back to that time and place. The feeling is always pleasant.

Our sense of smell is often linked to memory. The reason is simple. When our brain processes scent, it travels through the memory and emotion sections.

Unlike sight, it’s challenging to describe a scent. We can define objects by their shape, color, texture, or size. Not so with smell. That’s why it’s nearly impossible to give an accurate description without comparing it to another familiar aroma.

  • A salt-scented ocean breeze
  • Honeysuckle
  • A vanilla candle
  • A pine forest after the rain
  • Warm chocolate chip cookies
  • The antiseptic scent of a hospital corridor

Consider the following passage from At Home in Mitford by Jan Karon.

The Oxford was wearing its signature fragrance of floor wax, lemon oil, old wood, and worn leather. Andrew had even gone to some pains to buy flowers at Mitford Blossoms and arrange them himself in an ancient silver wine bucket, which he placed on a hunt table newly arrived from Cumbria.

At this point in the story, readers already know The Oxford is an antique store. But when the author uses scent to describe the interior, she transports the readers inside.

Photo of Shiloh National Cemetery courtesy of the National Park Service (Public Domain)

Not all smells are pleasant ones. The following is my account of a visit to Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee.

I was six-years-old the first time I visited a Civil War battlefield. The Battle of Shiloh took place in 1862 near Pittsburg Landing on the west bank of the Tennessee River. I don’t remember much about my first visit there—not Shiloh Church, the bloody pond, or the numerous monuments.

What I do recall is the cemetery and my refusal to go past the gate. Dead soldiers were buried there. Although the battle had occurred over a hundred years earlier, the stench of dead bodies still permeated the air. It was years later I learned the smell was from a nearby paper mill.

Talk about a powerful response. My six-year-old brain convinced me the smell was decaying flesh. I’d been in cemeteries before and had even attended a funeral or two. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t having any part of Shiloh Cemetery.

When I returned to the park in my early twenties, I didn’t notice the smell. That’s because the wind blew in a different direction, carrying the stench of the paper mill the opposite way.

The sense of smell is compelling, and one we shouldn’t overlook in our writing. Done correctly, we can invoke emotion, revive distant memories, and put our readers in the middle of our stories.

In my next post, I’ll write about using the sense of taste.

57 thoughts on “Using The Five Senses: Smell

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  8. What a fabulous post, Joan! I love the examples. The scent of onion and garlic cooking in olive oil will forever link me to my maternal grandmother. It was the base to practically everything she cooked. Thank you❣️

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Excellent examples, Joan. Our sense of smell is very powerful and as you described, can take us back to a moment in time with just one whiff. Smelling cinnamon rolls baking always brings about a sense of well-being for me. I’ve never pinned down to one incident or occasion, but it’s a strong one. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Great examples, Joan. When I smell fried chicken, I always think of my mom. She cooked it every Sunday, and we raised chickens. Lavendar always makes me think of my grandma. She kept sachets in her chest of drawers to scent her clothes. And Chanel No. 5 makes me think of a woman in our old church whom I thought was glamorous. Scents DO evoke memories. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think fried chicken was a staple food in many homes on Sundays. (That or roast.) When you mentioned lavender and your grandmother, I was reminded that my grandmother kept a little bottle of patchouli oil on her dresser. For some reason, the rather exotic scent seemed out of place for her but I vividly recall it. Loved reading about your memories.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I’ve been to Shiloh myself. I never smelled anything strange. I guess I got lucky and the wind was not carrying the paper mill stench to my nostrils. I’m very happy about this. Haha. What did stand out to me though, was the large green statue, in particular the one of a woman in the center of a battlefield. It’s huge and seems to look at me. It felt pretty damn eerie to be honest. So that’s an example of the overused, boring-old-seeing description. Haha. I have been trying to use the five senses more in my writing. Smell can be so powerful, especially chocolate chip cookie smell. or maybe cinnamon roll! Yum. Okay. Gotta go grab a snack now. Haha. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Smell is a visceral sense, one that holds different meaning for each of us. Where you associated the stench of the paper mill with a cemetary, I remember the thrill of traveling high above the road in my dad’s semi as we delivered wood to the mill- love.
    In writing, I often close my eyes and visualize the emotion behind the scent and try to convey that (whether it works or not depends on the reader’s experience :))

    Liked by 1 person

    • Funny how we look at things differently. Some people wouldn’t have liked the smell of my grandfather’s cigars, but to me, it’s a pleasant one. And good point about the reader’s experience. No matter how hard we try, some won’t be emotionally moved.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I think I use smells more in my poetry over novels. You make a strong point the smell brings us right in especially comparing it to something we know. Your experience with the cemetery would leave that planted when the smell hit you again. Great post, Joan.

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  14. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    Joan Hall is continuing with her Five Senses series on Story Empire today, and is focused on the sense of Smell. Check out her post reminding us of how important all five senses are in our written work, and consider it one of those “little things that make a huge impact” topics. Don’t forget to pass it along to others, if you would, thanks! And thanks to Joan for reminding us how important these things are. Great post, Joan! 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Great post, Joan! I’ve read that of all the senses, smell is most connected to memory, and I know that’s true for me. Some connections are wonderful and comforting like what you describe, and some will bring back nightmare events in a heartbeat. This is something I’m very much aware of because my sense of smell is very, very good. It has held up better than my vision and hearing, for sure, and Mark has always said I have a nose dogs envy. 😀 And btw, there’s not much that smells worse than a papermill, unless it’s creosote, which used to scent Jacksonville for miles and miles and miles. So I think your take on what you thought you smelled at the cemetery makes perfect sense. (Ha. See what I did there? 😀 )

    Scent is a wonderful addition to writing. In conjunction with a cool breeze (touch) blowing through a dark, shady woodland (sight), the fragrance of summer jasmine drifting by rounds out a setting pretty well, I think. Maybe a cardinal singing or a fox barking to add a bit of sound, and the reader would be right there. Thanks for reminding us to use more sensory perception in our work. Well done! (Sharing, for sure!)

    Liked by 2 people

  16. I love how the sense of smell can trigger such strong memories, transporting someone back in time. I enjoy using sense descriptions in my fiction and smell is one of my favorites.

    I really liked your look at the cemetery from a six-year-old’s viewpoint. I would have probably thought the same thing, convinced that stench was coming from the graves. And your grandparents’ apartment….what great examples. When I catch certain scents I am very fond of saying things like “It smells like Christmas” or “It smells like the beach” or “Thanksgiving,” etc. My husband is used to me frequently making those comparisons LOL

    Wonderful post, Joan!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve done the same thing, Mae! There are certain “seasonal” smells. Funny thing about the cemetery, I recall my mother trying to convince me that it was okay to go inside the cemetery and the smell wasn’t from the soldiers. I think one of my aunts decided she didn’t want to visit it either, so the two of us sat in the car or somewhere.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Wonderful post, Joan. I’ve been trying to keep the senses in mind as I write. I relied on taste pretty heavily for Brandi the moth girl. I have one planned for a future story that will use the sense of smell pretty extensively. The major plot points are easy enough. It’s those smaller scene setting bits I need to remind myself of.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Great post on the sense of smell, Joan.
    Another use for this sense in writing is for the more supernatural side of things … it is often said that strange smells accompany the appearance of spirits–say tobacco or perfume, etc.
    And someone about to have an epileptic seizure will sometimes smell things like violets.

    All fascinating stuff.

    Thanks so much for sharing.

    Reblogged this on: … with the comment: Check out a great post today from Joan Hall over at Story Empire. How do you use your sense of smell when you write? >>>

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Great post. Was going to mention the memory thing and was happy to see it. Although I tend to forget about this fact when I right. Scent-based nostalgia for characters doesn’t come up a lot when I’m in the middle of writing. Just describing smells.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I have heard when someone loses one of their senses (or in your son’s case is born without one) the other senses take over to compensate. i recall reading the story of a man who was blind but he knew people by the sound of their footsteps. Thanks for visiting today.


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