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
- 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.
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.