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Sunday, November 4, 2007

A Rose Is Not An Orange

Writers know that sensory details strengthen our prose. Sight, sound, touch, taste, feelings, and smell. Introduce a sensory cue, and the reader becomes more engaged in the story. JoAnn Wray, a very gifted and humorous Tulsa writer, spoke to our local WIN-ACFW group yesterday on this subject. The thing that really got my attention was what she said about the sense of smell. It is one of the most overlooked in writing, and yet it’s also one of the strongest, because it is deeply connected to memory. Smells detonate in our minds explosive images and feelings, mapped into our minds from specific events.

Now that I think about it, I know how true that is. I grew up in a rural area. The smell of new rain on parched ground is one of my favorite memory-bank aromas. Another is the smell of fresh turned garden soil. Not so favorite are the skunk smells that burn your throat and eyes, the ammonia-laced stench of sheep urine, and the acrid smell of singed chicken feathers. The smell of a dead mouse is enough to make me gag, but puppy breath brings a smile to my lips.

Many smells are universal: a pine-scented Christmas tree, the cozy smell of a log blazing in the fireplace, cinnamon-laced apple pie, fresh-brewed coffee, brownies fresh from the oven, the smell of a rose, a clump of lilac blossoms. Yet, how a reader interprets those images is uniquely his. How about colognes? Musk for men or fresh sea breeze shaving lotion. Old spice. Estee Lauder for women or just the clean, crisp smell of Ivory soap. The nose-pinching smell of a teenagers tennis shoes. Fingernail polish. Each is distinctive and capable of unearthing a range of emotions in your reader.

Smells also can give a strong sense of place, of setting. The stale, moth-ball odor of an attic is much different than the buttered popcorn smell of a movie theater. The spray of salt water with a hint of seaweed and fish is nothing like the dark, thick, earthy aromas of a swamp. Mention the bedpan smell of an old folks’ home, and your reader is instantly transported.

Do you use the sense of smell to your advantage when crafting scenes? A hint that yesterday’s speaker gave was to sit with your eyes closed, breathe deeply, and connect to the scents of life. Slow down. Let them drift in. Imagine you are in a bread factory, a favorite restaurant, a locker room. Inserting them in your writing allows the reader to use his/her own imagination, to be taken to the deep places of memory.

Give your readers the pleasure of being a part of the story. Engage their emotions through this sometimes forgotten sensory detail.

The caveats: Don’t overuse any sensory detail or you will annoy your reader. Maintain a balance of all the senses. Also, be sure that your sensory details are used in the proper context. JoAnn gave the example of a piece she edited where a first century Jewish man awoke to the smell of bacon cooking. Bacon in the first century? In a Jewish home? Be wise in your choices and sprinkle them in. Your readers will thank you.

What smell arouses strong memories for you? Pleasant ones? Not-so pleasant? It’s your turn. Tell me what cooks your chicken. Gags you. Makes you giddy. Are you using those in your writing? Try it, and let me know how it goes.


Myra Johnson said...

Thanks for the important reminder about using the sense of smell in our descriptions, Carla. This is something I'm noticing more and more frequently--how certain reminders evoke very specific smell memories, even from my childhood. (And that's a loooooong time ago!)

Erica Vetsch said...

What a great lesson. With every smell you mentioned, I was envisioning a scene from my past!

Sawdust, cut grass, Lemon Pledge, and maple syrup came to mind when you asked about smells that arouse strong memories for me. I'll have to see how I can use some of these in my WIP.

carla stewart said...

Thanks for your comments, ladies. Today I enjoyed the smell of a pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks. It reminds me of my mother's pumpkin pie, but it's also a reminder of the fall tradition that two friends and I enjoy--a morning out to catch up on each other's lives. Mmmm. Great memories and good times. Nothing like it!

The Koala Bear Writer said...

Very good article, and great list of smells that definately all trigger some memory! I think one that hit me recently was sitting down to peel a Mandarin orange... Mom always bought those around Christmas time (when they went on sale) so it made me think of our dining room with the lights down low, darkness outside the windows, the Christmas tree in the corner...

carla stewart said...

Great image, Koala friend. I could taste it as I read your description. Lovely.

Hope Chastain said...

Odd you should mention this, just as I was writing smells into my NaNo book! :-) VincePlato, who reviews books on the 10,000 book challenge blog at, calls putting every sense in writing to work "five-sensing." Books that rely heavily on sight & sound without adding in smells, touch sensation and taste don't get nearly as high a rating from him as those whose writers spent the extra time to bring every sense into play.

I think of the heady aroma of buckwheat right after a rain in the mountains of southern California; mincemeat pie baking in the oven during the holiday season; that first pot of coffee in the morning... Mmmmm.

Thanks! A lovely blog entry!

carla stewart said...

Thanks, Hope, and good luck with getting in a proper proportion of the five senses in you NaNoWriMo this month.

Hope Chastain said...

Thanks, Carla! :-) You, too!

Anonymous said...

Lovely. Thanks for the reminder.