The Magic of Smell in Writing

8 Oct

Really connecting

I recently mentioned in my Writer’s Mailbag series that I have certain smells which instantly transport me back in time to my childhood.

I loved the fall season as a kid.  It just seemed like the best season for smells around our neighborhood.  Mr. Conrad burning a pile of leaves . . . Mrs. Shaffer baking bread . . . my mom frying chicken . . . drives in the country and the smell of fertilized fields . . . I’m sure there is some medical or psychological reason why this happens, but I’ll leave that to those much smarter than me . . . I just know it happens.

Someone mentioned in comments the smell of freshly-mowed grass . . . most definitely!  And someone else mentioned the smell of the air after a shower . . . again, that is a smell which is hard to describe but you know it when you smell it . . . and that’s the point, we all know it when we smell it, we can all relate to it, and it could be used in a story or a novel with that in mind.

The writer’s job is to describe a scene for the readers, and to make that scene instantly relatable to the readers.  It requires talent and hard work to do it.  Let me share with you a scene from “The New Iberia Blues” by James Lee Burke:

“Her living room was tiny, the doorways hung with beads, an ancient Victrola against a wall, the couch and stuffed chairs maroon and purple and tasseled, incense burning in a cup on the coffee table.  Bella wore sandals and jeans and an oversize Ragin’ Cajuns T-shirt and a gold chain around one ankle, a charm balanced on the top of her foot. I could smell ham and eggs cooking in the kitchen.”

One paragraph, carefully crafted, sights and smells categorized, and as a reader I am there.  The description is sparse and yet it plays to my imagination, leaving me to fill in the blanks and make some assumptions, which is also the mark of a master craftsman on the job.  Regarding smell, Mr. Burke chose incense and ham and eggs cooking, two smells most of us can relate to, and that’s an important distinction . . . most of us can relate to it.  I can come up with some rather bizarre smells I remember smelling during my life, but not all of them are relatable, so I probably would not use them in a story or a novel.

Just something to think about before you craft your next scene.

Someone recently asked me . . .

How do I notice all of these things in order to make my scenes realistic?  For me it comes naturally. I’ve always been a shy observer.  For others it takes work and practice.  Remember the senses. What do you smell? What do you see? What do you hear?   We all share the senses, so make them work for you.

Have a great week! If you need me, I’ll be outside soaking it all in.


“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

26 Responses to “The Magic of Smell in Writing”

  1. Janine Huldie October 8, 2019 at 1:57 pm #

    I love how that one paragraph above did indeed catch and heighten all my senses. So, definitely agree that words can most definitely illicit all sorts of feelings and memories, as well. Thanks for the continued reminder and Happy Tuesday now, my friend 🙂

    • Billybuc October 8, 2019 at 2:13 pm #

      Thank you Janine! You do it well on your blog…I always leave your blog hungry and feeling cozy.

  2. Emese Fromm October 8, 2019 at 4:06 pm #

    You are so right, Bill. Using all our senses in descriptions transports the reader to the scene instantly, yet it is hard work. Most of the time we describe sights, especially when something is so striking. Yet smell is one of the strongest triggers of memories, which, when relatable, could instantly transport us into a scene. Yet, it’s so easy to forget this. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

    • Billybuc October 8, 2019 at 4:15 pm #

      It is easy to forget, Emese. Sight imprints itself on our memories much more often than smell, or so it seems to me.

  3. marlenebertrand October 8, 2019 at 4:21 pm #

    If I was forced to mention only one thing I learned from you, it would be this – that we are to use our senses and describe what the reader should/could see, smell, and feel. Thank you for your excellent tips. They do make a difference.

    • Billybuc October 8, 2019 at 4:27 pm #

      Marlene, I’m happy that lesson has been received. It is vital for any writer. 🙂 Thank you so much for your friendship.

  4. Lori Colbo October 8, 2019 at 5:20 pm #

    If you can see, smell, taste, or feel a description, you’re there, it was well written. I think your example by James Lee Burke was perfect.

    • Billybuc October 9, 2019 at 1:40 pm #

      Thank you Lori, and I completely agree with your summation.

  5. Sageleaf October 9, 2019 at 1:29 am #

    Big Bro, you have a talent for making scenes come to life. You’re just dang good at it. I don’t think I ever liked the smell of eggs cooking (though I don’t mind eating them) but the smell of pancakes brings me back to Saturday mornings as a kid. And the smell of rain mixing with the earth? There’s a word for that (though I know you know already, hehe): petrichor. <– I just *love* that word.
    Anyways, you keep doing the awesome work you do. Yesterday you left me such a great compliment. Today I will pay it forward: you do a lot of good for the world, Big Bro. You have a way with words and inspire so many. You're truly making a difference.

    • Billybuc October 9, 2019 at 1:37 pm #

      That is very sweet of you, Lil Sis, and I thank you. We both have gifts, and gifts are to share and not hoard. 🙂

  6. nightlake October 9, 2019 at 1:45 am #

    So true about the smell and the memories associated with it. Somebody’s perfume can take me back to primary school and remind me of my class teacher. The smell of fresh paint holds pleasant memories of my childhood. Describing smell is also important in writing haiku. Interesting post. Cheers!

    • Billybuc October 9, 2019 at 1:34 pm #

      Nightlake, thank you for the reminder about fresh paint. A memory just came to me, a very pleasant way to begin my day.

  7. Nikki Khan October 9, 2019 at 8:29 am #

    I love the scene above Bill, a great way to describe a scene full of smells and beauty. The author’s work is much crafted here. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Billybuc October 9, 2019 at 1:32 pm #

    Thank you for stopping by,Nikki! I hope this day finds you well.

  9. Shauna L Bowling October 9, 2019 at 6:57 pm #

    Bill, I so enjoy your posts. The closing line on this one is the best yet: “if you need me, I’ll be outside soaking it all in”.

  10. Billybuc October 10, 2019 at 1:48 pm #

    Thanks so much, Sha! I’m just an old guy trying to squeeze as much life out of the time left. Hugs coming your way.

    • Shauna L Bowling October 10, 2019 at 2:35 pm #

      Bill, I know your birthday is Sunday. I’m afraid my card will be a little late. I didn’t get it in the mail until today. Sorry ’bout that!

      I hope you have an awesome birthday weekend!

      • Billybuc October 10, 2019 at 3:04 pm #

        it’s not necessary at all, dear friend, but thank you very much.

  11. Andrea Stephenson October 10, 2019 at 5:38 pm #

    I don’t have the best sense of smell, but it is, of course, one of the most evocative senses and like you, it comes automatically to think of all the senses when writing. Interesting point that they must be smells that people can relate to, because it’s very hard to describe a scent you’ve never smelled!

    • Billybuc October 11, 2019 at 1:47 pm #

      That does make it difficult for sure, Andrea. But writing wouldn’t be enjoyable if it wasn’t challenging. 🙂

  12. 1authorcygnetbrown October 11, 2019 at 12:19 pm #

    I too was the observer! I remember sitting at my aunt’s table listening to the adults talk and tell their stories. She used to say that everyone needed to watch out for the quiet ones like me because we were aware of everything.

    • Billybuc October 11, 2019 at 1:40 pm #

      Ain’t that the truth, Donna? 🙂 We are sneaky observant for sure.

  13. Sarah Potter Writes October 15, 2019 at 3:35 pm #

    I am so into smells. Last month I visited a beautiful garden and got some very strange looks from a few people when I emerged from sniffing an old-fashioned English rose and declared that it smelled exactly the same as the fancy rose cream chocolates that my granny used to love.

    Have you read the All Souls trilogy by historian Deborah Harkness, of which the first book is called “The Discovery of Witches”? She’s incredible at describing smells through the unique super-sensitive olfactory powers of her vampire and witch characters. Throughout the trilogy the author never forgets the importance of showing the world via all the senses of her characters. There are some quite well known authors who neglect to do this, which is one of the things that makes their fictional characters wooden and two-dimensional, and the number one reason I put a book down after a few pages. Another writer who does (did) it right is (was) Ray Bradbury, who is a joy to read even though some of his themes are sombre.

    Amen to that. I’m rambling. You got me thinking, my dear friend, about an essential ingredient of creative writing. I feel very sad for people who, for medical reasons, can’t smell things. Yes, some smells are bad, but if you can’t smell, you can’t taste and so it goes on. I wonder if people who’ve once been able to smell things and then lose their sense of smell, still retain a memory of smells. Must look into that…

    See, how your post has opened up all sorts of questions. I guess the mind of the writer never switches off, even when taking a break from actual writing.

    Bill, you should try some rose creams (and violet creams, too). They are so delicious, but do have a good smiff of them first. Fudge follows on as a close contender. Have you noticed the similarity between the smell of fudge and of natural latex? Recently I purchased some Traidcraft household rubber gloves and they smelled of vanilla fudge, and I thought those gloves tasted good enough to eat, but of course I didn’t eat them!

    Now I really must shut-up, or I’ll have written nearly as long a comment as your post.

    Wishing you a happy and creative week, my dear friend 🙂

    • Billybuc October 15, 2019 at 3:43 pm #

      Sarah, you remind me so much of my wife, Bev, and that is a high compliment indeed. She experiences life in a different manner than many people. The simple act of walking from Point A to Point B is a magical experience for her. She is almost childlike in the way she finds joy in what others consider mundane.

      I respect you, in case you didn’t know.

      No, I cannot imagine a world without smell…or touch…I am a toucher. I relate to things, and people, only after touching them. I need to form that connection with the animate and inanimate. I think it comes from long ago for me, the first nine months in foster homes, rarely touched, longing for a connection. Those imprints do not go away with time but only deepen.

      Thank you for sharing so much of you in your comment. Hopefully one day we will be able to sit, as friends, over a cuppa and thoroughly enjoy each other’s company.

      Hugs and love winging their way in your direction


      • Sarah Potter Writes October 15, 2019 at 4:06 pm #

        Such a compliment, dear Bill. I like the idea of sharing a cuppa with you and with Bev, but I’m not a great traveller, apart from in my mind. Who knows? Maybe we’ll meet one day.

        That’s so sad about you being in foster homes and rarely being touched. It reminds me of somebody I once knew who was in her nineties and told me that what she missed the most was cuddling up to her husband at bedtime.

        Hugs and love is what makes the world go round.

        Sarah x

      • Billybuc October 15, 2019 at 4:50 pm #

        We don’t travel either, Sarah. The thought of twelve hours in an airplane is enough to make me break out in hives. But it’s a lovely thought. 🙂

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