Five ways to include more scent in your writing
Would you do something for me?
Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and imagine the scent of freshly mown grass.
What came to mind? The first days of spring? Sports fields and ball games? Hay fever? Picnics? Something else entirely?
Neurologically, our sense of smell is linked to memory and emotion. Even merely thinking of a scent you’ve previously experienced is likely to conjure up all kinds of associations. Here, then, lies the question that initially inspired my debut novel Shadowscent: The Darkest Bloom; what better way to transport a reader than to build a world from fragrance? Thus, the idea of the Empire of Aramtesh—where politics, power and daily life revolve around incense and balms, fetors and stenches—was born.
How can we evoke a new scent to a reader?
There was just one caveat; I was going to have to stretch my craft if I wanted to convey rare (and even fictitious) scents in my book. While smell is one of the most powerful senses to deploy in our writing, it’s also one of the least used. Even when we do come across a scent in written form, it’s often simply the mention (ie. ‘freshly mown grass’ as above) or the idea (‘he couldn’t bear to throw out his ex’s t-shirt because it still smelled of their cologne’), that invites readers to recollect their own experience of aroma. But what if they’ve not smelled it before? How can we evoke a new scent to a reader? And how do we use smell in interesting, varied ways, rather than repeating tried (and potentially tired) examples?
Here’s just a few of the resources and methods I found useful. Hopefully they’ll inspire more whiffs of the pleasant and pungent in your writing, too!
Perhaps the most logical place to start, and definitely one of the most rewarding. Perfume authors and bloggers are often writing in contexts where they need to describe complex fragrances without obvious analogues. They make writing about scent an art unto itself, using beautiful language to summon the mood of a perfume you’ve never smelled. See, for example, the gloriously poetic posts from Edinburgh-based writer and photographer The Silver Fox.
Our senses of smell and taste are entwined, so there’s also a treasure trove of inspiration in food writing. I found cookbooks combined with memoir particularly useful - there’s that relationship between scent, memory and emotion. Even if chef-talk isn’t your thing, a quick internet search of ‘aroma wheel’ in the wine, beer or even coffee world will bring up a plethora of charts to boost your smell and taste vocabulary, and help you think about how to compare and contrast different categories of scents.
Scent was even more important in many historical societies than it is today. Given I was creating a pre-industrial fantasy world, I took quite a bit of inspiration from Ancient Rome, where your social, political and religious standing were related to scent. Do you have bad breath? The Romans would have suspected you of telling lies!. For a more general introduction to the reeking and the sublime throughout the centuries, try Jonathan Reinharz’s wonderful book, Historical Perspectives on Smell.
While the human olfactory system isn’t as acute as that of some of our animal friends, we’re still capable of registering thousands of scents. But unless they’re ones we deem important (ie. smoke being associated with danger), we tend not to notice them. Try taking a walk while consciously observing each scent you encounter. Better still, try describing those scents to someone as if they’ve never come across them before. Studies have shown the more we do this, the more we’re able to discern. For an accessible dip into the reasons why, try Avery Gilbert’s What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life.
Quiz your characters
Just want to add a sniff or two? Even just thinking about each of your character’s favourite and least favourite scents can help you naturally draw more on the sense of smell. And it will probably spark interesting insights into their backstory, too! After all, most people have a narrative about why they appreciate or despise an aroma. Sometimes the answers are very revealing...
Competition: Win a Shadowscent: The Darkest Bloom goodie pack
We have a fantastic goodie pack to give away thanks to the author and publisher. Readers have the chance to win a Shadowscent proof copy, a final copy of the book, a postcard, signed bookmark and an exclusive Shadowscent-themed candle and lip balm from @GeekyClean.
Closing date: Wednesday 13 February, 12 midday. Open to UK entrants only. Full terms and conditions.
All you have to do to enter is answer the simple question at the bottom of the page.