This is a story all about how my life got flipped, turned upside down.
Wait, no it isn’t. This is instead a story all about a writing group getting together to improve their descriptive techniques. That’s the current side focus of the Cat Vacuuming Society of Northern Virginia, after we talk about the immediacy of personal writing goals and do any critiques for the week. We’re doing an in depth tear down of short description-heavy passages from each group member, looking at what each does right and could do better. I’d like to talk about two, plus my own. One of the passages took place on a teeming dock as a trading ship pulled into port. Another took place in a hospital waiting room. Both of these are places that I associate with very specific smells. The dock would have the fresh sea air mixed with exotic spices from around the world, all likely overpowered by the stronger stenches of dock workers. Hospital waiting rooms tend towards the antiseptic, smelling so clean they almost sting the nose and lungs. The problem is, both passages missed out on their opportunities to include any olfactory description.
We then got around to my passage, a character walking through an 1860s southern town just before a massive explosion, and…yup, it was pointed out my own writing was also lacking scent cues.
Smell is possibly the hardest of the scents to put on paper. We’re surrounded by them constantly, but rarely think about them. Right now, for example, I can smell the hot chocolate sitting on my desk that’s just a little too hot to drink. It’s a sweet, rich aroma, with a hint of vanilla because I may or may not have added a little flavored creamer. However good it smells, though, I have to think about smelling it. Otherwise it’s just as much part of the background as the HVAC blowing overhead. The nose is designed to ignore smells that persist over any period of time, otherwise we’d constantly smell nothing but ourselves, or even just the insides of our nostrils. The paradox is that, for all the passivity of scent, smells are also tied more directly to our memories than any other scent. It’s why people exhibit such loyalty to brands of perfume, cologne, or aftershave, why people think of things as their smell.
It’s also one of the harder senses to actually put into words, possibly because it’s so passive. So in the end we often use tautologies. Let’s smell my hot chocolate again. Mmm. The easiest word I can use to describing the scent is “chocolatey.” It’s describing the smell entirely in terms of itself, like calling the feel of sand paper “sand papery”. As writers we’re dealing with an anosmic medium, where we frequently need to describe aromas not in relation to themselves, but in words that a reader can understand if he or she has never smelled the item in question. It’s no use calling the aroma of my drink chocolatey to someone who has never before smelled chocolate. And while it’s likely that your readers have smelled chocolate, there are other aromas in your book they haven’t. There are people in the world who have never smelled sea air. Or a fresh cut pine tree. Smells we might consider pervasive, universal experiences, may very well not be.
So it’s a two part problem. We don’t think to describe smells, as smell is often such a passive sense, and we struggle to find the right words to evoke smells without resorting to tautologies. My challenge to you is to go through a day and try to be more aware of what you’re smelling. Think about what smells different about being inside versus outside. Between inside your office versus your car or house. Between when it’s raining and sunny. Between when the temperature is hot, neutral, or cold. Consider the smell of water, both from your tap, from a lake, and from the ocean. A character doesn’t need to run through a scene smelling everything, but as with all descriptions, a few telling details can go a hell of a long way. Figure out those details in your life.
Writing prompt (yes, I’m going to start doing these, blame me listening to Writing Excuses): Smell something, whether pleasant or unpleasant, then write a sentence or two describing that smell to someone with anosmia. This means no describing it in relation to other smells. Instead, try using words related to the other four senses. Post your results, and perhaps we can even get a discussion going about which bits are done well or poorly. I promise my own contribution shortly after this auto-posts.