The sense of smell

TheDustyZebra

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We talk about incorporating the senses into our writing, and how smell is often the most neglected, but it may be even more neglected than we thought.

This is an interesting article by someone who lost their sense of smell years ago, giving advice to those newly suffering the loss due to COVID. The bit under "Lesson One" is particularly interesting in terms of writing -- how often people talk about smell.

 

AlexH

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I really struggle to put smells into my stories, but I try. A recent short story had faint sewage, lavender and sweat, which I think seem obvious things to mention. How do we describe the less obvious smells?

Right now I'm going to make cinnamon toast.
 

mosaix

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Some years back I lost my sense of smell. It happened gradually over a period of months so I didn’t realise it had happened.

Until one day it returned for a period of about two minutes whilst I was walking through a town centre. It was absolutely stunning - especially the Indian restaurant!

Anyway I visited the docs and was given a prescription of nasal drops. They took some time to have any effect but I remember one day thinking that the house was on fire until Mrs Mosaix reassured me that she was just making toast!
 

Toby Frost

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I describe smells quite a lot, especially the smell of a room when characters enter it. I think it helps anchor the scene in the reader's mind. However, the vast majority of strong smells either aren't pleasant or wouldn't be something you'd want to linger permanently, so they do tend to have a slightly negative, grubby connotation if they're not the smell of something obviously wholesome.
 

tinkerdan

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The whole notion really stinks, a bad smell to it, pungent and it leaves a bad taste while it makes me see red, I feel it in my bones so bad the neighbors can hear me screaming. And my sixth sense says it's time to go.
 

Plucky Novice

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I sometimes find smells hard to describe in fantasy because our obvious points of reference don't always exist in that world or haven't been experienced by the character.

What do spices smell of, for example, if your character hasn't smelt them before? Or alcohol, or ozone from lightening?

You get the idea. Anyone else have this issue?
 

HareBrain

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How do we describe the less obvious smells?
What do spices smell of, for example, if your character hasn't smelt them before? Or alcohol, or ozone from lightening?
I've seen smell used very evocatively in fiction, but I tend to treat it as authorial rather than strict POV, because in many instances I couldn't believe the character would identify the smell that accurately. This is often where something is described as smelling like a combination of other things. When a friend of mine who makes scented candles asked me to identify which two scents made up a particular candle's aroma, I was hopeless. I could recognise them when they were pointed out to be, but not otherwise. I'm not saying all characters would be as bad at it as me, but often their olfactory senses seem superhuman.
 

Astro Pen

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On a more serious note we don't even know for sure that we can consciously detect human pheromones though it seems pretty certain that we respond to them. Being a 'family show' there are probably limits to how far we can discuss this here though some writers of erotic fiction go there.
Here is a short scientific article broaching the issue.
 

JS Wiig

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What does cocaine smell like? :unsure:
I imagine, from the price people pay, it must be pretty nice.
It smells like numb...

...or so I’ve heard...

I've seen smell used very evocatively in fiction, but I tend to treat it as authorial rather than strict POV, because in many instances I couldn't believe the character would identify the smell that accurately. This is often where something is described as smelling like a combination of other things. When a friend of mine who makes scented candles asked me to identify which two scents made up a particular candle's aroma, I was hopeless. I could recognise them when they were pointed out to be, but not otherwise. I'm not saying all characters would be as bad at it as me, but often their olfactory senses seem superhuman.
Agree that sensory explanations should depend on the narrator or POV. If a POV character grew up in a mountainous desert, they wouldn’t be describing a sensory experience as “brine and seaweed.”
 

AnyaKimlin

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I used to put smell and taste into my story. Using all five senses was something I was careful to do - it will be interesting to see as I write my new one as Covid has knocked me down to three.

There are advantages. I can no longer smell the cat boxes unless I have forgotten they are there (and nobody else can smell them apparently) and the pee is strong. Cat poo is no longer in my register.

We've already had me not be able to tell food is off and I now need tasters because salt needs to be really strong before I taste it.

The biggest issue is that I need caffeine in the morning to head off migraines and at the moment I am taking tablets because everything else is just bogging - even with IRN BRU or Pepsi all I can taste is the sweet and bitter.

And the one nobody is talking about... it has seriously reduced my sex drive!!
 

Danny McG

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I remember the first few months after the UK smoking ban of 2007.
You'd pop into a pub for a drink, instead of a mild fug of cigarette smoke and beer there was this awful stench of B.O and bad breath.

Also my favourite table, in the corner near the bar, was now "unsittable" due to the smells every time the door to the toilets was opened.

People stink!
 

Phyrebrat

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I think your perception of smell can be improved depending on your culinary skills. Thinking of Harebrain’s point above in particular (re scented candles), I know mine improved when I moved to London and began cooking diverse dishes.

The problem is: how do you compare the smell of mustard seeds burning on an oiled skillet or cardamom if your character hasn’t smelled them before? Taste and scent are so closely linked. If your character is ‘well-read’ in terms of food tastes, their sense of smell will be far sharper.

Personally, I apply this to wine...

pH
 

Toby Frost

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I think it depends on point of view. In a close 3rd person story, I don't see how it could be done, since everything has to be filtered through the character whose point of view it is. In a less close 3rd person story, I think it could be done, but it might be a bit awkward. Something like: "A terrible smell met him. It was like a mixture of sulphur and rotting fish" - if the character had never heard of sulphur. Except better, of course!

I found this quite a lot when writing fantasy, when I ran into concepts that the characters didn't have - translating "Dead letter box" was a tricky one. I think I used "an alchemical smell" a few times.
 
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