Lately, I smell.
Not me, personally. At least not in a stinky way. But as I’ve been putting the finishing touches on my WIP I’ve been thinking, sniffing, and scribbling a whole lot of smells.
From the moment kids grab their first fat pencil they’re counseled to Add Sensory Detail. Grown up writing teachers give the same advice. What this boils down to, almost always, is a lot of description of what a character sees or how something feels to the touch. Sometimes sensory description extends to sound. Even rarer to taste. Most elusive of all (at least in my opinion) is a novel that really develops atmosphere through the sense of smell.
Essayist Diane Ackerman wrote “One of the real tests of writers is how well they write about smells. If they can’t describe the scent of sanctity in a church, can you trust them to describe the suburbs of the heart?”So why don’t we read more about smells?
I have a few theories. For one thing a little smell goes a long way. Unlike dogs, people aren’t constantly defining their world by smells they pick up. A really sniffity character would be, at best, an odd character.
Then there’s our sanitized, de-germed world. Consciously or unconsciously many writers seem to scrub their chapters down with metaphorical Clorox wipes. (Failing to notice the antiseptic odor that remains.)
The main reason, in my opinion, is smell is very hard to describe. We have a limited vocabulary of sweet, spicy, sharp or pungent words. Analogy (her golden hair smelled like an apple in the fall) only goes so far. And sounds pretty lame.
But hard isn’t impossible and if Ackerman is right we all owe it to ourselves, our characters, and our stories to get a grip on smell. What’s the solution?
This summer I bought Sara Midda’s South Of France. Midda is a illustrator and this gorgeous book in a chronicle of the colors, tastes, and sights of a year in… well Provence. As much as I loved reading Peter Mayle’s A Year In Provence, it’s Sara Midda’s sketchbook that makes me feel like I’m really there.
As I reveled in the book’s gorgeously colored pages I searched for a month- August? June? April? when the smells of Southern France would overwhelm Midda’s tiny water color paintings of olives and roof tiles and espadrilles. Well… not so much. Sara Midda more or less leaves the smells of Southern France to our imagination.
So I searched on, perplexed about how to really harness smell on the page. Then I came across the fascinating work of graphic designer Kate McLean.
McLean makes gorgeous maps—but not the kind of maps that help you track down an address. These are sensory maps- smells, tastes, whatever, based on data collected from actual sniffing, feeling, tasting people. She’s already tackled a variety of cities, from Paris (a city sort of renowned for neat, elegant, urban smells) to Newport, Rhode Island (a place I’ve never visited and of which I have no smell impression, unless maybe Vanderbilt mansion dust) About Newport she says “Newport’s scents are largely ocean-based; the ocean itself, the lobster bait, suntan oil from the bathing tourists, beach roses that brighten the low lying sand dunes. In contrast country smells of hay and juniper speak to the rural aspect of this diverse city. Cool. Her Edinburgh is a mix of boy’s toilets, penguins at the zoo, cherry blossoms and a bunch of other stuff. I can’t say I noticed the penguin smell when I was last in Edinburgh but the boy’s toilets… yes, that’s probably right.
Can you make an imaginary smell map of the place your character inhabits? Could it include the acid sting of dry erase marker on a white board? The rubbery tang of new sneakers just out of a box? The mix of fake citrus and oil in a spritz of furniture polish? What does your character smell when he wakes up in the morning? What does he smell when he climbs on the school bus? These are the easy ones. What does his smell when his best friend dumps him for one of the popular kids? What does he smell while he tells a lie?
Now I had a great technique for graphically illustrating (and brainstorming) smell. But once I’ve gathered a bouquet of smells I had to consider fresh and stinky ways to describe them.
Coincidentally (are there really any coincidences?) I’d been studying a great book this summer.
Mark Doty brings a poet’s sensibility to description- not just describing senses but describing ANYTHING. He deconstructs poems written by giants from Blake to Whitman, analyzing not just specific phrases but also their whole systems of description, from general to specific, concrete to metaphoric. The book offers writers brand new tools for describing old or true or elusive things. This isn’t a paint by numbers system by any means. It’s really brain expanding stuff. But it’s great. I highly recommend it.
One writer who exploits the power of smell with a sophistication that Doty would no doubt admire is Deborah Wiles. Consider this passage-
“(T)he three of us stood together like one giant statue headstone, in a vegetable garden-cemetery, guarding the temporary gravesite of Great-great aunt Florentine and brushing up against the tomatoes. It felt good.
My parents smell like a mixture of gardenias and embalming fluid, even after their showers. I think their jobs have permanently soaked into their skin.“ p. 17 Each Little Bird That Sings
The scene takes place in the family vegetable garden, a sensory delight, except at this moment they’ve just discovered their beloved aunt dead among the veg. What does that smell like? In Debbie’s world death doesn’t have a nasty stench. It’s literally a part of nature, running right through this loving family’s pores.
Let’s drill a little deeper. In the little passage above Debbie begins with a description of Momma, Daddy and Comfort brushing against a tomato plant. Anybody who’s ever been in a garden knows tomato plants have an intense green leaf/tomato smell, only released when someone rubs against the plant. It’s a soothing, domestic smell. The scent of home grown tomatoes is at least as precious as their taste. Atmosphere established she moves to the funeral home director parents. Embalming fluid and gardenias are our modern smells of death, but here they’re domestic and comforting and very very specific to these characters. Life and death unite in their smells, creating amazing emotional intensity. The passage goes on from there. Check it out for yourself. Even Comfort’s dog dismay gets into the sniffy act.
So now that I have a better understanding of the power of smell I’m ready to harness scent in my novel.
I’ve decided to make a sensory sketchbook of my own, chronicling smells I encounter for real and also smells I imagine in my work. I’ll sketch out maps and trails of smells. Then I’ll put those smells into words. Since this won’t be a scratch and sniff project I’ll have to hone all my descriptive skills to articulate the nutty smell when I lift the lid from my birdseed can to fill the feeders. Or the musty smell of the inside of the clothes dryer after I’ve emptied a load of still-dampish towels. I’ll consider what these smells convey- domestic bliss? fear? sorrow?
Will these smells make it onto the page of a final draft? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t really care. This is an exercise in observation and description, precision and imagination. And it’s going to be lots of fun.
How do you describe your favorite smell? And what are your favorite “stinky” books?
~tami lewis brown