I had a rare spare minute on a relatively sunny English day when I decided to glance at Twitter. Often this is the kiss of death to a moment’s peace, but on this occasion it was destiny. Ok, fine, it’s was a coincidence that was very pleasant. I was in a coffee shop reading Joanne Harris’ latest “ten tweets” (yes, they feature here regularly, she’s cool with it and I want to document them as they’re inspiring) on scent. I closed my eyes and breathed in bitter acid, hints of cinnamon and pepper as well as a lingering of burnt cheese toastie. Then I overheard a woman I know to be a doctor saying, “Your sense of smell is the only one of your sense that doesn’t lie.” Naturally, I immediately tweeted this to JH because one, how funny to hear that at that moment, and two, it’s nonsense. Later, I realized the doctor was talking about food and survival mechanism in the body – a tad less romantic. Ah well.
Here are the Ten Tweets with some annotation by me
1. Scent, and its close cousin, taste, are arguably the most evocative of our senses, and the hardest to describe.
2. In both cases, it’s almost impossible to describe them accurately, except in terms of other scents and tastes.
3. But because scent is closely linked with memory and the emotions, it lends itself well to figurative description.
In a convo with someone else she gives a great example of talking about a food that would evoke a smell memory for some people but instead of describing the smell itself, which can be elusive and end blandly, she evokes the feeling: Sunday mornings in summer, in France, buying bread while everyone else was going to church. This feeling illicit, of skiving off, or perhaps even a dedication to the religion of food. There’s also warmth, in the bread and the summer, that already have me wishing I knew how to make a baguette in under five hours.
4. You can use it when you’re working, too. Rosemary oil aids memory. Lavender helps you relax.
5. Many actors use scent to help them get into character. Writers can do the same thing.
In my current WIP I have tried this with some success. A character has memory association with a smell that brings her sadness in the beginning. Over the story, I try to move the scent back to a place of enjoyment – wherein she can remember and revere rather than feel instantly depressed. I have the smell with me when I’m writing key scenes if I can.
6. Scent works by association. Get used to a certain scent when you’re working, and you can work anywhere.
Say it with me fellow freelancers and/or working parents- coffee, strong coffee.
7. Because most writers concentrate on depictions of sight & sound, scent references in fiction can be very powerful.
I’m reading a book that takes place in America and a scene describing entering a BBQ joint, just little bits of the sights, sounds, and smells, made me so homesick. Evocative for me because it’s my homeland but for an outside reader it brings you into that place even if you’ve never been there in real life.
8. Nor do they always have to be pleasant. Using the sense of smell in a violent scene can really make it zing.
9. But if you’re using tastes and smells, you need to make an effort to notice them, and make them unique to you.
10. Over-used descriptions like “salt like tears” or “the coppery taste of blood” won’t make the reader feel anything.
More from me:
I’ve been cautioned by a crime writer to never repeat the word blood more than once in a paragraph, certainly not in the same sentence. But as with all the “rules” you can break them if you do it well – exceedingly well. I’ll caution my readers to be aware that in your first draft (or two) the odds that you’ve been able to pull off using a cliché are very small.
Personally, I find music to be very helpful in setting a working mood for writing. It’s difficult to use music in your writing, specific tunes anyway, for various reasons, not the least of which is copyright; it is difficult to get permission to use artist names and songs in a book. But having a playlist for a character or for getting in the mood to write that fight scene or love scene can be a highly effective tool.