Using our sense in writing – the sense of smell
Posted by Lisa Lickel on September 19, 2012
Smell vs. Aroma
Let’s see a show of hands: how many of you already knew this?
Where, you ask? Does my brain leave the confines of my skull?
Well, it’s like this: Way back in our nasal passages we have about a square-inch-sized area of olfactory receptors. As we inhale we breathe in dissolved particles wash over these receptors which have millions of cilia extending from a little projection of bone at the tip of the neuron – and thus, a part of the brain extends into the your nasal passage to detect emulsions, send the information to the brain which then analyses the scent according to our experience, and tells us how to identify it.
The sense of smell is one of two senses, along with taste, humans are most willing to do without. Yet smell is often the most evocative of our senses. It is a powerful link to memories since we rely on our past experiences to recognize a particular odor. The sense of smell and the sense of taste are not exactly related, yet are closely tied due to the types and placement of physical sensor receptors in our bodies – namely that of mouth/tongue/nostrils/sinuses.
I’m separating this sense, as I have the others, into two aspects: the physical ability – to smell; and the layered reaction to that ability: categorizing the aroma. Even the word “aroma” is so much more elegant than others we might use, don’t you think? You are trained to react to words: when you read “smell” what goes through your mind? How about “scent?” Or “odor?” You react negatively or positively, depending on your experience, and the words we generally associate with them. A remembered scent can take us to an associated experience often more quickly than sight, sound, or even touch.
The human sense of smell is a complex chemical process, trainable, begins at birth and peaks somewhere in the teens when we have learned and categorized the scents in our world. How does a writer use this sense when layering a scene? Using a particular aroma can bridge flashbacks, when used sparingly; a particular scent can generate new information or a repressed memory. An odor can introduce a sense of dread or danger. A bouquet can tell your reader much about the personality of a discerning character. One of my favs is Steven James’s Patrick Bowers who is a coffee snob; he has trained himself, much like a connoisseur of fine wines, to tell where a coffee bean came from and how it was prepared. Just kind of cool.
If you’re going to introduce a memorable quirk in a character, the ability to detect a certain scent might be intriguing. Conversely, the lack of ability to smell, either at all (anosmia) or the loss of ability to detect particular scents can be just as revealing. A change or loss in the sense of smell also may indicate a genetic condition, a disease or injury that can affect a character’s life/health, as well as that of his or her environment and family, work, choices, and so forth. Women have a different and more acute sense of smell than men. Babies can detect their own mothers. Lots and lots of possibilities. In two weeks we finish this series with the sense of taste.
Our scene, then, with the added layer of scent, continues below. What else might you do in your work to add in this sense?
The story continues:
A one layered version:
Selena left their dog at the house so she and Justin could take a quiet walk on the Circle Path before dinner.
A multi-layered, visual, tactile, auditory and sensory scene:
Selena put the oven on simmer for the roast beef in mushroom and port sauce so they wouldn’t have to rush. She wanted to take her time on the Circle – the path around town, to enjoy the late summer afternoon and the first of the asters. The drip of the faucet reminded her of the new washer still in the bag from the hardware store. Later—after the walk. She pulled the door closed behind her and turned the key. Selena stalled a bit as she looked at her husband. Justin stood in the driveway, still as the light post, while he waited for her. She sighed. His hands were firmly stuck in his pockets.
Cicadas whirred from across the yard. Chloe barked and scratched at the door. Justin cocked his head in the direction of his English setter’s begging. Next time, baby, Selena thought. This time is just for us.
“Clockwise or counter?” she asked. His smile reassured her as he reached for her hand. His rough palm caressed hers and his warm fingers held tight, like a lifeline. Selena moved close enough to feel his body heat. The last of his mother’s tea roses bloomed in pink showers of petals along the front porch, reminding her of their wedding day.
“I’ll follow you,” he said.
Selena brushed her cheek against his line-dried cotton t-shirt where the rumble of his voice faded before leading him down the driveway. With one hand in hers he rarely tapped the cane in his other hand against the asphalt. Soon they’d be on the path, piney woodchips muffling their steps and taking her back to their honeymoon at Jackson Hole, before all the hurts and defeats of the last two years.
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