Does your writing stink? Do your scenes feel flat and your characters cardboard?
Maybe you’re neglecting the sense of smell. Sights and sounds are essential. But smell can add another dimension.
Smell is tied to emotion. Real estate agents tell prospective sellers to bake cookies or a loaf of bread just before a buyer tours their house. They’re hoping those smells will trigger happy memories of home cooking and the lookie-loo will buy the house.
Years ago, when I was growing up, I would wake up and smell the coffee – and the fried eggs and bacon. Those were good memories.
Smell can be a quick, easy introduction to a flashback in your novel.
The smell of climber roses and cut grass take me back to my Midwestern summers. The scent of honeysuckle reminds me of Sundays at my grandmother’s house, when I read near a honeysuckle vine.
The smell of hothouse flowers make me think of funerals.
Beer, gin, wine and other alcoholic odors can bring back good times and bad ones.
These smells can trigger a happy – or sad – memory and give you an easy way to reveal your character’s back story.
Smell can herald a person. I can smell smokers before I see them: I pick up the stale nicotine scent of their cigarettes or cigars. The smell lingers on their skin and in their hair.
So do perfumes. In a mystery I just read, the protagonist knew the man she was talking to had just seen his girlfriend – his car still smelled of Chanel No. 5. I know when a certain security guard is on duty at our condo because he wears a strong, pleasant aftershave that I can smell throughout the lobby.
has a rare metabolic disorder, maple syrup urine disease, which provides a crucial clue. He smells of stale maple syrup.
You can have your victims smell their assailant’s sweat, cigarette smoke, perfume or aftershave. They can be close enough to have garlic or curry or mints on their breath.
In “The Poet,” Michael Connelly says a room “smelled like stale smoke and Italian salad dressing.”
Smells change at different times of day. I visit an office building two or three times a week. Early in the morning, about 7:30, it smells like cleaning products with top notes of bleach. After 9 a.m., when many of the workers are at their computers, the building smells like hot coffee. By noon it smells of microwave dinners. And at 4 p.m., it smells tired. What’s that smell like? Burnt coffee with undercurrents of sweat and stale microwave meals.
In the morning, people may smell freshly showered and their shirts smell of starch. By nighttime, after a stressful day, they could smell of sweat.
Smells can give your story a sense of reality. Your writing can paint an idyllic picture of a farm: the green fields, the sturdy farmhouse, the horses grazing in the pasture. But what’s the first thing you smell?
Be honest now.
That smell gives your pretty word picture a whiff of reality.