The Nose Knows

By Elaine Viets

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.

Smell can announce your protagonist or cue your characters that the killer is in the room.
In “Postmortem,” Patricia Cornwell has a killer who

(spoiler alert!)

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.

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About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book.

23 thoughts on “The Nose Knows

  1. Good post, Elaine. Most early writers (and some not so early) forget and use only or predominantly the sense of sight. It’s a good idea to use all five senses at least once in every major scene.

    I like your post because it points out some specific reasons to use the sense of smell. Interesting, too, that the senses of smell and taste are very closely related.

  2. And for the scientifically minded: “Because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it’s sometimes called the “emotional brain,” smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously.”

    Opening a bag of birdseed will take me straight back to my great-aunt and uncle’s chicken ranch even though I haven’t been there since I was a young child.

    And then there’s the whole pheromone thing … 🙂

    • And let’s not forget that women have a better sense of smell than men, Terry — we have more sensing brain cells. Sorry, boys, it’s true.
      Lovely memory about your great aunt and uncle’s ranch.

  3. Elaine, the language for smells seems maybe less developed than for other senses. Many of your examples involve “smells like…” or “the smell of….” The smell of old beer. Smelled like yesterday’s garlic sauté.

    These would depend on the reader having the experiences. If I read that the protag smelled the honeysuckle, or that her scent reminded him of honeysuckle, I can sense that it was meaningful for the character, but since I don’t know what honeysuckle smells like, it’s not much of a trigger for me.

    The language for other senses seems somehow more universal: bright, red, soft, rough, slippery, loud, high-pitched. Not that language for other senses doesn’t also use “like”-phrases: the organ sounded like a wheezing octogenerian.

    Is this just me?

      • Right on, Elaine and Eric. However, the reader should be able to sense right away that whatever it was was a pleasant olfactory sensation. For that character.

        I used to like honeysuckle, but now it causes allergies. Yet I remember it with fondness. When it’s an unfamiliar scent mentioned in writing, I substitute from something that’s familiar. And in my writing, I don’t usually have difficulty describing scents and odors.

  4. As a writer, I often “forget” about using the sense of smell. But it does evoke powerful images. My grandparents passed away in the early 70s. But I can still remember how their apartment smelled and it brings back pleasant memories of a simpler time.

    Great post!

  5. I smell a rat! Meaning, I have completely neglected this important sense in my stories. I will rectify immediately. Thank you for this article, Elaine. It awakened my sense of smell. I’ll be sniffing out pages in my current WIP for places to insert the nose.

  6. A farmer friend says that manure “is the smell of money.”
    The lawn service told me the smell of the “organic fertilizer” would dissipate in a day.
    Now thinking of Liz Milliron’s description in ROOT OF ALL EVIL of a house that smelled like cat litter magnified, and before it was even said, we know it’s a meth house.
    Our smell vocabulary might be limited, but we do quite well with comparisons to shared experiences.

  7. Well said! There are many smells that trigger specific memories for me. There is a perfume that I remember from a transvestite from my “misspent” youth working at the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I knew Tom for years before I saw him in men’s clothes. Yves Saint Laurent – Opium still reminds me of him. Not a good thing when it is your professor’s favorite parfum.

    There is one thing that text and email don’t have that paper letters do, scented letters. That was love.

  8. In pizza land we are exposed to all sorts of odors. We have customers whose body spray overpowers the smell of the pepperoni in the store. Really. There were a group of fifty-ish men who would put on men’s room cologne before coming in to order pizza late at night. The night manager is cute, but not interested in anyone as old as her dad.

    Paper money carries scents very well. My pants have smelled like a customer’s perfume from her money.

    Oh, a driver friend who went on to a better tipping job told us if a guy’s money smells like baby wipes, he has been to a strip club. The girls use them to clean up between sets. The scent rubs off of the girls onto the money and their it stays.

    • “Oh, a driver friend who went on to a better tipping job told us if a guy’s money smells like baby wipes, he has been to a strip club. The girls use them to clean up between sets. The scent rubs off of the girls onto the money and their it stays.” —
      Fascinating, Alan. You are an education.

  9. Fantastic post, Elaine. Scent is such a neglected sense. I found (and saved) an amazing scent dictionary, which gives synonyms for the word “scent”, words to describe scents, and examples of pleasant and unpleasant scents. I can’t extol the virtues of this dictionary enough, though I might add in some verbs dealing with scent.

    My granddad smelled like diesel, oil, and peppermints. Every time I visit the mechanic, I think of him.

    I work in a pulp and paper mill, and to me, it smells like boiled cabbage and waste gas (which is pungent and caustic) with an undercurrent of chlorine. Thankfully, I work in the office and don’t get out much.

    • When I worked at a newspaper, Mollie, I loved the sharp smell of printer’s ink. For me it was intoxicating. Glad you’re in the office at the paper mill.

  10. Excellent post. I put the five senses in a checklist at the top of every scene I’m writing. Then try to incorporate as many as I can. Smell and Taste are typically the hardest and the least checked.

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