The Scent of a Story

The Olfactory Nerve and Mood

We are instructed to use all five senses when writing descriptions. I must admit I often forget to use the sense of smell.

We smell with the olfactory nerve, the first cranial nerve. Cranial nerves are paired nerves that connect to the back or bottom of the brain, exit the cranium (skull and facial bones), and help us taste, smell, hear, feel sensations, and move our facial muscles and tongue. The olfactory nerve is also involved in autonomic function (automatic function) – affecting salivation, gastrointestinal function, appetite, nausea, interest or lack of interest, and sexual arousal.

Much of our sense of taste is actually from smell and the olfactory nerve.

The olfactory nerve endings are in the upper nasal cavity, near the opening to the frontal sinuses. The nerves connect to the bottom of the frontal lobe. And, because the olfactory nerve tract is connected to the limbic system, it affects emotions and memory, and thus mood.

That’s why a smell can quickly set off a memory or mood, and use of smell/scent in our descriptions may help to establish mood in our stories, ex. smell of our favorite meal, our old baseball mitt from Little League, corsage flower from prom, the scent of a tree that bloomed in our backyard, or the scent of our favorite cologne/perfume, etc.

Thus, olfactory nerve function—smell/scent—may help establish emotion and mood in our stories. But, how exactly does that happen? The bottom line is that we don’t really know. Here are a couple paragraphs from an article in GoodTherapy in 2019.

“The brain makes new neurons from stem cells in the hippocampus (part of the limbic system), suggesting the hippocampus and the feelings and memories it supports can change with new experiences…

“The limbic system is dynamic, changing with input from a person’s environment. Experience changes this important brain region, and that may help explain why people’s psychological and physiological experiences change over time…”

Though it may be fuzzy logic we’re using here (fuzzy can be good in fiction), let’s train our backsides, each time we sit in our writing chairs, to send our brains a memo to spray some smells/scents into our descriptions and plot.


  • What examples have your read or written with smell/scent as source of mood?
  • What is your favorite scent/smell? What smell do you hate?
  • What smells/scents (in your opinion) are most powerful for creating mood?
  • Bonus points: What are the two most powerful smells on Mackinac Island?
This entry was posted in mood, scent, smell, Writing by Steve Hooley. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steve Hooley

Steve Hooley is the author of seven short stories published in four anthologies, a Vella serial fiction, and is currently working on the Mad River Magic series – a fantasy adventure series for advanced middle-grade to adults. More details available at:

40 thoughts on “The Scent of a Story

  1. ❖ What examples have your read or written with smell/scent as source of mood?
    ❦ Horus Blassingame comments on smells a few times: “I stumbled from the cramped railway compartment, desperate to reach the open spaces of the terminal, despite the latter’s unpleasant odour of locomotive oil and smoke.” Later, being pursued, he hides in a smelly garbage chute. Tenirax can smell the Ebro River, mold, oleander blossoms, incense, a tannery, coffee, candles, and the perfume of various women,
    ❖ What is your favorite scent/smell? What smell do you hate?
    ❦ I like tobacco, before it’s lit, incense, coffee, jasmine, and chocolate. I hate garlic and animal odors. And hydrogen sulfide–it’s very toxic.
    ❖ What smells/scents (in your opinion) are most powerful for creating mood?
    ❦ Floral aromas, such as perfumes, and spice aromas–cloves, etc.
    ❖ Bonus points: What are the two most powerful smells on Mackinac Island?
    ❦ It depends on where you’re standing. The aromas of conifers and Lake Huron may be the most widespread, but lilacs and horse poop are contenders. And there is fudge.

    • Good morning, JG. Excellent answers. Great examples from Horus Blassingame and Tenirax. I’m with you on chocolate and coffee.

      The hydrogen sulfide reminded me of high school chemistry class, and how we made the whole school stink.

      On Mackinac Island: You know the island better than I do. The two answers I was looking for are hidden in your answers. I won’t comment further, except to say that you get the bonus points. And let’s see what others suggest.

      Thanks for your wonderful participation here, JG!

  2. Good morning, Steve. I’m struggling this morning mentally and your post is a great stimulus.

    Answering your questions:

    1) James Lee Burke always takes time in his work to smell the honeysuckle on a New Orleans morning.

    2) My favorite scent is a nice perfume, worn by a woman in close proximity. My least favorite scent is b.s., particularly when I find it on the waffled sole of a shoe I am wearing.

    3) Flowers and perfume set a mood perfectly. A rotting body does as well, unfortunately.

    4) I agree with JG about Mackinac Island. Lilacs and fudge hold sway.

    Thanks for jumpstarting my brain this morning, Steve. Have a great weekend!

    • Great answers, Joe. I love the smell of wild honeysuckle, even though it is invading our woods, and hard to keep up with.

      I agree with you on perfume. It’s amazing how it can bring back memories (and mood) so quickly.

      On Mackinac Island, we’re in agreement on the fudge. I haven’t been there in years, but when I was, there was something that smelled stronger than the lilacs.

      I hope our crazy exercise this morning has the mental gears turning smoothly, and you have a great weekend!

  3. Fascinating, Steve. I always really enjoy and learn a lot from your medically-based posts.

    Faves are: meat on the barbecue, freshly cut wood, bread baking, roses. Worst: vomit, cigarette smoke.

    Off-topic but when I had Covid, I lost my sense of smell and haven’t gotten much back. Sense of taste is present but less intense. Now, while writing, I have to consciously remember to insert smells into the scene. On the bright side, I can pass a dumpster and not smell it.

    Thanks for this excellent education, Steve, and have a great Memorial Day weekend.

    • Thanks, Debbie. I like your favorites, especially the smells from the kitchen and the smell of cut wood. Your worst, vomit and cigarette smoke, reminded me of the “alcohol breath,” acetaldehyde, of an alcoholic. Too many bad memories in emergency rooms.

      That loss of smell is often from frontal sinusitis that can accompany Covid. It can sometimes take months for the olfactory nerve endings to heal, and sometimes they never return.

      Glad you can walk by dumpsters, now. I blame my overeating on my partial loss of smell as a teen, working for a brick mason, when I sniffed muriatic acid while looking for the correct bottle. Now, everything tastes good.

      Have a great Memorial Day weekend!

  4. One of my favorite and least favorite smells are tied together. The smell on my horses makes me happy (except when they sweat, and then it’s awful). One of my least favorite smells is horse hockey, even though that’s part of what makes up my favorite smell on the horses.

    • Interesting, Michelle. Horses and different smells. You’ve been around horses a lot. Do you like the scent of English Leather cologne?

      One of the two smells I was looking for from Mackinac Island has to do with horses. Cars are not allowed on roads there. Have you ever been there? Be careful where you step.

      • Ach! My 90+ year old mom once threw a UPS package in the trash. It contained a 90-day supply of all her meds. I spent an hour in the apartment building dumpster and found only a pretty good beach chair and the manager’s stainless steel serving spoon. Worst part: someone had dumped an entire bottle of English Leather in the trash. I couldn’t use mine anymore.

    • Michelle,
      Any time anyone mentions one of my favorite creatures on earth (horses (and dogs)) it always reminds me of a favorite line of Col. Potter in MASH when Radar gives him a horse. Col. Potter slips on a bit of horse hockey and the guy everyone loves to hate, Frank Burns says “That’s disgusting!” and Col. Potter smiles and says “Son, to me that’s a tiptoe through the tulips.” LOVE that line!

  5. Great post, Steve.

    I suffered a multi-year sinus infection back in the early 1990s and my sense of smell has been diminished after that. I can still smell, scents are just more muted than they once were, and like Debbie, I have to work to remember a smell. But, it’s doable 🙂

    Favorite smells: Old paper, chocolate, various black and green teas, the air after a rain.

    Worst smells: Marijuana, cigar smoke, rancid meat.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post. Have a great holiday weekend!

  6. Hey, Steve! The olfactory cells are working overtime this morning . . .

    What examples have your read or written with smell/scent as source of mood?
    Baking bread . . . I can’t remember where I read that, but it brought back the nostalgia to the MC of gramma, mom, and herself when she was 5. All 3 in the kitchen, herself on a stool with an oversized apron wrapped around her.
    What is your favorite scent/smell? What smell do you hate?
    Love: Lavender; Hate: Cow leavings…our neighbor, we won’t go there!
    What smells/scents (in your opinion) are most powerful for creating mood?
    Bonus points: What are the two most powerful smells on Mackinac Island?
    Fudge, honeysuckle.

    • Good morning, Deb. I like your example of a flashback that recalls the smells (and memories) of cooking with Mom and Grandma. That’s a great one for affecting the mood.

      On smells we hate: “Cow leavings” and your neighbor. You can always work that into a story. I once had an “associate” that I called the Incorrigible Curmudgeon. He had a reputation for also being a dumpster diver, supposedly looking for pop cans to recycle. My first short story ended with him being shoved into a dumpster by a little old lady while he was leaning in, getting coated with duct tape (prepared by our little old lady) and looking like a mummy, then riding through our little town on top of the trash truck trying desperately to extricate himself from the sticky gray tape.

      The story was a helpful catharsis.

      On Mackinac Island: You have the fudge correct. The second one has to do with horses.

      Have a cow-leavings free day!

  7. No memorable scentes from books are coming to mind, but here are some of my favorites:

    Rain, cut grass, baking, cinnamon, chocolate, frying onions (basically anything outdoors and almost anything to do with food)

    Dislike: Frying pork, boiling spinach, cloying perfume

    Obviously the mood thing depends on which mood. The mood for exercise would be leather and metal.

    • Great favorite and worst smells/scents. I hate the smell of cut onions, but the smell of frying onions is totally different.

      Different smells for different moods. And a lot of that is tied to memory.

      Thanks for participating, Azali.

  8. Ironically, one of the smells I hate, the masses love–the smell of coffee. UGH!

    Favorite smells: The smell of unfinished leather is tops, followed by cinnamon & lilac. Back when Tandy Leather stores were more plentiful, I loved to go in and sniff through the store. LOL!!!!!

    And while animal waste may not qualify as a ‘pleasant’ smell, I don’t mind it. Living in an area where the natural land has virtually disappeared due to extremely excessive overdevelopment, I am thrilled any time I get the treat of smelling horse or cow hockey because it gives a ray of hope that not every inch of land has been destroyed–yet.

    • Thanks for your comments, BK

      Speaking of using smell to create mood, when you mentioned the smell of unfinished leather, that brought back the memory, as a child, of a family friend who gave our family lessons in leather working, the smell, and especially the mallets pounding the tools.

      With your appreciation of horse and cow hockey, you would love driving through Amish communities, where buggies are still used, and the outer edges of the pavement are littered with “road apples.”

      That, also, is the second scent (along with fudge) that dominates the smells of Mackinac Island.


      • I don’t get to do it anywhere near enough, but I love making leather projects for the above mentioned smell of the leather, but also because there’s just something therapeutic about wielding that wooden mallet and stamping the leather with those metal tools.

  9. So many smells bring back good memories. A cedar or spruce tree at Christmas, a sunny June morning, Honeysuckle usually ends up in my books, bread baking in the oven, a rose (not a hybrid)…
    Smells I hate: the paper mill and pig manure–NOTHING smells worse that pig manure…

    • Thanks for your comments, Patricia.

      I agree with you on pig manure. The worst!

      I like your list of good smells. Great mood setters for a book.

      Have a great holiday weekend!

  10. In both urban and rural Deresthok, hoskaplop is the word for horse poo. My grandpa was a farmer; maybe that’s why I don’t mind that smell at all. Hoskaplop is in my genes. Borosheetu, as Mr. Gusuda calls it in “Lucky Come Hawaii,” is not.

    The aroma of tobacco promises something that setting it afire can’t deliver. Coffee is similar, smelling best in its raw state.

    I remember Lentheric aftershave very well, After my father died, my mother threw all his shaving supplies in the trash. I rescued much of that, including a half-full bottle of his aftershave, which I eventually used up, and the brand new gold-plated razor I’d given him for his birthday. My eldest son now has the razor.

    • Great memories, JG. Deresthok sounds like an interesting place, with some interesting names, and interesting stories. My dad was a doctor, but he kept horses, and we kids did the stall cleaning and the fence repair. The biggest reason I was eager to go off to college. Interestingly, years later I bought the old home place (minus the horses and the barn.) I prefer the smell of the woods to the smell of road apples.

      Some of those old colognes and after shave, they don’t make anymore. There were some great ones.

      Have a great weekend!

  11. As I read the other comments more smells come to me. Switzer’s Licorice had a plant near the river in St. Louis. When the wind was right you could watch baseball and smell licorice.

    We make something else in St. Louis. When the wind is right the smell of Budweiser brewing can be smelt for a few miles. I now travel to Kentucky often. That the smell of whiskey cooking doesn’t effect me is from a few decades of being downwind from the Brewery.

    My favorites are popcorn popping, lilacs, Oscar de la Renta for women, and meat grilling.

    Worst: The amount of AXE used by an 8th grader, Polo, burned popcorn, cigarettes.

    • Great memories and moods, Alan. Baseball and licorice. I could smell that. Good favorites. I didn’t realize that beer or whiskey brewing or cooking was so bad. I don’t feel the need to experience for myself. I’ll take your word for it.

      Hope your weekend if full of your favorite smells.

      • It is a warm but sort of sour bread/yeast smell.

        The best was when we were touring the Jack Daniel’s Distillery. The tour guide was wafting the lid on the charcoal filtering tank. People were objecting. My wife and I just stood there. He tried harder. And harder. Finally I said, “We are from St. Louis. The AB Brewery smells like that miles away. You can stop now.”

        • Sour bread/yeast doesn’t sound so bad. Someone told me that the Wolferman’s bakery in Kansas City smells really good, even from a distance.

  12. We’re surfing the same wavelength today, Steve. I’m pouring over my manuscript to enhance scenes with aromas (last step before loading to my Kindle for the final read-through). No other sense is as powerful, IMO.

    What examples have your read or written with smell/scent as source of mood?
    Here’s a snippet from the opening chapter:
    A tender glint of moonlight trickled over the entrance of our private stairwell—each overpriced tower suite had their own—as Mr. Mayhem braced open the door for me. Silence enveloped the dark and quiet staircase inside, our soundless moccasins padding up the treads, surrounded by the stagnant mustiness of concrete and steel.

    What is your favorite scent/smell? What smell do you hate?
    Love patchouli, can’t stand cherry tobacco.

    What smells/scents (in your opinion) are most powerful for creating mood?
    Scents that are universal but underrepresented in books.

    Bonus points: What are the two most powerful smells on Mackinac Island?
    Sorry. I don’t know this island. Coconut, maybe?

    • Thanks for all the great comments. answers, Sue. Great minds think alike. I agree that no other sense is so powerful in producing mood or bringing back memories. All I have to think is “chickenpox” and my mind flashes back to when all four of my siblings and I had the infection. I can still remember how it smelled. Interesting, the power of that sense, and yet we (I) so often forget to use it.

      I look forward to reading your new book.

      Mackinac Island allows no cars. The little downtown is full of fudge shops, and the road out front is full of horse carts and wagons (and “road apples”). And the air is thick with the smell of fudge and horse droppings. But, it doesn’t stop the fancy hotel on the island from charging a fancy price for lodging.

      Have a great weekend!

  13. I’ve never had a good sense of smell. It’s rather hit and miss for me. I love the smell of root beer because it makes me remember going to the A & W drive-in as a young child and getting my fizzy drink in a glass mug.

    Manure is one of those things I don’t usually notice, but my husband does. When we had babies he could alert me to the need of a diaper change, and I could do the changing without gagging. In our rural area, when he smells a feed-lot we say that’s the smell of money.

    I love being at a horse barn! Besides manure, fly spray is another strong smell from what I’ve been told. I only notice fly spray at the time of application. The hay would have a wonderful smell, but that’s rather muted for me.

    Because of my lack of smell, I’m more conscious of adding scents to my writing even if I have to ask others about the scents.

    On a side note, when we were house shopping a musty smell was always a red flag. But one house we looked at had fresh-baked cookies on the counter, so when we had showings for our house I’d also bake some cookies right beforehand.

    • Thanks for participating, Deb. Sorry for my slow response. I was out of town today.

      Interesting, about your muted smell, and yet being more conscious of adding scents to your writing. That’s great. The fresh-baked cookies is a great idea.

      Have a great Memorial Day weekend.

  14. Sorry to be late to the party. This is a great post, Steve.

    Smells I love:
    – Coffee (why does it always smell better than it tastes?)
    – freshly baked, warm bread
    – newly cut grass
    – butterscotch

    • You’re never late, Kay. The party is always open. Sorry for my slow response.

      I like your good smells list. The coffee and baked bread are some of my favorites.

      I hope you have a healthy Memorial Day weekend.

  15. Ah, the sense of smell. It’s a funny thing. The tangy sent of pine trees on a warm summer day takes me back to the summers I spent out in the Oregon forests with my dad. Now that he’s passed away, the memories are bittersweet.

    I have a keen sense of smell except for fish. I can’t smell any, not even a can of sardines held right under my nose. Been that way for as long as I can remember.

    I use many descriptions of different scents in my writing. From baking and cooking to outdoor fragrances.

    My favorites: pine trees and sage, especially after a rain, fresh bread, just mowed lawn, and many others.

    I can’t stand animal urine, mostly cats and dogs, or canned dog food. Both make me gag.

    I’ve never been to Mackinac Island so I can’t answer that question.

    Interesting post!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Cecilia. I enjoyed reading about your favorite and least favorite scents, and how you use them in your writing.

      Mackinac Island does not allow cars. All transportation is horse carriage. And downtown has multiple fudge shops. So the dominant smells on the island are fudge and horse droppings. Ugh!

      Are you still doing your painting?

      Thanks for participating!

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