Blessings to all on this rainy spring day. My lilacs have begun to bloom and the sweet scent permeates the air as I sit on my front porch, a balmy mix of moist earth and new life filling my senses. The smell of lilacs instantly brings me back to my youth, when the blossoming shrub outside our kitchen door made the beginning of May a time when my mother’s spirits seemed unusually high. She loved her lilac bush and went to great lengths to make sure she took advantage of the lavender blossoms by clipping them and placing them in every room of the house. Those few weeks in May were bittersweet, passing by much too quickly.
So what do lilacs have to do with writing, you ask? Today, I’d like to talk about using your senses when writing to engage readers. We all love to describe how things look and feel, but what about sound, taste, and smell. Of all of these, I think the sense of smell is highly underrated. Perhaps because it is so difficult to describe how things smell, and do it in a unique way. We easily revert to clichéd phrases like our hero smelling “musky” or “woods-like”. Finding new ways to describe scents is challenging, but that’s what makes for a fresh voice in writing.
Smells are powerful and can bring rise to emotions we didn’t even know we had. I call them “smellavisions.” You know, the image that comes to mind when you think of chocolate chip cookies straight out of the oven? We all have those “scent triggers” that can bring forth a memory, a feeling, or an image. A well-placed and vivid “scent” word or phrase can also add depth to your character by bringing their memories and emotions to the surface.
Fans of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series will probably never forget Jamie Frasier’s violent response to the scent of lavender, a residual effect after having been tortured by the sick and villainous Black Jack Randall who apparently doused himself in lavender water, not uncommon in the eighteenth century. But Jamie’s visceral response is powerful and evokes extreme emotions even from readers. Certain scents, described vividly and accompanied by powerful verbs can bring your reader straight to the heart of your character’s experience.
Take this line from HEAVEN IS FOR HEROES.The crack of gunfire exploded in the air…once…twice…three times. I flinched with each pop, the smell of gunpowder thick in the warm mist raining down over the cemetery. What emotion does this evoke? Does it paint a clear picture and put you right into the character’sexperience? It’s the first line of the book and you already know so much about what’s happening based on this one vivid “smellavision.” Use “smell” words to create a mood, set a scene, or evoke a certain emotion from your character.
Today’s unlocked secret: As writers, we have the power to create an experience that readers will remember. But in order to do this we must use all the senses, use them wisely, and use them to their fullest effect by pairing them with vivid descriptors and powerful verbs.
Can you think of a paricular “smellavision” that stands out in your mind from a favorite book? How do you describe smells?