Wednesday, July 25, 2007

An Antique Scent

In the Garden,
George de Maine,
oil on canvas, 1886.

Yesterday, my arms smelled of lavender and my hands of sage.

I have been gathering my herbs to hang them to dry from the high rack in my sunroom, where they pleasure the air.

One of a daughter's happy memories of childhood is the smell of my almond-and-rose hand lotion when I tucked her in and kissed her goodnight.

We are advised to engage, extend and describethe senses in our writing, beyond the implicits of hearing and sight and touch.

The sense of smell may be the most difficult to evoke for the reader, to identify without the use of generalities ( like fragrance or perfume) - and without an excess of literary expansion and metaphor.

Some smells just are. Gunsmoke. Blood. Cut grass. Skunk.

Smells are often described by location, as atmosphere, as aura - stale cigarettes, sweat, a certain kind of cooked food (usually rancid) - a recognizable convention or standard. And hard to particularize. And sometimes unnecessary to do so. Some places, and even people, smell the same. And we rely on readers' memories of diners and bar rooms or Channel No 5.

The more specific source often employed is (1) his lady's hair, and (2) his broad and manly, male-musky chest. Oooh. Lala.

But I wonder, after yesterday, what do his and her hands smell like?

One might also consider attaching a certain scent - an unusual or unexpected, unique smell - to a character and make more than one reference to it. Make it an identifying, signature characteristic, not a casual parfum du jour.

Leather. Cinnamon. Cedar. Apples.

Hunt by scent. Sniff.


writtenwyrdd said...

When I use scent in writing, it is often to describe emotional auras, as in what a psychic experiences. Thus, a character might smell of lemon and smoke, and I use that acrid-but-pleasant combination of odors and call it whatever feels right for the moment.

December/Stacia said...

I like making characters smell like things other characters are drawn to. When a heroine who likes gardening thinks a hero smells a little like clean earth, we see her ttraction to him even though she doesn't.

Then again, I also have a fire demon who always smells a little like smoke. :-)

Anonymous said...

Oh, I love December's comments!

I once changed the scent of a character partway through a story and it made a world of difference to her.

Anonymous said...

The sweet aroma of orchids and the stench of decaying vegetation created the olfactory illusion of being in a candy store, until the decomposing scent, like mortuary death, made one want to gag.

From a little story I have been working on.

Ric said...

In the movie ET, a scene where the two boys find one of Dad's old shirts in the garage. One says it smells like Old Spice - the other says English Leather - but the pathos of Dad gone away, at a time when they needed him, recalled and distilled to the smell of an old shirt - wonderfully done.

As much as I like your thoughts here, Bernita, hands are usually described as touch - as in hands of leather turned to velvet in a touch - (ah, Garth Brooks),

Bernita said...

Excellent technique, Written!

And that too, December.
Perhaps a specific kind of smoke? Juniper wood, cherry wood, burning fuel/plastic all smell differently.

Exactly, Seeley, unique. Special.

That's original, Steve. One normally doesn't associate either orchids or leaf mould with candy stores.

Another good example, Ric, regarding the shirt, use beyond mere descriptive.

"hands are usually described as touch"
Usually, as in a "convention"?...hmmm...and why not both?

Ric said...

oh, yes, absolutely agree.

Her hands, chapped from working without gloves, nails chipped, started to unbutton his shirt, and the scent of coconut rose to meet his anxious breathing, some unknown lotion to smooth her rough fingers as she touched deeper.

writtenwyrdd said...

I like the scent of burning tires for disgust.

Bernita said...

Right, Ric, and the association with white, smooth coconut contrasts with the image of tanned, rough fingers.

Good one, Written.
I suppose, as a private exercise for appropriate use, one could list generic scents - chemical, metallic, floral, etc. and come up specifics ( like burning tires) and associations/emotions, etc.

Jaye Wells said...

I was just working on this the other day in regards to my urban fantasy. I needed a distinctive trait of a specific race. Aha! They all have the same distinctive scent. It's not a new device, but an effective one, I think.

Bernita said...

I agree, Jaye.
~having visions of air quality control samples at a crime scene~

writtenwyrdd said...

Now I'm thinking of an alien race that smells like burning tires!

I watch my mother's Pug and how he loves to sniff certain things. Flowers, catnip (I have a large plant in the house with which I drug the kitties), and other dogs' dung. If they live with more olfactory nerves than we do, they are more oriented to scent.

Fascinating to consider how a dog, cat or alien might view the world with different senses. Wider range of vision, more attuned to sound. Etc.

raine said...

Good idea!

I have a heavenly memory of my grandmother cooking fried apples on her wood stove on moist mornings in the hills of Virgina. Just cutting into a Granny Smith apple now brings it back.

And a short story I wrote long ago about a poor schmuck who went job hunting every Tuesday and Thursday, without success. His hands always smelled of shoe polish...

The Anti-Wife said...

What a wonderful post. Certain smells bring back memories of specific people in my life - some pleasant and some not. It took me years to like lavendar because I associated it with a particularly unpleasant person from my past. Now I love it because I know new wonderful people who use it. Thanks for the reminder about using scents.

Bernita said...

And smells we might think pleasant, Written, might make aliens recoil in disgust.

When I read that, Raine, lines from a favourite song "Country road, take me home" sounded in my mind.
Sounds as if you have the whole scent thing down pat.

Thank you, AW.
Smells affect a lot of people like that, according to studies - apple pie and baby powder are two that apparently promote generally positive reactions.

Kate Thornton said...

Oh, Bernita, your post brings back the scent of my father's hands - that lovely cherries and almonds of the old formula Jergens lotion, and the clean smell of starch in his uniform. Thank you!

Charles Gramlich said...

Since I cannot smell myself, this is one of the hardest elements that I have to try to do in writing. I'm lucky that so often smells are described as being "like" something else.

Bernita said...

Ah...cherries, not roses. Thank you.
I loved the original Jergens - that's what I used, Kate.

And when it comes to things like diapers and cat puke in real life, Charles, you're lucky there too.

takoda said...

What inspirational postings! I'm on chapter 4 of my second MG, and one character's breath smells of potato chips. I will keep playing with this. Thanks for the idea!

Does anyone remember that Jean Nate commercial?
"I can bring home the bacon.
Fry it up in a pan.
And never never let you forget you're a man.
Au Joleen"

My spellings are off, but I hated that scent.

Rick said...

That's great for those of you who have a decent sense of smell. I hardly notice scents, unless you shove my face into them*, let alone have a clue how to describe them!

* With the obvious exceptions such as eau de skunque.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Chris.
Some smells are hard to separate from taste memory - I love bacon but when I think of the smell of it frying I translate it into taste.Foods are tricky that way, perhaps also because they are often a combination of smells.

Like Charles, there's a silver lining to a lack of smell sense, Rick. One assumes you've never nearly passed out in an elevator.
The down side is to make sure you have a working smoke detector.
Skunk isn't a smell - it's an assault.

writtenwyrdd said...

Ilove the scent of Old Spice on a man, just about any man. Unfortunately, it reminds me a bit too forcibly of my ex-hubby, lol. On him it was too yummy for words.

And I mention this because it's one of those things that give you mixed feelings. Rather like when you smell your father's aftershave on your boyfriend...just SO wrong!

Robyn said...

I think I've blogged before about the fact that I can't smell. The memory associations must be wonderful and powerful.

Bernita said...

Some smells are difficult to disassociate from memory, Written. We may have an almost a Pavlovian response to some.
The smell of whiskey makes me ill.

Yes, but there are times, Robyn, when a lack of smell sense is a real advantage.

writtenwyrdd said...

FYI I just googled "scent and memory" and came up with a fat list of sites on the psychology of memory involving scent triggers. One cool quote: "Researchers know that odors don't trigger memories that are any more accurate than the memories triggered by other stimuli, but odors do trigger memories that are more emotional."


Bernita said...

Thank you, Written.
I wonder if reading about smells might trigger emotional memories and therefore it behoves the writer to load emotional scenes with smells to reinforce the reader's attention and response...

Scott from Oregon said...

I read a funny story of a woman who was cleaning crabs all day, and then rushed off to her gynocologist and then realized, sitting in the waiting room, that she had a strong odor embedded in her skin.

Her debate with herself to try and let the odor pass or explain away her scent was quite amusing...

Jon M said...

scent is so evocative. A lot of the characters I'm writing about are dead at the moment. they smell a bit.

Bernita said...

I'm sure it was, Scott.

I wonder if in general we find it easier to describe bad smells than good ones, Jon.

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