Day Nineteen – Write so Readers Smell the Scene
Our sense of smell can do more to revive a memory than other senses and yet it is often a sense writers forget to include. Whether you are writing about indoors or outdoors remembering to include a smell will enrich the scene for the reader.
How often have you caught a whiff of perfume or food cooking and you are reminded of someone or transported to a place in memory?
Many smells are accompanied by a particular taste – sour or sweet, bland or tangy, ‘to die for’ or vomit-inducing… the experience for the reader can be visceral.
Senses empower limitations, senses expand vision within borders, senses promote understanding through pleasure.
A Lesson On Smell
Whenever we had a lesson to encourage the inclusion of smell in writing, I’d ask for suggestions and the student responses often overlapped because certain pungent smells stick in everyone’s mind.
However, the more we wracked our memories ‘to be different’ or recall what made an impression, the list grew – maybe you can add to this collection from a variety of classes:
- The strong odour of our pets – dogs, cats, reptiles.
- Gardens enlivened by rosemary, lavender, geraniums
- Special perfumes – Estee Lauder, Chanel, Christina Ricci…
- Working as a nurse in hospitals/nursing homes/clinics – the smell of disinfectant, anaesthetics, lotions and creams
- The perspiration and sweat of fellow teammates playing a sport, the smell of lovers, of commuters, workmates, sweaty feet, old sneakers, shoe polish
- Fresh country air, honeysuckle in hedges and cow pats in the fields
- Lilacs and lily of the valley and roses, Daphnes – flowers with a redolence that lingers
- The smell of the sea, seaweed, tea-tree bushes, rotting fish
- Steam train smoke, fires burning red gum logs, barbecue and campfire smoke
- New car smell, leather upholstery, new carpet smell, polished furniture
- The smell of freshly turned soil, padded down straw in chicken coops, horse manure
- Foul-smelling tanneries, abattoirs, processing sheep gut, rotting flesh, rotten meat, sour milk, vomit,
- Antiseptic like Fennel, Dettol, bleach, ammonia, outdoor toilets, raw sewage
- Chocolate and sweet shops, jam being cooked, baked bread,
- Mustiness and the dank smell of cellars, caves, old, buildings
- Dry and decaying wood – the smell of death, animal and human urine
- Mowed grass, the eucalypts and other trees, dead flowers
- Fish and cod liver oil, garlic, onion – many different spices
- Whisky, rum, beer, cordial, coffee, cocoa, tea…
Flowers are always a favourite and easy to include in a poem or story because they are found inside as well as outside. Every season has some shrub flowering and pot plants or cut flowers in vases are common whether on balconies or dining tables.
And what if you had no sense of smell? People can lose it after an illness or injury. At the moment while we fight COVID19, some people are saying their sense of smell and taste are not only affected but don’t fully return once they recover from the virus.
How frustrated and disappointed would you be if unable to smell fresh coffee or baking bread?
It might be dangerous if you can’t smell because sometimes a bad smell is the first sign of danger like a gas or petrol leak.
A student who was a carpet layer said if he didn’t have a sense of smell he’d be more cautious because many of the old carpets he had to remove have animal and human urine stains and other nasties.
You might have to rely more on the reaction of other people. Think about this if you give a character either no sense of smell or keenly developed olfactory glands.
A Sense of Smell
If I lost my sense of smell
how could I tell
when dinner was ready or
when the dog needed a bath
I’d have to watch visitors up close
for signs of irritated eyes and nose
No memorable scents of changing seasons
to uplift and linger…
winter rosemary massaged between fingers.
A walk by the sea to enliven senses
without salty air
could lead to despair
I’d drift disengaged
like floundered fish or discarded shells
without those pungent seaweed smells.
No comfort at home
from the smell of fresh sheets
and clothes newly laundered
no thrill of familiarity from a lover’s body
or distinctive perfume tied like shoelaces
to family, friends, and favourite places.
Gone the delight of visiting the lolly shop
to choose a special treat for the movies
or sniffing freshly baked bread and brewed coffee
and of course, the milky delight of newborn babies
shampooed hair and soft moisturised skin
the list is endless once you begin…
On the other hand
life could be grand
without smelly feet or rancid meat
no dog poo or stinky loo
no foul smells to make the nose twitch
oh, how I wish for an on and off switch!
‘There should be an invention that bottles up a memory like a perfume, and it never faded, never got stale, and whenever I wanted to I could uncork the bottle, and live the memory all over again.’
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
“When you write the story of your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen!” (origin unknown but quoted by Gurbaksh Chahal, Huffington Post)
Who Attends Life Story Classes?
In Life Stories Class, for three hours, students write, discuss, chat, laugh and cry, sharing experiences, memories, opinions, dreams and reflections.
- Most classes vary in age but one class the students spanned 9 decades of living.
- Families can be traced to colonial times or have arrived with the waves of migrants after WW2. For some English is a second language, others wish they still knew a language or culture that is lost.
- Some have never married, others are divorced or widowed, some childless, others have children and grandchildren.
- Some write about ancestors, immediate family, friends, ourselves, the joys and tragedies.
- Some write prose and poetry, essays and anecdotes, flowery descriptions or minimal words.
- Some learn how to craft the stories to include the senses, dialogue, humour or pathos.
- We all remind ourselves how we felt, what we feel now, what we want others to know.
We gift of ourselves as we gift our words, nurturing each other, supporting each other – and most importantly, we have fun!
Here is a list that I give students and ask them to write at least a paragraph of what the smell means to them – later they are asked to expand at least two into a personal essay.
Try it – you are relying on your memory here, you don’t have to break lockdown and go outside. Many of the smells may be found inside your home or garden shed!
Think about the smells – is the smell sweet like perfume, or stinky like sewage, faint or strong, current or in the distant past? What person, place or event does it revive or what character and story can you create?
- pine needles
radiators heating up
fish – oysters
a new car
- frying bacon
BBQ – meat or onions
roast or curry,
Here is a piece I was triggered to write in class Letter from 17-year-old self by Mairi Neil You might guess what smell by this old photo:
Here is a mindmap template you can download for a bit of brainstorming: sensory image and language mind map
Writing Exercise 1:
- What person, place or event do the smells revive or what character and fictional story can you create?
- What about writing a poem – choose one word/smell to write about – fill your white page with associations with the smell you have chosen.
- write about morning or evening smells The Smell of Morning, 448 words by Mairi Neil
Writing Exercise 2:
List the smells you associate with a particular season:
- The smells of summer
- The smells of autumn
- The smells of winter
- The smells of spring
Now weave some of them into a story or poem…
In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald introduces us to the Buchanans in early summer. He emphasises the breeze blowing through the room, billowing the curtains and the women’s dresses. Later, the same characters are seated in the same place in the heat of summer as weighted down, dispirited, languid.
The story has progressed and so have the characters but he connects them to the place and reveals how they have changed through the weather/season – they are no longer bright, breezy and carefree. Circumstances have changed and so have they and their earlier energy no longer on show.
He has added balance and unity to both character and story.
In their magazine a long time ago, the Victorian Writers’ Centre used to publish a writing prompt for members to practice their craft. I think there was a prize of reduced membership – not sure. I never submitted a story just used the exercise as a bit of fun.
This one had to be exactly 250 words about a ghost haunting a Georgian mansion in Southern Ireland, the visitations always accompanied by a foul smell.
The Truth Stinks
The cottage door burst open and several burly members of the local constabulary filled the room. Seamous O’Flaherty blanched with fear.
‘Ye murdering swine,’ barked Sergeant O’Neill, ‘we found your dagger outside the big house, still dripping wit poor William O’Malley’s blood.’
O’Flaherty crouched against the wall of his tumbledown cottage pleading for his life. O’Malley had been the Head Gamekeeper for George Thomas, the English aristocrat who owned half of Kiltmargh in County Mayo and the rights to land with the best game and fish. O’Malley and O’Flaherty often hurled abuse at each other after a few ales in their local.
‘Yerve got the wrong man,’ Seamous whined, ‘lots of poachers use the same kind of knife!’
‘We know ‘tis yours,’ sneered the Sergeant.
‘I’m innocent, please listen. Let me go!’ The constables ignored his pleas and hauled snivelling Seamous into the police wagon. The rough justice continued, until within the hour, Seamous hung from the rafters of the stables nestled in the shadow of the Thomas family’s Georgian mansion.
If the indignity of such an ignominious death was not enough, the vigilante executioners had dragged Seamous through a pile of fresh horse manure before stringing him up.
On October 31st each year, on the anniversary of that terrible night, Seamous returns searching for evidence to prove his innocence. His visitations are always accompanied by a foul smell, earning him the nickname of the farting ghost.
It appears in death as in life, poor Seamous O’Flaherty stands wrongfully accused!
Writing Exercises From Photo Prompts
A marvellous little book compiled by Michael Marland called Pictures For Writing, published in 1996 by Blackie & Son Ltd, Glasgow and London proved a godsend in early days of teaching.
I used it a lot when I started teaching almost full-time at Sandybeach Centre and Mordialloc neighbourhood House after John died. Here are two photographs that may spark a story. Remember to introduce smells or a smell:
The bushfire picture is definitely topical as far as those living in Australia are concerned – I’m sure there will be plenty of stories, novels and poems featuring the catastrophic summer we have lived through. Tragedy compounded now by COVID 19.
Here is a short story I wrote in the last class we had for the year inspired by the summer bushfires, Bushfire Blues by Mairi Neil
Bush On Fire
(written after Black Saturday)
The sun is dulled by a veil of cloud
animals culled, Mother Nature a shroud
This defeated giver of life so dear
a dried-up river with power unclear
a red threat creeping, gathering power
creatures weeping, air rancid and sour
It dances with glee destroying with ease
devours blade and bush its direction a tease
whipped and encouraged by wind’s collusion
fiery menace forages and causes confusion
until the sun’s conscience explodes and
a large nimbostratus cloud reveals worth
the life-saving rain soaks the scorched earth.
More Writing Exercises
- You return to the house where you grew up, only to learn it has been condemned.
- Why I love the smell of …
- Why I hate the smell of …
- Two characters are lost in the woods or the mountains – they have to survive overnight before rescue.
- Write a story, essay or poem using the following title: Yesterday’s Coffee, Sunsets will never be the same again or Unforgettable or The worst mess I ever had to clean up
- What comes after this opening sentence:
- Why is this on the front porch?
- ‘I’ve got to get out of these clothes—fast.‘
- If you want to annoy me, just
We have read stories about paparazzi haunting the alleyways and snapping celebrities putting the rubbish out, and stalkers going through bins.
Did you know the City of Kingston do spot checks of bins to ensure people are recycling properly and putting the appropriate rubbish in the right bins? Apparently, you’ll get a note to improve or a sticker to say well done.
- If someone inspected your rubbish bin – or recycling bin – what could they surmise about you – would they be mistaken?
- Do you have a favourite celebrity (or one you don’t like) what do you think they’d have in their trash worth writing about?
- Write about someone who takes shelter. What is the most dominant smell and why should it matter? (Think bus shelters, doorways, under a table, in a foxhole, in someone’s arms, in a church, in a cave …)
Two Quotes For Inspiration
This one is particularly relevant considering the disastrous economic consequences of the current lockdown because of COVID 19 and the pain many people are experiencing with social-distancing and isolation:
The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practising an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.
Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
and from another successful writer:
Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.
As always – feel free to share the post and ideas, or any work you’ve been inspired to write:)