Apr 16, 2012

O is for: olfactory


A while ago while we were trying to sell our first house, our realtor told us to bake some bread or cookies before an open house or a showing. The smell, she told us, would make potential buyers feel good and possibly help them remember our place.

At the time, we lived in the town where Malt-O-Meal is made. Depending on the factory's baking schedule, I'd walk outside and smell chocolate crispies or sugary flakes or (my favorite) chocolate chip cookies. I'd breathe in and taste cereal. To this day, every time I take a bite of one of their cereals, I remember what it was like to live there.

Scents are powerful. Studies tell us that my experience is one we all have, and even museums are starting to use that fact to their advantage. (Go here for more info on the science behind smells.) A museum in York, England, now floods their Viking-era village with the scent of manure and rot so visitors are literally immersed in what life was like back then. Scents allow us to experience new things with all five of our senses.

My WIP right now is set in Alaska at a dog kennel of a young musher whose mother is running the Iditarod. The first time I ever watched the start of a dog mushing race, I was completely surprised by all the poop. I shouldn't have been - dogs poop, and a lot of them poop a lot - but my sanitized expectations didn't consider reality. Of course, it's cold out on a frozen, mostly snow covered lake where most races start so the smell isn't that strong unless you get really close to a team. (I won't go into how the musher smells after eight days on the trail with no showers...) I'm including those smells in this story because I want my readers to experience the same kind of visceral, gut reaction that my MC is having.

How do you integrate the olfactory in your writing?

10 comments:

Tobi Summers said...

My characters are werewolves, so scents are very important to them. I've been working on being descriptive about the connections they make between certain scents and certain feelings. It's a little weird to try and write about smells the normal human nose couldn't detect.

Grammy said...

Hmmm HI, interesting question.. I have a lot of allergies to scents, so I can't be near people who wear the colognes and perfumes, either in powders or lotions, etc. Nothing like those to choke up a person, or to make them sneeze. Thanks for the tips. Best regards to you. Ruby aka Grammy

Lynn Proctor said...

references to places they live--the beverages they drink--flowers--they may talk about the gardening and or raking leaves---yes our sense of smell is more powerful than our sight sometimes

Botanist said...

I remember that Viking center. Jorvik is one of York's big visitor attractions. I visited it back in the 80s, not long after it first opened, and they did the whole scent thing back then. I guess they were ahead of their time.

elizabeth seckman said...

I think the smelly museum is going a bit far. But then it would make me walk through it faster!

S. L. Hennessy said...

Every time I smell gardenias I always think of my parent's house. Funny how smell and memory works like that.

Sara Hill said...

When I smell mimosa trees, I'm instantly a 10-year-old on my way to the Little League ball park.

The last short story I wrote had *NO* smell at all in it. Maybe it needs a revision.

Andrew Leon said...

I think this post stinks!
No, no, I'm just kidding.
But I do have to go make smells in the kitchen, right now, so that's all I have time for.

Emily R. King said...

I totally believe in staging a house with certain scents. It really works!
After touch, smell is the sense I use the most in my writing. I think that's because it has a strong connection to memory.

meradeth said...

Um, remind me not to visit that museum in York--I'm not a big fan of manure/rot smells :) But, I do think the sense of smell is vital in books. I'm always surprised at how strong it works in real life, too. I swear the smell of a certain type of cocoa powder is forever linked with my aunt because of all the brownies she used to bake using it!