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Making Scents of it All

That looks good enough to eat

Happy Thanksgiving.  I bet your house smells heavenly.  We’re expecting 25 people to descend upon us this afternoon and already this morning our house is filled with the buttery perfume of slow roasting turkey.  Later I will get to enjoy breathing in the spice of cinnamon and brown sugar overlaying the earthy whiff of yams.  The clatter and bustle in the kitchen will mix with the gentle caressing aroma of creamed onions and maybe the sharper smell of green bean casserole. The table will groan under the weight of good food.  We are fortunate to be able to surround ourselves with family, friends, and a fabulous feast.

Today your sense of smell will be abundantly tested.  They say that smell is the sense most closely associated with memory. Have you ever caught a whiff of macaroni and cheese baking at a friend’s house and been immediately transported back to your childhood?  It’s an unmistakeable smell.  That cheesy, unctious aroma escaping from the oven, laced with a bit of toast coming off of the browning bread crumbs, maybe a hint of pork if the cook threw in cubes of ham.  Aromas like that can allow you to re-live a hearty helping of comfort food that was served long ago on a cold winter night when your Mom knew you had done poorly on a test or found out that kids had been picking on you at recess.

Cyrano had a nose for words, but boy I bet the man could smell anything...

A single smell can provide a wealth of information, or trigger an unexpectedly strong emotional response within us. Adding descriptions of smells to one’s writing can add a depth and richness to the story or even provide crucial information.  We often read and write about what characters saw, heard, or felt, but it seems that we are much less likely to come across descriptions of a smell these days.  That might be because it is more difficult to do convincingly or because our vocabulary associated with smell is so limited.    Another guess is because we live in a society that works so hard to eradicate odors.  Our daily lives are awash in deodorizers and sanitizers, the air we breathe is conditioned and filtered.  Or is it just because smell is largely subjective.  What comes across as vile to one person may not even elicit a response from someone else.

I have a hair-trigger gag reflex, so being confronted with the heady, pungent tang of fresh dog doo left behind by a puppy can throw me into fits of retching strong enough to make my eyes water.  My wife seems impervious to such unpleasant aromas.  At the other end of the olfactory spectrum, I love to eat, so the sweet wafting of onions sauteing in butter or the salty smell of frying bacon will start my mouth watering faster than you can say “Pavlovian Response.”  My wife, on the other hand, looks at cooking largely as a chore, so she does not have the same positive, visceral response to the smell of cooking food that I do.

A written description of a fidgeting person with a moist upper lip, jiggling knee, and darting eyes is an adequate portrait of a nervous person, but if I add the mention of the thick, potent smell of perspiration suddenly rising off of him in rancid waves, the portrait becomes painted in more intense hues, possibly of someone getting ready to detonate a suicide belt.

By many accounts, contemporary fiction has lost it’s nose, lacks perfume, is short on stink. Why not make your work stand out by adding the sense smell to your descriptive arsenal.  There’s nothing like the sweet smell of success.

Oh, and save me some leftovers…


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