Using the Senses in Fiction: Smell

The summer I was five, my family moved from our small rural Tennessee town to Chicago. My memories of the seven months we spent there have faded with time, but I can still recall the tiny patch of  fenced yard outside our house, the noise of traffic and police sirens and of people crowded too closely together. A ragman regularly drove a wagon down the alley calling out “I buy rags!”So different from our bucolic life back home where my brother and I were free to wander from yard to garden, to our neighbor’s house. I remember the cake Daddy brought home from the bakery where he worked for  my brother’s birthday. A trip to the zoo and the science museum. But what I recall most vividly are the smells of the city—the  smoky, slightly acrid scent of burning leaves, the dusty smell that rose from the sidewalk when our neighbor came out in the afternoons to hose it down, the sharp scent of anise from the black licorice the neighbor kids bought from the street vendor. To this day, those smells take me right back to that time and place.

Scientists who study the relationship between the senses and memory say that of all our senses, the sense of smell is the most evocative. Most of us  associate the smell of a particular food, for example, with specific memories of the person who made it,  where we were when we ate it, whether we enjoyed it or not. Adding the sense of smell to our story descriptions help our readers identify more closely with our characters.  Here are a few words to consider. You’ll be able to think of many more.

To smell something: scent, smell, sniff, snuff, whiff

To give off a smell: perfume ( as in “the sweet smell  of roses perfumed the air”) reek, smell, stink

Pleasant smells: aroma,aromatic,  bouquet, fragrance, fragrant, spicy

Unpleasant smells: Fumes, odor, stench, stink, moldy, musty, pungent, putrid, rancid, rank, smelly

Next week, we wrap up this series with a look at the sense of taste. Happy writing, all!