Pop quiz! What do these items have in common:
Answer: They all have strong smells.
And at least some of those smells probably call up strong memories in your mind.
I feel like our sense of smell is one of our most under-appreciated senses. But it’s also one of our most powerfully evocative senses. The other day, for example, my husband and I were taking a walk, and the scent of lilacs drew me to a stop. Because it’s the first time I’ve smelled lilacs since we moved to Texas, and it took me instantly back to Wisconsin, where the scent of blooming lilacs signaled the true start of spring to me.
When it comes to writing, scent is one of the hardest senses to describe. But I think it can also make the strongest connections with readers. If a character walks into a room and smells chocolate chip cookies, for example, we can all remember a time we walked into a room and smelled chocolate chip cookies—and how that made us feel. That’s why, as I’m writing, I’m always thinking not only about what a character or a place looks and sounds like, but also how it smells.
You Smell Nice
People have distinctive smells, whether from soap or shampoo, perfume or cologne, or even their occupation. As an author, it can be challenging to find just the right smell for each character—something unique (but not so unique that we can’t imagine what it smells like!), something that fits their occupation or their personality, something that makes you say, “Ah, of course she smells like that.” For example:
But she could feel Spencer behind her, and nothing could block out the welcoming, woodsy scent that always clung to him, as if he’d spent his whole day among the trees. (Not Until Forever)
A faint scent of sandalwood and hard work drifted from him, but it wasn’t unpleasant. More like . . . comforting. (Not Until This Day)
A sweet scent caught Levi’s attention as he was about to enter the building. He stopped abruptly.
But there was no one around aside from her brothers. And he knew from spending the past half hour in the car with them that the sweet smell definitely wasn’t them.
Next to him, a vine wound up a trellis, pink and orange flowers covering its green stem. He stepped closer to it, inhaling deeply.
This was it. This was what Grace smelled like. (Not Until Someday)
Every once in a while, when he stepped closer to her, he caught a scent of peaches that made him think of summer and sunshine. (Not Until Then)
The sleeping baby curled against her shoulder. Bethany closed her eyes, soaking in the sweet, milky scent. (Not Until Then)
She smelled like vanilla and gingerbread and everything warm and cozy he’d ever smelled. (Christmas of Joy)
Her jasmine scent surrounded him as her hands came to his shoulders, and all he could do for a moment was breathe in and hold her tight. (Pieces of Forever)
There’s No Smell Like Home
Did you ever notice how everyone’s home has a different smell? Sometimes my kids will smell something and say, “This smells like grandma and grandpa’s house.” (They mean that as a good thing, just for the record.) A few fictional examples:
But spring in Chicago smelled nothing like spring at home in Hope Springs. There, the season carried the heady scents of ice melt and earth and fruit blossoms. (Not Until Forever)
Sophie parked and climbed out of the car, inhaling the soothing scents of cut grass and bee balm. (Not Until Forever)
Everyone’s cheeks were pink, and they’d brought the fresh scent of the cold in with them. (Not Until This Moment)
As they stepped into the store, a mix of baking scents and fresh wood hit her, making her heart ache in a way she couldn’t explain. (Not Until This Day)
The late morning air smelled earthy and damp and sweet with the scent of lilacs that had just begun to bloom. (Not Until Then)
Outside, a horse nickered, and in the barn, the scent of horse manure and hay closed in on him. (Not Until Then)
It smelled like grease and metal and hard work out here, but not in an unpleasant way. (Christmas of Joy)
But he kept his gaze on the sky—now empty aside from the haze of firework smoke that obscured the stars and left a heavy scent in the air. (Songs of Home)
Foods obviously have smells, which makes them a lot of fun to write about. Like:
As they broke off to do their jobs, Austin rummaged in the industrial-size refrigerator for the herbs he’d need for the turkeys. He snapped off a piece of sage, the smell a punch straight to the gut. (Not Until Christmas Morning)
She slid out of bed and opened the door, the scent of coffee and waffles delighting her nose. Those smells meant Mama was up. (Not Until Someday)
What was that delicious smell?
Levi retracted his tape measure and lifted his nose into the air, inhaling deeply.
Something garlicky, but he couldn’t place what it was. (Not Until Someday)
Kayla lifted an eyebrow. “You made waffles? I’m impressed.”
“Don’t be. They looked like shoe leather.”
“And smelled like feet,” Ruby added with a giggle. (Not Until Now)
Do Smells Have Feelings?
I’m not sure if smells can exactly have feelings, but they sure can evoke them. Which is why I sometimes describe feelings in terms of smells:
The scents of home cooking got him every time. His home had never smelled like this growing up.
It had smelled more like . . .
Did fear have a smell? (Not Until This Moment)
She inhaled deeply. “It smells so good here. Like Christmas and . . . and—”
“Joy,” Luke filled in.
Madison looked at him in surprise, and he shrugged. “If joy had a smell.” (Christmas of Joy)
She pulled in a deep breath. The air smelled like summer and flowers and hope. (Songs of Home)
Do you have a favorite scent or a scent that evokes powerful memories for you? Let me know in the comments!
I’m currently in Minnesota with my family, visiting the college my oldest plans to attend next year (it smells like snow and cold here), so I may not get a chance to pop in and reply to comments until this evening. Thanks for your patience!