Writing for the nose. How to write a novel–part 15

Portrait of a pigSeriously? Write for the nose?

Yep. It may not be the fastest route to the brain, but it’s pretty damned quick. Smells are triggers that can set off a variety of responses. Don’t believe me? Try giving two seconds worth of thought to something called “that new car smell.”

I can hear the synapses in your brain firing now. Or maybe it’s just the clatter of my fingers on the keyboard. Who knows? And while we’re asking esoteric questions, what does all this have to do with writing?


Most of us get our information visually, and there’s nothing wrong with that. As writers we sometimes toss in sounds, too. Also good. We know what explosions look and sound like. But if we really want to bring an image to life, we need to add an aroma. For things that go BOOM, the smell of cordite (which fell out of favor around the end of WWII) is often cited. That gets translated somewhere between tip of nose and temporal lobe as the smell of burnt gunpowder. And miraculously, the explosion you’ve been describing takes on an added dimension–and it’s all in The (Other) Promised Land: your reader’s head.

For years, realtors sponsoring open houses would make sure someone baked bread or cookies on the premisis, often several times a day. Why? Because everyone knew that the smell of such things meant “home.” [Cue The Waltons’ theme] Sadly, few people actually do any bread or cookie baking at home these days, and the practice has largely been abandoned (with no apparent effect on our collective waistlines).

Frangrances are important, and for writers who want to pen memorable settings, the sense of smell mustn’t be ignored. It’s not difficult, but it does require some thinking, and if all else fails, you could actually visit the kind of place you’re trying to describe for an aromatic ‘fresher. Relax. Inhale. Take notes.

Consider the following list of smells. Anyone who dares to wear the “Writer” label should be able to conjure a way to work all of these into appropriate settings. And when they do, those descriptive places will have a much better chance of coming alive for readers:Dollarphotoclub_57079531

  • Puppy breath
  • Gasoline
  • A baby’s head
  • Smoke on clothing
  • Chocolate
  • Chocolate sprinkled with sea salt
  • Bacon
  • Freshly brewed coffee
  • Pizza
  • Vanilla
  • Burnt microwave popcorn
  • Christmas trees
  • Cigarette butts
  • Bus exhaust
  • Grandma
  • Raw sewerage
  • Cinnamon buns

Obviously, the list isn’t meant to be inspiring. For most folks, however, each of these smells is wired to one or more memories, and just reading them will send a tiny surge of electricity ripping through the reader’s cognitive connecting tissue to revive dormant thoughts of past experiences. Pupils will contract, fists will tighten, throats will go dry, breathing will change–and the sensory bits of those remembered moments will merge with your scene. As if by magic, your reader will not simply translate your words into an image, they’ll experience it. Eat your heart out, Gandolf!

Aw g’wan! Try it. What have you got to lose?

Next up: Deadlines: tyrants or liberators?


About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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3 Responses to Writing for the nose. How to write a novel–part 15

  1. Amanda Rillema says:

    Awesome list – I could see cigar smoke and eau de skunk on that list, as well!

  2. joshlangston says:

    I included essence of polecat in an early draft, then started thinking about chocolate. I do that a lot, actually. And then I started thinking about chocolate sprinkled with sea salt, and I knew something on the list had to go to make room for it. Cigar smoke is a great one, too, and so easy to associate with a time, place and smoker.

  3. Joan Page says:

    Hi Josh! This is a great post and it has me thinking about how I want to use more senses in my writing , no just visual . I thought the lesson in your Tuesday’s Fiction Writing Class on adding more sensory writing in our work went well.

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