Saturday, October 7, 2017

Scents and Sensitivity

Sacchi's post earlier this week got me thinking. One of the very first lessons I absorbed in writing was that of bringing in all the senses. Sight and sound are pretty easy to include effortlessly in writing. We humans are naturally visual, of course, and because we're really only recent inhabitants at the top of the food chain, we're also pretty keen when it comes to hearing.

To me, touch and taste occupy the lower strata in writing the senses, simply because they generally don't happen without some kind of drive. Our characters have to grab or be grabbed, for example. Taste is even more passive, needing an even greater and more direct contact in order to occur.

Smell,'s a strange beast.

For me, it's both passive and active, and mostly concurrently. In real life and in fiction, we can almost always trace the origin of any of the other four senses. A scent can waft past us, can infiltrate us, without us having a single clue of its origin. It's as passive and invisible as sound, yet it's as intimate and direct as taste. A smell doesn't exist for us unless it has already entered our bodies.

For this reason, I find scent mentioned throughout all my stories. And again, in reference to Sacchi's post, especially in my shifter stories. I feel there's no coincidence here; I write scent because it's a powerful part of my life...and I love to write shifters because it's the largest part of their lives.

Because, of course, where we humans rely so heavily on sight, a wolf (for example) lives through his nose.

Even in my contemporary erotic stories, even as far back as...well, when I first began publishing in 2006, I find references to scent. One of my earliest pieces was a dreamlike and metaphorical kinda story. It was a realistic fantasy written in an unrealistic fashion, I suppose. Almost like song lyrics in story form.

It was the story of a married couple with kids, who'd been given the afternoon off parenting. They took a ride on his motorbike up into the mountains, where they found a clearing beside the road and rediscovered parts of themselves and each other which they'd had to suppress for a while.

In that story, which was hugely autobiographical (though unfortunately, the actual afternoon off never happened, and I've now sold my motorbike to buy my gorgeous wife a flute), I brought in the smells of the Australian bush. There's a certain scent, or more accurately a mix of scents, to the bushland in my local region, if not across Australia. It's reminiscent of a freshly-opened beer and to me it's simply gorgeous. I've no doubt some of the scent actually comes from decay, from the leaves and bark turning back into soil. Yet it's life-giving and heartening.

Where sight and hearing often "tell", we can rely on scent more often to "show". To really help set the scene. As in this tiny excerpt from the story in question.

The smiling sun coats the black leather of our jackets. Even with our helmets closed, the bewildering richness of the world seeps through. Our city is so young on the ancient Earth, yet it’s the warm funk of horses, the heady aromas of grass and trees, of water and sun, that seem new to us.

And in one final little piece of "proof" of the power of year ago today, my family and I were traveling in the USA. We were, in fact, riding an open top tourist bus from San Francisco up to Sausalito. And on that short trip, we passed a cluster of eucalyptus trees. I didn't even see them at first. The only reason I knew they were there was, as you've already guessed, the scent. They filled my nose, and by extension, my heart. It was so beautiful and strange to smell my home from twelve thousand miles away. And for a moment, it took me straight back there.

That's something smell does so much more effectively than any other sense.


  1. I love this post, Willsin. I have a deep relationship to my own sense of smell, similar in many ways to what you’ve described here. It’s certainly a key to memory, and at times when I’ve lost my sense of smell, for example from a bad cold, I’ve been surprised to learn that I actually use it to navigate my surroundings more than I realize.

  2. I lived in southern California for two very pivotal years of my life. The merest whiff of eucalyptus is enough to drag me back into that period of passion and confusion.

    Wonderful post!

  3. Smells will evoke memories of time and place, just like Proust's madeline in Swann's Way.

    Not many folks know that that phenomenon actually happened to Marcel Proust. But it was the smell of burnt toast rather than a madeline that made his memory come back so clearly.

  4. I would love to smell the Australian outback. I loved the smell of eucalyptus when I lived the SAN Francisco Bay Area (Menlo Park) for a year as a child with my family.

    The smell of sagebrush after rain is characteristic of southern Idaho (where I spent most of my childhoo). I liked it so much that I made my grandmother a sagebrush sachet, & she politely claimed to be delighted.

    Whenever I return home to the Canadian prairies after being away, I notice the freshness of the smell (minimal pollution, despite incredible amounts of pesticide dropped on wheat fields by plane).

    It’s so true that smells evoke places.

  5. Ah, eucalyptus! I spent three years in the Bay Area in the late sixties, and that scent is forever imprinted in my memories. Even cough drops that include it trigger a recognition, and then frustration because in that processed form it's not close enough to the essence of the groves I used to walk through.


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