Years ago I was at a management course and the facilitator gave us some exercises that had nothing to with managing staff, finances, crises etc. Lovely! One task in particular remains vivid with me today. She gave us several vials to sniff and then asked us to write down straight away whatever came to mind. For the life of me I can’t remember how that fitted into the rest of the no-nonsense curriculum, but I DO remember its impact.
There’s something about the power of scent, you see, that is particularly evocative. It can conjure a feeling, a mood, a memory, in the blink of an eye. Pens scribbled furiously across paper as the vials were passed around, then stopped as the little bottles reached a colleague near me. It turned out that the scent in the bottle was something he hadn’t smelled in more than forty years and one sniff instantly transported him back to a harrowing, tragic time in his childhood. When volunteers were called, he described that time with tears running unchecked down his face and a look of shock – he’d shoved that memory away and hadn’t visited it during the whole of his adult life. One sniff of that particular essence had brought it all flooding back, including his long-buried emotions.
And this has WHAT to do with writing romances? Well, I’ll give you my take on it. I believe that the use of smells, scents, aromas, are often neglected in our writing. We know that using the five senses when creating fiction can add impact and make our prose vivid. We’ve all heard that advice and we try to implement it. Often though, we stop with what our character sees, hears and feels. What he or she tastes or smells is often neglected.
Please don’t think I’m suggesting that each time you begin a scene you should include a sensory list of everything a character hears, sees, feels, tastes and smells! However, I would suggest that you look through your manuscript and think about whether scent could be used occasionally to make a scene more evocative. Just a reference here or there can help bring a scene alive and place us firmly in the hero/ine’s shoes, experiencing what he/she feels.
The ambience in a room can vary from warm and welcoming to unpleasant or even threatening depending on how it smells. Consider whether it’s scented by baking bread, summer sun, coffee, baby powder, fresh flowers, unwashed bodies, damp, something rotting or fresh blood. Can you use that to give a better impression of the setting for this scene? Can your character smell a storm on the air, fresh mown grass, or even the scent of fear on someone’s skin?
When your hero takes his lover in his arms, what does he smell? Freshly washed hair, expensive perfume, plain soap, the chocolate she’s been devouring while she tries to work out her next chapter? Sorry, had to slip that last one in. He – and we – can tell something about her from that one indicator. Perhaps she’s a gardener and has the scent of fresh earth on her hands. Is there a whiff of turpentine, hinting that she paints? The scent of new leather from her expensive just-bought outfit?
Not only can a scent impart information about someone, more importantly, you can bring the reader closer to a character by letting them experience, if only by proxy, what s/he is sensing. The reader can step into your heroine’s shoes more easily if you evoke a situation this way. After all, we’re trying to draw the reader into a whole new reality where she experiences at least some of what our characters do.
In times of heightened emotion some impressions will stick in our minds and scent can be one of them. Perhaps you’re writing a scene where the heroine is getting married. What if she smells orange blossom from her massive formal bouquet and finds the sickly sweet perfume so cloying that she feels nauseous? If she smells the groom’s stale breath, or body odour? If the church is thick with the smell of incense and that adds to her growing sense of claustrophobia? In all these circumstances you can use her reaction to a scent to help us understand how she’s feeling. In this case we’d suspect this isn’t the wedding of her dreams. As a reader I’d wonder if the hero is about to appear and save her from a huge mistake.
If your scene is flat and you’re having trouble bringing it to life on the page, try taking a deep breath and using your sense of smell. It may be just the thing to add a little zing to your writing.
First printed in Hearts Talk (the magazine of Romance Writers of Australia)