Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Sensual Writer: Smell

The Sensual Writer
Smell vs. Aroma


Let’s take a little quiz. True or false:

Men have a better sense of smell than women.

Proper training can enhance human ability to smell.

Infants can pick out their mothers by scent.

Steel has its own aroma.

The inability to smell can affect your weight.

Once you lose your sense of smell, you’ll never regain it.

If you can’t smell a particular food, you can’t taste it either.

Teenagers have the greatest sensory reception.

People who cannot smell anything else can usually smell menthol.

Your left nostril processes pleasant smells and your left nostril, unpleasant odors.

(Come back on November 12 to check the answers.)


A part of your brain touches the atmosphere.

Let’s see a show of hands: how many of you already knew this?

Where, you ask? Does my brain leave the confines of my skull?

Well, it’s like this: Way back in our nasal passages we have about a square-inch-sized area of olfactory receptors. As we inhale we breathe in dissolved particles wash over these receptors which have millions of cilia extending from a little projection of bone at the tip of the neuron – and thus, a part of the brain extends into the your nasal passage to detect emulsions, send the information to the brain which then analyses the scent according to our experience, and tells us how to identify it.  
The sense of smell is one of two senses, along with taste, humans are most willing to do without. Yet smell is often the most evocative of our senses. It is a powerful link to memories . The sense of smell and the sense of taste are not exactly related, yet are closely tied due to the types and placement of physical sensor receptors in our bodies – namely that of mouth/tongue/nostrils/sinuses.
I’m separating this sense, as I have the others, into two aspects: the physical ability – to smell; and the layered reaction to that ability: aroma. Even the word “aroma” is so much more elegant than others we might use, don’t you think? You are trained to react to words: when you read “smell” what goes through your mind? How about “scent?” Or “odor?” You react negatively or positively, depending on your experience, and the words we generally associate with them. A remembered scent can take us to an associated experience often more quickly than sight, sound, or even touch.
The human sense of smell is a complex chemical process, trainable, begins at birth and peaks somewhere in the teens when we have learned and categorized the scents in our world. How does a writer use this sense when layering a scene? Using a particular aroma can bridge flashbacks, when used sparingly; a particular scent can generate new information or a repressed memory. An odor can introduce a sense of dread or danger. A bouquet can tell your reader much about the personality of a discerning character. One of my favs is Steven James’s Patrick Bowers who is a coffee snob; he has trained himself, much like a connoisseur of fine wines, to tell where a coffee bean came from and how it was prepared. Just kind of cool.
If you’re going to introduce a memorable quirk in a character, the ability to detect a certain scent might be intriguing. Conversely, the lack of ability to smell, either at all (anosmia) or the loss of ability to detect particular scents can be just as revealing. A change or loss in the sense of smell also may indicate a genetic condition, a disease or injury that can affect a character’s life/health, as well as that of his or her environment and family, work, choices, and so forth. Women have a different and more acute sense of smell than men. Babies can detect their own mothers. Lots and lots of possibilities.


Excerpt from my upcoming cozy mystery, Message of Mayhem, with four senses layered in:
“Ivy!” Martha Robbins called to me from her stoop next door. I stopped at the end of the driveway, still facing the orange glow on the horizon. “Do you know what’s going on?”
Her kids huddle with her in a waffle-textured wool blanket. “Dale was called to the station, but he didn’t say where the fire was.”
“At True’s store,” I ground out. “I have to go.”
“Oh, Ivy. I’m so…” Her voice faded as I started to jog. Two blocks later I slowed to a very fast walk. I realized that loafers were a poor choice of footwear and I slowed to a very fast walk. The evening was still plenty warm and I was...glowing. Soon I slowed as I met up with throngs of people who gathered to watch and wait for news.
I headed toward the alley behind True’s place only to find the entrance taped off. A squad car, lights stabbing the night, sat empty, close by, as Officer Larken spoke to people a few feet away. I moved in their direction, dodging sightseers. I held my nose against the acrid odor of burnt tar paper and wiring. A spray of water arced high over the building, which stood sooty but intact, billowing black smoke from broken windows and vents. At least any flames appeared to be out.
“Officer! Officer Larken! Where’s True?”
“Miss Preston. Good eve—”
“It is not!” I snapped. “I need to know what’s happening. How bad is it? Where’s Mr. Thompson?”
“Here, Ivy. I’m here!”
“Oh, thank you, Lord, thank you!” I rushed to him. “I was so worried. I just ran. Are you all right?” I cupped his face in my hands. “How bad is it?”
“The fire burned mostly upstairs, my apartment. The firefighters did a good job. Lots of smoke damage, and of course, water damage. I don’t know about the store stock, but I wouldn’t be surprised if—” He had to stop to catch his breath. The front of his shirt wiggled.
“Isis. Oh, baby.” He opened the edges of his vest so I could see her. I had not even felt her when I had grabbed True so roughly. I reached my hand out to stroke between her ears. “She’s safe, oh, she’s safe.” Isis had no intention of letting True go. She even nipped at me, which I would have done too, under similar circumstances, but I did back off.
“She was already outside,” True said. “She wouldn’t let anyone grab her, but came to me when she saw me.”
“I wonder how she got out?”

I was exhausted, as if I had been fighting the fire myself. Smoke hung heavy, everywhere, blotting out some figures and creating other images that wafted, ethereal. My eyes stung and I blinked back tears. Due to the smoke. More than one person coughed and Officer Larken got on the microphone. “Go home, now. We don’t want anyone developing breathing problems.”
“Why don’t you stay with my wife and me?” Hanley, True’s business partner, offered. “Our son’s gone for the weekend, a camp outing, so you can use his room. In the morning, we’ll figure out what to do.”
Cal Stewart dashed up. Just in time to save the day.
“Hey! What’s going on?” Stewart asked.
“Thompson’s coming home with me tonight,” Hanley told him. “Why don’t you stop in for a while, too?”
“Uh, okay. Sure.” Stewart said.
“Can I drop you off at home, Ivy?” Hanley asked. True looked at me intently, as if willing me to do something. But what?
“No thanks. I walked here. I’ll just walk back. Clear my head. Good exercise.” True nodded ever so faintly, so I had guessed the right answer. Goody for me.
“Can you take Isis for me?” True asked. “She knows you and you have food and supplies.”
“Sure. Fine.” True came close, transferring the uncooperative feline from inside of his vest to me. She settled in, dug her claws in enough to make me wince and growled low, just to make sure we knew she was upset.
“Don’t believe everything you see,” True said, while he kissed me on the cheek, his touch lingering in my hair.

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