Ernest Hemingway liked to mention the weather in his stories.
“Remember to get the weather in your damn book – weather is very important.”
“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.”
“You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person died for no reason.”
He was less prolific about aromas. However, other writers have left an impression on me by their descriptions of scent.
The scent of a season:
“At no other time (than autumn) does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more honeysweet where you feel it touching the first sounds. Containing depth within itself, darkness, something of the grave almost.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke
The aroma of flowers:
“The great hall was shimmering in light, sun streaming from the open windows, and ablaze with colour, the walls decorated with embroidered hangings in rich shades of gold and crimson. New rushes had been strewn about, fragrant with lavender, sweet woodruff, and balm… the air was… perfumed with honeysuckle and violet, their seductive scents luring in from the gardens butterflies as blue as the summer sky.”
― Sharon Kay Penman, “Devil’s Brood”
The discernible fragrance of gender:
“Masculine exhalations are, as a rule, stronger, more vivid,more widely differentiated than those of women. In the odor of young men there is something elemental, as of fire, storm, and salt sea. It pulsates with buoyancy and desire. It suggests all the things strong and beautiful and joyous and gives me a sense of physical happiness.”
― Helen Keller
Jennifer Egan even described an emotion as a scent in “A Visit from the Goon Squad”:
“Vinegar: that’s what fear smells like.”
Perhaps women are more inclined to notice delicate fragrances or to be slightly more offended than their male counterparts by off-putting odors. I am quite scent-sitive (sensitive to scent). My father will always smell like tobacco and English Leather. I am probably the only person who still thinks that scent is attractive. I kept his last bottle until it faded away.
One whiff of lavender and I think of France, the scent of baking sugar cookies will transport me to my grandmother’s house, and too many floral notes will make me sick to my stomach – (funeral parlor association I suppose) – as will the antiseptic sharpness to hospitals.
Before the rains rotted the flowers, I’d been enjoying the jasmine – pregnant with sweetness – that has taken over the trellis by my porch. Anybody sitting in the swing when it is blooming will be treated to a heavenly perfume that I can take no credit for. And it will be a different experience than it would be without the jasmine or with a different scent – horse manure for instance.
A wet southern forest in August will be nearly pickling in a piquant intoxicating mixture of sour, sweet, savory, and winey. The same woodland will be crisp with clear hits of cedar and pine in the winter.
Some friends of mine were working in Bangladesh a year ago. They sent lovely pictures around to all of us. When we commented on the river or the market our comments were usually followed by the caveat that it smelled a little less inviting than the pictures could attest to.
Perhaps it is just me, but I can’t imagine writing anything without references at some point about the aromas that surround the characters. A nearby fish market, canal snaking through the village, bakery down the street, incense from the local church, livestock in the adjoining pasture, wildflowers, herbs, the Italian restaurant or Sushi bar, coconut-scented suntan lotion or…a trellis full of blooming jasmine.
Are you scent-sitive? Do you associate certain times in your life or emotions with a particular aroma? Where do you rank fragrance and odor in setting the scene?
Renee Johnson is the author of Acquisition, and The Haunting of William Gray. She is currently working on a Young Adult novel, while editing a suspense novel which has international flair–an homage to her love of travel and foreign food. She lives on a farm in North Carolina with her husband, Tony Johnson, and one very spoiled German shepherd named Gretel.