Why Aromas are Important to the Story

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.”

And he was brilliant at describing the seasons such as this selection from “A Moveable Feast” exhibits.
a moveable feast

“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 little-glade-mill-pond-with-gorgeous-reflection

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.   

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  1. “A Moveable Feast” waits in my bedside table, along with three newly-acquired small novels in French. Kindle takes up a small space but holds lots of reading. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about my scent-sitivity, but I am fairly conscious of them. Food (or, scent) for thought here.

    1. Janet recommended ‘A Moveable Feast’ to me before I read ‘The Paris Wife’. It was an eye opener for me as he displayed so much emotional awareness. I hadn’t really been a fan of his work until that book. I think you are going to love it. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on it.

  2. I am extremely scent sensitive. Most of my good memories are linked to at least one aroma. Especially of my Mom. Lilac trees can bring me to tears. People tease me about being able to smell something “a mile away”, long before anyone else does. I have sniffed out a lot of bad odours in my time as well, including catching a fire before it lead to devastation.

  3. I’m not sure my novel describes aroma much, but I did write about the weather on a few occasions. so I got it half right. Will remember this for the future though.

  4. To grandson, I’m reading “Shiloh”, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, and just finished “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing”, Judy Blume,…both of them incorporate weather and smells. In the latter, just the name “Fudge” denotes smelly as Peter tells us about his little brother in disgust.

  5. I love that quote from Rilke.

    I really get a huge kick out of certain scents as they do conjure up very vivid memories of people I’ve lost. Whenever I inhale the sweet smell of lilacs, I think of my departed Gram. If I smell cinnamon I think of her as well. If I catch a whiff of tobacco, it’s my grandpa that comes to mind.

  6. Strange. I tried to reply from my new iPad and it didn’t show up. Sigh. More stuff to figure out.
    This is a great subject. I don’t use scent near as much as I should in my writing. I often think about how I could describe certain smells that come my way. I find it very difficult to put that sense into words. I love this: “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.

  7. Thanks for the quotes in your post. I use the senses a lot in my writing and especially smell. I in fact have a story called “The Odor” which is all about smells.

  8. I too read A Moveable Feast before reading A Paris Wife! Two of my favourite books.
    You make us think, Renee! I am very scents-itive. I remember writing once about my very first visit to New York City and its indellible scents. These days I write more about the smells of a hockey household, car and arena. I must find more lavendar to write about!

    1. I had to laugh reading your comment as I too seemed to be hit with the aroma of New York on my first visit. I had forgotten about it, but found a postcard that I had sent to my mother describing the odors of the various boroughs in summer. And as a baseball mom, I know all too well the lingering scent of dirty socks and cleats full of dirt. We have a lot in common.

  9. Low tide. I grew up near the shore — a tidal beach where the water went out very far at the lowest tides. I think the scent permitted my childhood, but in a mud between my Rosen laughing running sort of way.

    1. We all love the smell of the beach. Somehow we try to recreate it but it is never the same – not in a candle, not in a room spray, not in potpourri. It is just its own special scent that defies recreation.

  10. One of my favorite scents is lavender, and my trip to Provence was wonderful because of the soaps and sachets! It also reminds me of my grandmother and how she kept lavender sachets in her sweater drawers…

    1. I recall writing a description of Paris that had the line – she will always be pink and grey and smell of lavender and fresh pastries – or something to that effect. So whenever I smell it, I am transported to France which is never a bad thing.

  11. The nose knows, Renee. That’s probably the strongest of our senses. Yes, I can suddenly smell something good and it harkens me back to my youth or another time. And I want to keep the scent alive, but often once you smell it, your nose becomes used to it and it becomes so faint you can barely smell it. Like when you get into a brand new car. That smell is so distinctive and inviting, but soon you’re sitting there for a while and the scent may still be there, but it becomes harder to notice. A skunk smell on the other hand is a different story. Anyway, thanks for the reminder. I don’t weave into my story enough scents. And, if you ask me, that doesn’t make sense! 😉

    1. I often relate smells to places and times in my life. Our farm in Virginia has a smell that wafts through the valley. I’ve written about it before. But when you mentioned that you get used to fragrances, it reminded me how none of the residents there ever seem to notice it until I point it out. None of us have figured out what it is – grass, herb, flower? Strange isn’t it?

  12. Renee,
    I can’t remember who the author was, but she said —- “If I don’t insert a scent in every 2 or 3 pages of my story, I do so later.

    Good advice.

    The sense of SMELL brings the story to Life!

    as for me, it brings me back to my childhood.

    Wonderful Post. x

  13. Just reading you posting about aromas somehow makes me think of my favorite book, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and the sea. Maybe it’s just the descriptive words the author used that captivates my interest. The last line of the book reads “And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.”

    1. You couldn’t have picked a better book to quote. I love du Maurier, especially Rebecca. She definitely has a descriptive style that speaks volumes about the setting of her novels. Lovely.

      1. And, months ago when I found it was recorded on audio books, I checked it out of the library and I learned so much more by listening to the words being read. However, I was interrupted and didn’t get to finish all chapters. Plus, the movie is a great one to watch, too. What a great book and writer.

  14. What an evocative piece of writing, Renee. And I can’t even smell you.

    I have no idea whether I am more or less “scent sensitive” than other people – not having any way to compare my nose to someone else’s I’d say I am probably quite robust. Put me in a cow shed and I’ll be fine.

    However, as you and your commentators find: Scent can move me to a sentimental tear. A whiff – and I am transported back in time.

    Could wax lyrical about some of the quotes you cite and your own memories. To keep it short: I love the scent of autumn (Rilke). Associate it with the end of the summer holidays, beginning of a new school year. Those fresh mornings. Love it. Love it. Love it. And I have been out of school for a long time. The quote that makes me grin is that of the male scent. Don’t know about your son. Told mine that there is no need to go rampant on deodorant when he has just had a shower.

    What strikes me, Renee, (see cowshed) that we appear to have become rather squeamish about (natural) smells. You can tell, can’t you: You have set me off on a trail of no return.

    Vinegar – the enemy of smell? That’s funny. Other than that: Hemingway, not necessarily content (Death in the Afternoon) but for his style, should be required reading for any aspiring writer.

    Thanks for that. So very refreshing, like an early morning walk in the woods,

    1. Thanks for walking along with me through this potpourri of aromatic descriptions. I think Hemingway would be pleased to find himself being discussed as a role model for aspiring writers.

  15. What a delightfully delectable post, Renee.

    Speaking of aromas, I liked your coining of the word, “scentsitive”. Indeed we get do get conditioned from our childhood to like or dislike certain smells. Could this be as certain memories, good or bad, get attached to these?


  16. Love this! Scent is so powerful…what a connector to memory, people, places. I haven’t specifically noticed references to scent in writing, although weather is often a key element in story telling. I’ll have to pay closer attention now 🙂 ~ Sheila

    1. Scent adds that extra layer don’t you think? I often find myself thinking of places as how they smelled. And sometimes the weather in my manuscripts will be influenced by the weather outside the door. Lately, it’s been experiencing a lot of rain storms. Isn’t that funny?

  17. Delicious writing! Smells are so very evocative of days past.

    Black Licorice brings me my Dad, Vanilla and Cinnamon my Grandmother, and fresh cut hay takes me to the ponies of my youth.

    Thank you for reminding me of the importance of scents to our collective memories 🙂

    1. Your writing is full of such riches as the ones you mentioned. Even the bowl of cherries on your table ‘smells’ like summer through your writing. I have a feeling you knew this hint already!

  18. Just today I was weeding, watering, weeding. I knelt, soil under my finger nails, digging out the root of a particularly stubborn weed with my fingers when all of a sudden the strong earthy scent was intoxicating. I associated that smell to all the plantings I have done, all the flowers, shrubs and vegetables over the years. I was overwhelmed in that instant by a wave of love for the earth. Funny to read this lovely post today about fragrance. Kismet. 🙂

    1. And you’ve captured that so wonderfully in this comment. Thank you stopping by and adding to the conversation. I hope you’ll return. I love the description of your gardening experience.

  19. Renee – Seeing the crashing waves on your header immediately brings to mind not only the sights and sounds of Monterey Bay as I walked the beach with Tom all those years ago, but the clean clouds filled with promises of another heady day of discovering life in the many antique shops we might poke around in. The slight hint of cedar of an old hand stitched quilt folded neatly on a rack, cinamon in an open jar, oil being used to work on a buggy brought in earlier in the day. And at the end of the day, the fragrance given off by an open pit fire, enjoying stories and dinners with friends.

    1. Lovely! I think we can all experience your adventure through the wonderful telling and description of scents. Cedar and cinnamon are favorites. And an open pit fire…divine. I’m reaching for the marshmallows!

  20. Great post, Renee – and particularly your writing! Your writing is just great, transports me. I’m not sure I’ve read you so vibrantly before. Just excellent. The images helped too.

    Loved this!

  21. Some beautiful words there. Yes, certain smells always take me back to something that happened long ago. I had a boyfriend who wore Brut33 and every time I smell it I always think of him (he tragically died when very young). So I agree that smells haunt us and remind us of things in our past xx

    1. It’s like time travel when you smell it, isn’t it? I’m sorry to hear about your friend, but it is nice that he left you with an image that pops into your mind when you catch a whiff of Brut33.

  22. “A wet southern forest in August will be nearly pickling in a piquant intoxicating mixture of sour, sweet, savory, and winey.” What a perfect sentence.

  23. It is interesting that when I was young we would play the game, “If you had to loose one sense, which one would you choose?” I remember answering that if I had to choose, I would choose the sense of smell. Fast forward to the present and I have, indeed, lost my sense of smell. I miss the beautiful smells of my memory such as peaches and cream, grass fresh mowed, the smell of rain. And yet, the other day I was in northern Minnesota and had to use an actual outhouse. Smelled nothing. No problem doing my business there 😉

  24. Scents and aromas do make the story come to life. Makes us feel that we were there at the very moment and season the characters are experiencing. Wonderful post my friend.

  25. I would believe that most people have associations to various smells. I certainly have a whole range of aromas the bring me back to my childhood memories. Generally I think the use of all sense brings a story alive. It goes to the old say; don’t tell it, show it (or make us smell it…).

  26. What a wonderful post, Renee!! Love all these quotes. I have never ever thought how much important aromas are in the process of story telling. I am glad you could share it’s importance in such a beautiful way with us.

  27. Renee, I am extremely scentsitive! Love that word! Scents bring back special memories, always. Like you, I associate certain aromas with loved ones. A whiff of Channel n.5 will forever remind me of my mother. Chocolate chip cookies make me think of fun times spent baking with my sister. And freshly cut grass…endless time spent outdoors with friends! Most definitely this is something writers should incorporate into their stories.

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