Come to Your Senses: The Art of Using the Sense of Smell in Romantic Writing

Romance writers should always use all five senses into their writing.  This strategy will put our readers into the virtual bodies of our heroes and heroines by showing how those characters are feeling.  Most romance readers want to vicariously experience the joys and thrills of love in this way.  In order to do this, the author needs to describe in detail, everything the characters experience—what they hear, touch, taste, and smell, and see.

In post number two of this series, I will explore the often neglected sense of smell.  Remember that the senses are channels of communication.  What does this sense communicate to you and to your characters?  How important is the sense of smell and how can we insure that we give it the prominence it is due in romance writing?

The sense of smell has been called our least important sense; is there any wonder, then, that it is often the one least used in writing, according to Chip Scanlan in his article “Writing With Your Nose.” “Our antiseptic age seems designed to rob us of smells or confuse our nose with synthetic concoctions that mask noxious chemicals with the aromas of the orchard.” Helen Keller called smell “the fallen angel.”

Least important perhaps, but still powerful, for nothing is so memorable as a smell.  I have only to inhale the pungent aroma of a fresh-lit cigar and I am transported back to my aunt’s car early in the morning, a six-year-old again, taking my uncle to work.  He smoked cigars.  Odors have the power to fix time and place in our minds like a snapshot.  Use that power in your writing to help your characters create a past.

Smell is also evocative of emotion.  “The information of incoming odors is first processed by the emotions and subsequently identified. This places our sense of smell at the root of our emotional being,” states Laura Walters in “The Sweet Smell of Romance.” 

Many writers will use the sense of smell when their hero and heroine meet for the first time.  Their own unique scents create a powerful attractive force, which is a documented phenomenon.  “Scents act as powerful triggers to our primal instincts when seeking out and evaluating a mate,” according to Dr. Alan R. Hirsch.

And finally, make your writing richer by adding odors the POV character would naturally smell within the scene to create a true sense of place.  These smells need not always be pleasant; in real life we smell both the roses and the manure in which they grow.  But creating an environment that evokes the world around your character will enhance your readers’ experience of that world.

The following excerpts from Only Scandal Will Do, my Georgian historical romance, shows how effective the sense of smell can be used to put the reader intimately into the scene.

“Lean your head just there, sweet.” His hand pressed her firmly against him so she could hear the strong beat of his heart, smell the clean, comforting citrus of his cologne.  She liked that fresh smell.

But later

She was rewarded, finally, for flung into the corner, hidden by the chair, lay the man’s big, black cloak.  Gleefully, she grabbed the expensive garment and pulled the warm folds around her.  It smelled like him, the clean, citrus rising from the collar.  That scent might haunt her for the rest of her life, but could be endured for now.

And in a final example, a noisome smell can sometimes evoke an even stronger sense of character.

By the time the world stopped spinning, she was being borne down the corridor in Nigel’s arms.  The rank smell of his sweaty, unwashed body permeated the mask and Kat fought back a wave of nausea.   

Tell me how you put your reader into your scenes using the sense of smell?   Do you find it more difficult to include smell than the other four senses?  Is there a particular smell you find yourself using specifically for heroes or heroines?  Thanks for sharing!

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This entry was posted in On Writing, On Writing Historical Romance, On Writing Romance and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Come to Your Senses: The Art of Using the Sense of Smell in Romantic Writing

  1. Pingback: The Five Senses – Write With Me

  2. Another fine post, Jenna. I use smell frequently in my books. The mere whiff of some things can illustrate whole scenarios, places, people. Pheromones (those invisible smells) particularly interest me, because they’re so subtle. They might be a big factor in that “love at first sight” experience.

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    • jennajaxon says:

      I think you are right about the “love at first sight” phenomena, Patricia. I explored that topic in my post on Chemical Romance and there is definitely scientific evidence that supports that theory. Sometimes, as you suggest, it only takes a whiff for a scent to do its work. Thanks for stopping by!

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  3. Simone says:

    Good post, Jenna. I usually have to add scent to my second or third draft. Visuals come to me naturally with sound a close second. But I do enjoy having all the senses when I read. My personal rule is to have at least 3 in any major scene.

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    • jennajaxon says:

      Thanks for coming by, Simone! I forget to put scent in too sometimes, but I seem to be getting better about it. It doesn’t come up quite so often in my critiques. I try to put myself in the scene and ask “What would I be smelling right now?” That helps me create the scene as the reader should experience it.

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  4. I love the sense of smell; it evokes wonderful memories. But you’re right; I often forget to use it in my writing. Thanks for the reminder.

    BTW. I thought this quote was cute.

    If men have a smell it’s usually an accident.
    Jeff Foxworthy

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    • jennajaxon says:

      LOL! Love the quote. Jeff Foxworthy is one of my favorite comedians. Just like this quote, his material is not only funny but so true. On many levels!

      And yes, the memories that smells can evoke are often powerful–both wonderful and frightening. Thanks for stopping by, Marianne!

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  5. Dee Dawning says:

    All true, everything you said. I have a pretty elaborate scene built around smelling in one of the books I’m working on now. I’d post it here but it’s too long and it might turn some of your readers off instead of on. LOL.
    Great blog, Jenna

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    • jennajaxon says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Dee! Now you’ve intrigued me again (as you always do) with another one of your books. I’ve not run across a scene deliberately constructed around scent and smelling. I will definitely need to check that out–even if it might be a turn off. (That’s the really interesting part; what smell(s) or situations might be that big a turn off?) Inquiring minds…you know? 🙂

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  6. Lisa Kumar says:

    Great post! Smell is a powerful way to discover the world around our characters. Besides all the memory tied to it, think of how a cold makes you feel when your sense of smell is gone. I know I feel off-kilter and not just from the stuffy head. One of my greatest joys vanishes–the taste of food. When a sense is taken away, even briefly, this is an uncomfortable time of adjustment.

    Since you write historicals, sense of smell could really hit the reader as they’re reading about a big city. Could you imagine London or Paris in the heat of summer centries ago? Stinky! Garbage, urine, and other gross stuff dumped into the streets.

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    • jennajaxon says:

      Exactly, Lisa! I don’t dwell on those smells so much, though also in Only Scandal Will Do there is a scene where the heroine is escaping through London, barefoot, and she steps in something described as engulfing her in “an earthy, decaying smell.” But that’s enough to give the reader an idea of the conditions of a street in Georgian London. Sometimes it takes only a reference or two to smells to really put your reader into the scene.

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  7. Lindsay says:

    That topic stinks. Just kidding. Writing mystery I never really thought that much about smells when I was writing a scene. But having read the post it got me thinking back to one of my shorts where I had the heroine’s mind register the smell of cordite, gunpowder.
    In romance, especially Regency and Victorian, I can see where smell is important but can’t writers come up with other fragrances for men then musk and clean linen. And with women jasmine or rose. Seems like that’s all the H&H smell like.
    One of the best movie lines, I think at least, is ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like victory’ created to Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now.

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    • jennajaxon says:

      Oh, yes. The napalm line is a classic–everyone riffs on it. But I would think a crime/suspense novelist would use lots of smells–decompsoing bodies, the coppery smell of fresh blood, the dank and moldy basement that’s the crime scene. Cordite’s a good one too.

      I’ve noticed a lot of heroines do use rose as their cologne and heroes favor sandalwood. I just found out those smells are considered aprhodisiacs. So maybe there’s a method to the madness. 🙂

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  8. D'Ann says:

    Great post, lady!
    Smell is one of fave scents to use in my books.

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  9. Kary Rader says:

    Love this post. Smell is so often tied to memory. More than any other thing except maybe music.
    Thanks for sharing, Jenna.

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    • jennajaxon says:

      Any time, Kary! Thanks for stopping by. Smell is a big trigger for memory and emotion. And we forget to use it so often in writing when it could be one of our greatest tools. I try to find ways and places to use it because there is such a great variety of smells available in historicals–not all of them nice smells, of course, but evocative of the period certainly.

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