The Writer’s Eye: Using the Senses in Romance Writing ~ The Sense of Smell


When I first began writing, I blogged a lot about the craft of writing and my thoughts on writing, pretty much as I went along. One series of posts I did almost ten years ago was on using the senses in writing romance. Since I’m once again looking through the writer’s eye at the craft of writing, I thought I’d revisit these posts over the next few weeks, look at them with a more experienced eye and revise as the need arises.

In post number two post number four 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?

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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 that scent has different connotations:

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 coming by! Join me next week when I wrap up my thoughts on the senses by exploring the use of taste in romance writing.

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

1 Response to The Writer’s Eye: Using the Senses in Romance Writing ~ The Sense of Smell

  1. Wonderful examples, Jenna. 🙂 Too often, I forget to use the sense of smell in my writing. I must get it in there more often.

    I did find an example: the opening lines to one of my WIPS.

    “Smoke mixed with dust blew Lily’s way, carrying the smell of civilization burning to the ground.”


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