I wrote last week about the five senses and the need for sensory input in our writing. Images, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures (the way things feel on our skin) give our writing immediacy, intensity, keep the setting in the reader’s mind, and help generate that movie-like sensation that pulls a reader into the worlds we create. When we add in our characters’ reactions, it becomes more than just a sensory record – it becomes that new, no-longer-imaginary world and our characters become real people.
My friend Bob—the man in the writer’s group who pushed and cajoled us all into using more sensory language, was particularly adamant about smell, saying that most writers forget all about smell, and their writing suffered for it. He was right. I started using much sensory language in my writing, with a strong emphasis on how smells touch on backstory—the way that smells evoke intense memories and help with character building, without causing an infodump.
When I started writing a non-human character—Jane Yellowrock and her sister-soul, Beast—I discovered that all Bob’s lessons in sensory writing were being put to an even better use, and that I still had some things—okay a lot of things—to learn, like the way sensory language, when layered with voice, setting, and style tells its own story.
In honor of Bob, let me toss out a few smelly medleys, from Jane Yellowrock’s and Beast’s perspective.
JY, Smell: I leaned in again. This time, he smelled only of his master. A close perusal of the blood-signature proved that the master wasn’t someone I knew, not someone I had ever met. Beast didn’t have the olfactory memory of a bloodhound, but she was no slouch either. She would have remembered this scent. It was peaty and spicy and a little beery. Odd for a vamp.
By ending with the saying that the smell was odd for a vamp, I set up that this smell may be a clue for the conflict, and give the description a hint of both the unknown and of uneasiness.
JY, Smell: Ignoring the shadow that loomed over me, I leaned and sniffed. The blue-eyed man smelled of witchy-power, not his own, but something he had bought from a powerful witch, and the stench overrode the scent-signature of his master. Whatever amulet he had, was underneath him, inactivated, and I intended to keep it that way. I pulled his arms back and secured them with a zipstrip. Then added three more strips. He was a blood-servant to someone very powerful, with a witchy charm on his person. I wasn’t taking chances.
Again, Jane’s reactions to the scent make the scene work, and give her a reason for her overcautious reactions. Also, because we have so few emotion-intensive words for smell in the English language, I have to be careful to avoid the repetitive use of specific words. For instance the words odor, aroma, reek, and stench, each have their own emotional overtones, and I can’t replace one for the other, any more than I can overuse one or two.
JY, Smell : I pulled in scents, my nostrils widening. His boots smelled of horse manure, fresh. Local boy then, or one who had been in town long enough to find a mount. I smelled horse sweat and hay, a clean blend of scents. And cigar. It was the cigar that made me like him. The taint of steel, gun oil, and silver made me fall in love. Well, sorta. My Beast thought he was kinda cute, and maybe tough enough to be worthy of us. Yet there was a faint scent on the man, hidden beneath the surface smells, that made me wary.
Where most main characters will have only cursory scents to make an initial judgment of a new character they are meeting for the first time, and will depend heavily on sight, Jane has the added layer of intense smell to guide her. For the writers with non-human POV characters, don’t forget that most animals have senses of smells millions of times greater than humans and they react to them intensely. I wrote a scene once where Beast found and rolled in catnip, while Jane was screaming for her to get a move on and Beast totally ignored her, blissed-out by smell. That was fun.
Beast, Smell: Scent called. Strange smell that almost was. Sick thing moved on. Keeping to shadows, its excitement potent. Hunting. Cars passed. I followed when shadows fell again, nose low. Smelled prey-scent beneath mad one’s footsteps. Human female, walking. Sex-smells, many partners. She was unmated, searching. Loneliness was forceful, buried in scent.
Beast and Jane think and react on both big-cat and human levels, though language from Beast’s POV is primitive, choppy, and not always exactly on target. Beast is able to interpret smells in ways no humans can, and yet react to them in ways that humans traditionally—if she is in the mood. My dogs know when I am sad, angry, unwell, and even lonely, and will curl up near me to offer the comfort of the den. Their body language tells me that they understand exactly what I am feeling and their reactions are specific to my emotions.
Beast, Smell: On far side of big river, city thinned, smells changed. Less death: sour river water, dead fish, alcohol, exhaust. More prey: domestic and feral cat, many dogs. Big rats—nutria. She had studied. Twenty-pound rats. Good to eat? Birds—prey and predator. Owls hunting. Bats. Squirrel, small mouthful. Mosquitoes, too small to catch. Swamp. Spill-waters emptying into lakes around New Orleans. Still-water stretched ahead. Sharp, pointed moon reflected on top.
Beast thinks in absolutes—life and death, good and bad, food and not-food. So, a new place, near a known one, will have its scent medley compared to the old both place in positive ways and negative ways. And then, to avoid the laundry list of scent-characteristics, I add in the vision of the sickle moon from her perspective.
JY, Smell: On reflex, I ducked right, into the corner of the room, pulled the nine mil and a vamp killer, the one I’d killed the blood-slave with. Whirled to faced them. I knew the vamps would smell the fresh blood, despite the thorough cleaning I’d given the blade in the ladies room.
In the lines just before this, Jane caught a whiff of a stranger. She sometimes reacts to smell strictly on instinct, just like her Beast might. And for this story arc, she doesn’t even realize that is why she is reacting.
We’ve been putting the down the laundry list of attributes and characteristics in description, but as we always say here at the Magical Words fantasy writing forum, there is no one way to accomplish an end in our writing, and sometimes, that old, worn-out method has its place. Time for the laundry list:
JY, Mixed Senses: “I don’t think so,” a voice said behind me. I turned and saw a man, human—or as human as the fang-heads’ dinners ever are. I knew this guy wasn’t one of Ro’s usual blood-servants; even if I hadn’t been able to smell the new master on him, he wasn’t in the dossier. He was maybe seventy years old, looked twenty-five, and was powerful—meaning that he had fed on the blood of a master for a very long time. Bald, six-feet-and-a-smidge, blue eyes, reddish beard needing a shave, casual clothes, shirt half-tucked, as if he’d dressed and gotten here in a hurry. He was a righty.
And he had a gun pointed at my chest.
Jane takes in and catalogs everything in an instant, the laundry list choppy, fast, and with that police procedural fell to it. The ending tells us why she took this approach. She ends with knowledge that might be useful in a fight (he’s right-handed) and the most important point he brought along a little friend and knew how to use it.
JY, Mixed senses: The muzzle flash blinded me, but I fired back, three shots in his general direction. He rose into my window again, looked me in the eyes, and fired two more shots. He moved freaky fast, and could see in the dark. Not human-normal. A punching pain hit me, like a hard strike delivered by black-belt with something to prove. Burning and icy. Chest shot. He’d hit me.
But I smelled blood, his as well as mine. Blinded by the flashes, deaf from the concussive explosions, I felt along my booted foot for my backup. My chest stabbed with pain and I couldn’t reach the holster.
Unlike in my other writing, with human characters, I seldom use only one scent in scenes with Jane, but layer them on together like scales on a snake. Jane’s reactions to smell and sounds and textures make the writing more intense and allow me to go into places with my writing that I’ve never been before. A new stop on the writing journey.
For the next few weeks, keep a laundry list ( J ) of your sensory scenes for the week when I open the board up to your scenes. For today – jump in here y’all. How does smell affect (infect?) your writing? Do you see a place for it where you left it out?
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