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Scents and Sense-ability

by Danielle Marroquin
Of the five senses, smell is probably the most ignored in fiction, both in general fiction and in books written for YA audiences. Sight reigns supreme; we're treated to vivid descriptions of cute boys and lush landscapes. On occasion, our friend sound makes an appearance--the crunch of stones on a driveway, the soft crackle of fire over coals, the melodic lilt of music. Books might on occasion feature gentle caresses or, in the case of Brian Jacques, lurid descriptions of scrumptious feasts. But it's rare that a book highlights odoriferous experiences alone, aside from the sense's role in enhancing her sister sense, taste.

This is a trend I'd like to see changed.

I believe that scent experiences are particularly fitting in young adult novels and works for other youngsters, thanks to neurobiology and the way that odor works. The human olfactory system has close ties to the hippocampus and limbic system, located near the base of the brain, where memories both short and long term are stored. This is why a single smell can bring back intimate childhood memories, experiences you consciously believed you'd forgotten.

Not only is scent highly linked to memory, but perceptions of smell change as we get older--mostly growing duller as time marches on. Babies can distinguish between the scent of their mother's breastmilk and the milk from other women, but by the time we're in our late teens, olfactory perceptions peak, and then eventually decline. This means that teenagers are particularly attuned to scent--far more than their adult counterparts might be.

My interest in olfactory writing began with Lynda Barry's 2002 graphic novel One Hundred Demons. Barry's book features a comic called "Common Scents" where she recounts the smells of the homes she knew in her childhood neighborhood--one smells like "fresh bus bathroom," another smells like "mint, tangerines, and library books." Barry's book reminded me of the smells of the homes I knew in my own childhood: the kid whose house always smelled like fresh laundry, yeast, and pine cleaner; another, whose home smelled like animal fur, cheddar popcorn, and the dried saliva on the stuffed animal she carried everywhere; my grandmother's apartment, which smelled like linoleum, cats, and oatmeal cookies. Even my own house was a pungent mixture of cigarettes, guitar strings, thrift store furniture, and crayola crayons.

These smells, I came to realize, did more than just evoke memories I thought I'd buried. They also described socioeconomic status, diet, and casual lifestyle details. But scent isn't only useful for describing domestic scenes. There's also the woodsmoke, bug spray, and moss of summer camp; the ozone, cedar, and asphalt of walking at night during a fresh snow; the clover and dandelions and lawn mower gas of early spring.

In including olfactory descriptions, you can imbibe your writing with a much more convincing--and evocative--sense of place. These details can remind your readers of deeply personal moments in their own lives (moments they thought they missed), revealing hidden depths of emotion. A little smell goes a long way.
Phoebe North

Phoebe writes stories about aliens for teenagers. She loves both Star Trek and Star Wars and doesn't believe you should ever have to choose. She is the author of Starglass and Starbreak, both from Simon and Schuster.

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  1. Smell is my favorite of the senses to use in my writing. I, too, wish we saw more of it!

  2. Thank you for this reminder! You're right - it's so easy to overlook the sense of smell, but it really is a good one to use. I'm going to make it a goal to put it in a lot more often.

  3. I notice when I'm pregnant, my sense of smell comes back 200%. Last pregnancy, I wrote a werewolf novella. I read it again and I was shocked at how much the sense of smell colors the story. I think that's why dogs see very few colors, because they get the whole spectrum through their nose.

  4. I agree that the sense of smell can be evocative in writing - it has so many connections and personal associations. But sometimes it's hard to come up with interesting ways to describe scents.

  5. I see so little use of smell in writing! Lovely post. :)

  6. I always have to remind myself to put the other senses in my writing--but smell is almost always skipped. Why? Because I have no sense of smell. Hard to describe a smell you've never smelled! So when I want to put smell in, I have to ask someone else. It's not easy for me to remember to put smells in, because they do not factor in at all in my world.

  7. One of my friends has no sense of smell. I'd actually like to see a book with someone like that as a character; I'm sure there are some out there, but I can't remember/haven't heard of them.


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Item Reviewed: Scents and Sense-ability Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Phoebe North