Backstory: A Sense of Smell

Like most people, I have a nose. But mine doesn’t seem to work very well. Smells don’t really register with me on a conscious level. I mean, sure, I get the big unavoidable ones, like fresh brownies in the kitchen or dirty diapers on a toddler. But I’m not a guy who is going to smell a glass of wine or a bowl of soup; I just throw that stuff down the gullet and move on. I’m sure that on an unconscious level I respond to many smells. Who knows, on some animal level I’ve probably formed personal likes and dislikes, felt attracted or repelled, based on odors — not that I’d know it.

Good writers, I think, strive to engage all the senses in their writing. For me, when it comes to the sense of smell, that means work. It doesn’t come naturally. When I was writing from Trey Cooper’s point of view (POV) in Along Came Spider, I knew that I was writing about a sensitive kid. A boy who smells things. The book loosely alternates POV between Trey and Spider Stevens. In Trey’s chapters, I made an effort to bring the sense of smell into the descriptive passages. Part of his affection for crayons comes from that comforting odor, that sweet olfactory sensation, entangled in childhood memory, the smell working on him on some deep level. Crayons feel safe. Therefore in this book, when Trey encounters people, smell is often part of the description.

Of the classroom aide, Mrs. Mowatt: “She was large and overflowing and smelled of cocoa butter.”

Of Ryan Donovan: “Ryan was loud and his face was too near and his staring eyes hurt and his mouth smelled like garlic.”

On the night sky: “The air was cool and smelled of pine and moved like a panther from rock to rock.” And: “The smell of decayed leaves and the corpses of flowers filled his nostrils.”

On the library: “Trey glanced at the shelves that lined the walls, the new books, the smooth polished tabletops that smelled of Lemon Pledge, the chairs tucked in and neatly arranged.”

And so on. It was just a little thing I did to build character, nothing major, one attribute that I gave him which seemed consistent with his condition. He smelled things . . . even if I didn’t.

By the way, my daughter Maggie has a heightened sense of smell. She’s always commenting on various odors (some of which her father carries, alas, and Maggie frowns upon — she hates peanut butter breath). We were in the car the other day; I was driving Maggie and a friend to gymnastics. The subject of the mall came up. Maggie stated that she did not like the mall. Her friend, Katie, an enthusiastic shopper, was surprised: “Why not?”

“I don’t like the way it smells,” Maggie said. “It’s all . . . buttery.”

Funny, right? But then you think of those pretzel shops that are everywhere, and the movie theaters with buckets of popcorn drenched in a yellow liquid vaguely butter-ish something, and the overall pungent queasy smell that pervades, and realize that Maggie is absolutely right.

The nose knows!

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