A number of years ago, I took a workshop with Darcy Pattison on rewriting your novel. One of the things that she taught us was to include three sensory perceptions per page. No worries. It’s easy enough to say how big something is, what color it is and describe its texture. But wait! There’s more! Darcy explained that we needed to have details from three different senses.
This is usually doable for me as long as a stick with sight, sound and touch. But as long as I’m adding variety, I feel like I should add smell and taste as well.
That’s when things get tricky. Unless my character is eating, has just been smacked in the mouth or nose, or is smelling something really strong, working in taste is tough. People don’t just walk around tasting things.
Smells are easier in that if you have a good sense of smell it can be hard to ignore smells. Right now, sitting in my office, I can smell the garlic from the green beans and the hot peppers from the chicken that we had for dinner. I can smell the cup of coffee on my desk. And I can smell my son’s shampoo — he’s taking a shower in the bathroom across the hall.
The tricky bit is describing these smells. I can go easy and simply say that the shampoo is strawberry because most of my readers know what strawberry smells like. But what if I was describing something less common like prickly pear fruit? Or durian?
I did a search on describing smells and managed to compile this list of descriptive words: acidy, acrid, antiseptic, aromatic, balmy, biting, bitter, briny, burnt, citrusy, clean, comforting, corky, crisp, damp, dank, dirty, distinctive, doggy, earthy, faint, feminine, fetid, fishy, flowery, fragrant, fresh, fruity, gamy, gaseous, heavy, lemony, lilac, lime, medicinal, metallic, mildewed, minty, moldy, musky, musty, odorless, peppery, perfumed, piney, plastic, pungent, putrid, rancid, reek, rose, rotten, sandlewood, savoury, scented, sharp, sickly, skunky, smoky, sour, spicy, spoiled, stagnant, stench, stinking, sulphur, sweaty, sweet, tart, tempting, vinegary, woody, yeasty.
Scents are powerful because they help us call on our memories and emotions. A scent can serve as a character trait if your female character always smells of lavender or your male character of lime. Scents can also be indicative of culture such as England’s roses vs Ireland’s peat fires.
I’m still learning my way around this particular sense, at least in terms of including it in my writing, but when I pull it off my settings feel more real than simple words on the page.