There are two things that got me thinking this time around. First, I actually played a role-playing game via Google-Hangout yesterday. And as I went exploring a small tunnel, my GM described the smell of the slime I crawled into and got all over me – like rotten fish. Ugh! Shudder!
Second, the roses on my balcony are in full flower. Their scent is heavenly. Every morning, I go and take a noseful of that wonderful scent. No wonder medieval ladies wanted to smell like a rose! And we actually still use the leaves of the Damascene roses to make rose water and rose perfume. My balcony roses cannot compete with those.
Smell is one of our five senses, and the only one that reaches our brain without the mind’s censorship. That’s how the nerves are wired. Thus smells can be very, very powerful. Have you ever sniffed your grandma’s scarf and missed her terribly? That’s the power of smell. I’ve actually woken from sleep by a smell once – I smelled a fire. (Called the firefighters and prevented a bad fire in the house next door. They got there while it still was a comparatively “harmless” kitchen fire.)
I discovered how important smell is when I lost my sense of it. Due to sinusitis, I couldn’t smell a thing for a year or so. Food was dull, and only enhanced by my memory of how it tasted, other than sweet, salty or bitter. I couldn’t enjoy summer with all the flowers. My world was diminished. Thus I rejoiced when I regained my sense of smell. Now it is very sharp, and even while not all smells are pleasant, I revel in sensing the world around me completely and fully. I even discovered that some artificial smells like “room scents” are more unpleasant to me than most natural odors. I rarely use scented candles, because the scent is so harshly artificial. But I disgress.
Back to writing: I can’t think of many books where smell is actually used a lot in descriptions. One that’s standing out in my memory is “A Wind in Cairo”, by Judith Tarr. Judy uses smell as main sense when writing from the perspective of Khamsin, the prince turned stallion. It’s impressive, and different. And she does it all the time, yet very naturally:
“Al-Zaman scrambled back, stumbling, dropping his sword. Khamsin laughed at the fallen jaw, the hand flung up in feeble defense, the stink of fear.
Zamaniya wanted to be angry: it was in her voice. But her scent was half fear, half perilious mirth.”
That little mention of how fear smells completes the threat by Khamsin, I think. And with Zamaniya’s scent as noticed by Khamsin, Judy transports information to the reader that the other characters in the story don’t know. That’s very clever.
I readily admit that I don’t often think about integrating smells into my stories. Still, I believe it’s worth it simply because it is such a powerful sense. So let’s use smell in our tales, and bring a complete world to our readers.