Friday, February 5, 2016

Writer Super Power #2: Smelling

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

Last Friday we started a new series focusing on our writerly super powers. Just as our favorite super heroes have heightened senses, writers often interact with the world on a hyper-sensitive level. We listen and we smell and we watch and we touch--we experience--all while doing our darndest to connect these sensations to words. Because words are our artistic medium.

For those playing catch-up, here's last week's post on Super Hearing. This week, we're sniffing our way to super hero status. Let's look at smelling, as it relates to writing, from three different angles.

1. What the WRITER smells
Last year, my son joined a junior football team. The practices and games were hosted at my old high school, a place I hadn't been back to since the day I graduated.

They'd repainted the school, upped their landscaping game, added a gym and a technology building. They made some upgrades to the existing facilities after a rainstorm a few years back, so in a lot of ways, it wasn't the same school any more.

I was not prepared for the wave of nostalgia that hit me like a Mack truck the moment I stepped onto campus. Redwood trees and ruddy brown earth baking in the sun, damp cement walls that had recently been power washed, the air gritty with dust kicked up by cleated football players. Football players who wreaked of unwashed gear and lucky socks. The smells of my high school experience.

Even more bizarre than the nostalgia, was the first memory this convocation of smells threw me into. It wasn't of my senior year as you might expect. Those memories should have been freshest in my mind. Instead, I was dropped cheer-sneaker first into my freshman year.

Pent-up excitement and anxiety warred in my gut as I lingered between the locker rooms waiting for dreamy boy of the month to maybe, accidentally, wander by. The laughter of my girlfriends as we circled up, commenting on new outfits and hair cuts, and the football game on Friday, and "Oh-my-gosh, do you think he'll be there?"

One sniff of the campus and I swear my gut filled with butterflies and I was fourteen again. I texted my old childhood friend just to see if she remembered the smell of the dirt. It was that powerful an experience for me.

Each sense has a way of taking us back in time, but smell is sneaky about it. It creeps up on us and brings back things we didn't know we even knew. When you have one of these moments, savor it. Whether the memory is a lush, fragrant one or rotten and fetid, engage your spidey-sense and see if you can get the world around you to slow down a bit. Long enough for you to think about the moment, to appreciate it, to tuck away a few words that might help you recall the experience later.

Free write about the smells that move you. Do you know what free writing is? Free writing is when you give yourself a set period of time--say five minutes--and you just write. You forget about all the rules, the grammar and the typos, and you just scribble the first things that spring to mind. Start simply: The smell of chocolate cake reminds me of . . .

You may never, every use what you pen in your free writing time, but it is an excellent way to get your words flowing and to tap into wells of thought deep in your soul. It's great practice for writers of every level.

2. What the CHARACTERS smell
Like you, your fictional characters are absorbing the smells of the world around them with every breath they take. Imagine that! Every life-giving inhalation brings with it a variety of fragrances. When you think about it that way, you realize that smell just might be underused in our stories.

It's not hard to understand why. Smell can be a difficult thing to describe. Unlike sound where we can engage with the reader using onomatopoeia (ding, sizzle, snap, hiss), with smell, we depend heavily on the other senses to get our point across. "His skin smelled like coffee," we might say, invoking a beverage we both smell and taste. "Her perfume was rose and light," we might describe, leaning on a comparison and the sense of sight.

But however you do it, don't neglect to engage your character's sense of smell. Stinky garbage or that poopy diaper smell you can't ever purge from your nose, cloying honeysuckle or bright citrus fruits--describing these very normal, very extraordinary things from your character's point of view will help you find their voice.

3. What the READER smells
Your reader's brain is an amazing thing. It has assigned memories to every fragrance it's ever smelled. Making a concerted effort to tap into that, just might give your audience the kind of sensory experience that keeps them turning pages. Every one of your readers will have smells they associate with life events, with seasons, with people, with places. My Nana's house smells like sandalwood soap and fresh baked bread. When I read the word sandalwood, I do not think of exotic locales or sandalwood's medicinal and religious value; I think of Nana and how I couldn't wait to wash my hands before dinner.

You can't know with any certainty just which smells will trigger something in your reader's mind, but choosing to describe scent and engage with his or her sense of smell can deepen the experience and make the story a personal one.

Today, let's give free writing another go. If you would rather do the exercise on your own, I completely understand. But I want to give you the opportunity to participate in the comments section below, if you'd like. It's healthy to share unstructured, unedited writing with others, so if you're feeling brave, I'd love to see what you come up with.

Write for five minutes--letting your thought process take you where it will--starting with:

The zoo smells like . . .


  1. The zoo smelled like rotting meat.
    I groaned as the world slowly came to focus, gingerly touching my aching head. The concrete was cold against my legs, and my clothes were viciously torn.
    My head snapped up to the voice, my brows furrowing in confusion. *What?* A figure was waving through bars, with an almost frantic expression. I slowly stood up, groaning. My memory was fuzzy, and a cold draft was wafting through the air, the chill stinging to my skin. Last I remembered I was gawking at the lions. I had no idea what was going on. Why was the person behind bars?

    A growl. My hairs suddenly stood up on my neck. I slowly turned around. Staring at me, with cold dead eyes, was a fully grown lion.

    The person was not the one behind bars. I was.

    1. Never! Not on free writing. Free writing is FREE. Unencumbered by outside criticism.

  2. The zoo smells like any place brimming with wildlife would. I stand under the leaves of the eucalyptus, their fresh scent wafting through the air. As I absentmindedly break off three of the pale emerald leaves, their smell envelopes my nostrils. The koalas stare hungrily at me, bringing to mind my own increasing hunger. I can almost taste the saltiness of the peanuts and popcorns as the light breeze from the snack stand wafts in my direction. I hurriedly finish cleaning the pen, ignoring the putrid smell. Now for those snacks.

    Hope I didn't go overboard! :)

    1. Never, ever overboard! Free writing is all about JUST WRITING.

  3. Redwoods near the football fields sound lovely.

    The zoo smelled like people, powerful in the daily bustle. Old snacks, New snacks, and dirty sneakers. The smell of the animals was far less overpowering then I had been led to believe. Finding the kangaroo exhibit was a good deal harder then I had envisioned, but at last I pushed my way through. There was a man inside the exhibit. At first I supposed he was cleaning the cage, but I set this supposition aside when he climbed on the back of a kangaroo and began to ride around. Could this be the man I was sent to meet?

    1. Dirty sneakers! Love it. We all know exactly what that smells like.

  4. The zoo smells like... well, not what I thought it would smell like. It smells like leaves and nature, the outside and sunshining air. It smells like a hopeful afternoon and discovering something new. The ground is wet and that rain, that dampness, is experienced by everyone and everything here. No matter where we or these animals came from, we are all enjoying the same sunny day after a hard shower.

    It is what I would like to remember about the koalas in their cage. Not that they are far from home, but that they are here with me and they and their brothers somehow connect me to my own family Downunder.

  5. The zoo smelled like wet animal hair, which smelled like home, which reminded me of how little difference these two places had compared to each other

    "come on come on. I want to see the monkeys!"

    "you already saw the monkeys today," I told my whining brother. "lets go see something else." I tugged on her arm, but he took it as a game of tug-o-war.

    perhaps I should take him to see the dogs. something told me he'd fit with them very well.

    "NO! the monkey's are this way." he let go of my hand and sprinted down the path, weaving in and out of innocent bystanders. It was only a few moments before he disapeared withing the crowd.

    now a kid running through a crowd in search for monkeys, his one and only love, is cute. a shaggy teenager who can't run for his life stumbling around to find him is a signal for parents to pull their kids close.

    I started to stride the other way, heading for the house of birds. in about a half an hour, I'd travel to the main building and find my brother waiting in a chair next to an official. he always shows up there eventually.


    1. I think I wrote "her" in there at some point. sorry for the typo. the brother's a boy.

    2. Great job! I love that you just ignored the typos and wrote on. That's what freewriting is all about. Throwing up thought onto a page. It's exercise, not final product.

  6. I don't think I can describe what the zoo smells like because I can't bring it's smell to mind at the moment, but do you know, I just realized that many people, including myself, only describe smells with metaphors. Why aren't there any smell adjectives, and do you think we should invent some?

    1. Yes! Metaphors are the most common way to explain what we smell. I have no idea what kind of smell adjectives we could invent, but I'm never one to stand in the way of ingenuity. Brain it up, friend!

  7. The zoo smelled like elephants. Which is to say it smelled like manure, but we kids had grown up in Asia, with that scent shocking you right onto the broad thick-skinned back of an elephant, with the big ears flapping against your shoes (if your legs were long enough to dangle that far) and the mahout poking that cruel-looking hook in the beast's unresponsive hairy skin. Once the mahout clonked one over the head so loud we all winced, but that thick-skulled creature didn't even notice. When you weren't riding, slimy trunks took bananas and watermelon from your hands, or the stumpy legs bent down on their knees as they begged you to buy them sugarcane. Those clever animals painted pictures of flowers, or bowed delicately with trunks waving-and all throughout was that awful strong smell.

    1. Of course, this was an American zoo. You could only feed the goats, and that was for little kids. All the animals were way out in their cages. You couldn't hand the giraffes long green beans to lick out of your hand with their crazy black and purple tongues. You couldn't toss the zebras a few while you were at it, and you certainly couldn't throw chickens at the tigers. No hand-feeding loose peacocks either. Who wants to visit these Western zoos, anyway? Everything is LOOK DON'T TOUCH.

      (addition to the incomplete work above)

    2. Oooo! I love this! You should so write more about this. Who are the lucky kids who got to grow up abroad? Story fodder, my friend.

    3. Actually, this is a TRUE account of my thoughts and experiences, as a third culture kid. :)

  8. The zoo smelled like heaven. Most people would say she was crazy. They would hold their aristocratic noses at the shockingly overpowering scents of hair, elephant, fruit, and dead fish, just as Justin had done. "You're wasting your life," he'd said.

    And she'd believed him. She'd gone on dates with him, walked with him down the busy city streets under the starry sky. She'd trusted him. But now, she thought bitterly, she knew what he was. One thing was certain: this was where she belonged.

    A raven croaked on the other side of a fence. She opened the door with her old, tarnished, and beloved key, and slipped inside. She pulled off the engagement ring and tossed it high into the air. The raven swooped off the nest and caught it in his beak, cawing with exitement. Sarah smiled wistfully. At least someone still thought it was worth something.

    The door squeaked open behind her. Sarah turned.

    There stood Ramirez, the same bronzed boy he'd always been, with his shy, friendly grin and hands outstretched.
    "Welcome home, Sarah."
    She melted into his embrace, marveling. How was it that he still loved her? She didn't deserve it.

    (hope this isn't too long or anything :))

    1. Aw! Sweet! You made a stinky smell sweet. Talent!

  9. I have always preferred paper books to e-books, partially because of the smell of paper. I don't usually tell people that, but books smell like mystery.

  10. Lillie rode her bike over to the local zoo. The zoologist elective hadn't been her first choice, but it was better than teacher or janitor.
    It was a lovely spring day, and the air was earthy and new.Lillie locked her bike on the stand and went over towards the office.
    The oxen were playing, and the area around them smelled of manure. Lillie wrinkled her nose as she want past the flamingo exhibit. She parked her bike. This was her favorite animal as a child. Kids threw buttered popcorn at the ducks across the path. Smells of animals filled her nose, bringing back memories from farther back then she could remember.
    Lillie smiled. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad here.

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. The zoo smells like nothing I’ve ever smelt before. I wasn’t used to the smell of filthy animals and possibly quite dangerous ones. Luckily no one would expect a master thief to be in a zoo. The wrapping around my head covered my elven features as I passed by the large glass container with a snake that looked hungry for my flesh. These ‘modern’ day people gave me strange looks when I passed them. To be fair I probably looked like a raider from one of the olden deserts. I carefully avoided the security guards. Why did they want to take me to that ‘scientific facility’? I know elves supposedly died out long ago, but seriously? I had to abandon my weapons outside. It seemed they didn’t appreciate bows and swords these days. My target was near the rather intimidating ‘Giraffe’ cage. I almost felt sorry for these creatures, locked up in cages. But if they weren’t they would most likely be eating the only living elf. Which I would not appreciate.
    I swerved around the corner. There it was, still thrown in the grass where I was forced to leave it. The smell of the gem of sins was almost as unique as the zoo’s. I was urged to take off my gloves when picking it up, but I knew better. I held it at eye level. Its smell reminded me of something sweet, like my mother’s cake, or one of those so called ‘glazed doughnuts’, though I had no idea what it had to do with nuts. I pocketed the gem before the temptation took me.

    1. Wow! I just had to comment and tell you how intriguing this is! Good job! :)

  13. The zoo smelled like sixth grade to Harris Allen.
    Sitting in his black SUV and looking at the girl who called herself Laura Gold, he remembered the smell and it took him back to the first time he had seen her: his sixth grade field-trip to the zoo.
    Unlike most field-trips, this one had included all grades from Hampton Elementary school. A new educational show was coming to the zoo and the school board had decided every student would benefit from seeing it.
    Harris's hat had blown off his head just as he was sitting down in one of the bleachers at the top of the auditorium. Harris had jumped up from his seat and run after it.
    The wind carried the hat as far as the monkey exhibit before Harris reached out and caught it with his hand.
    He had sprinted back to the auditorium and braced himself to be scolded by a teacher for leaving the group.
    When he walked into the auditorium, however, something had gone horribly wrong.
    Everyone, teacher and students, lay passed out on the bleachers. An enormous man in a zoo uniform was walking around pinching them.
    Harris started to yell to the man and ask what had happened then he saw the man grab one of the teachers and open his mouth to bite him revealing pointed teeth.
    A blur of motion had exploded from behind the teacher and one of the first graders was suddenly hanging onto the man neck. She stabbed something into the man's neck and he howled and collapsed.
    Now Laura Gold was here and Harris couldn't shake the feeling that things had just gotten complicated.

  14. The zoo smells like the Fae folk. It's very faint—a trace of an otherworldly presence behind the almost overpowering scent of mortality. But it's there, and it brings a rush of mixed emotions.
    I've tracked her down this far. I can't back down now.
    I weave through the people, ignoring how their eyes glaze over for a moment when their gaze passes over me. If I pay too much attention to them, I might lose my focus.
    I bond my energy to the metal of the tram as it passes and move onto the top of it. The wind slides along my face, but I block my mind to the distractions and focus on the scents in the air.
    There it is again.
    I slide off the slow-moving vehicle and sprint toward the panther's fence.
    I should have been able to guess where she would be.
    I slowly breathe in through my nose, almost cringing at the Fae smell, strong now that I am nearer.
    I walk up to the fence and rest my fingertips on the metal, surveying the exibit.
    She's with the cats.

  15. These posts are really helpful. I'm planning to write a story with a blind MC so I need to work on the other senses