Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Feeding the Fifth Sense - Jan Edwards



There are a great many pages medically analysing how smells will conjure memories, both good and bad. Entire industries have been built around this connection as perfumers concoct fragrances that seek to convey a vast array of emotions and feelings: from desire to power, vitality to relaxation. And of course the sense of smell is inextricably linked with that of taste.  We each have many thousands of taste buds to detect the five basic sensations: sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami (word for savoury taste distinct from pure saltiness). 
We can google just about everything, and imagine how something feels and to a lesser extent hazard a guess at a flavour. Invoking a scent/odour/smell/pong or any other word of choice is often overlooked when writing.  
There are experiments in theatres which started some years ago with cloth pads soaked in oils and the odours wafted around by fans and became more sophisticated machinery (we’ve all had experience of home scent diffusers) but it would seem these ideas have never really taken off. Mainly, from what I have read, because it was too hit and miss and also has allegedly had a significant effect on those people with allergies – nothing worse than your play or film being drowned out by noise of sneezing and the unpacking of trunks!
Smell-o-vision has been a holy grail for the media for half a century and some Japanese media techs are claiming they will be able to make it a reality quite soon. So far, as I am aware, we cannot yet experience smell over the internet, and I am not sure I would want it. Imagine having your living suddenly redolent of gaseous swamps or (if you are a crime drama buff) stinky corpses.
Having those evocative scents in real time may not be to everyone’s taste for all of the above reasons but still doesn’t explain why smell is the sense most often overlooked, or perhaps even actively avoided, in writing. There are some excellent odour-related exceptions of course:


“The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies.”   Neil Gaiman,American Gods
“The library was a little old shabby place. Francie thought it was beautiful. The feeling she had about it was as good as the feeling she had about church. She pushed open the door and went in. She liked the combined smell of worn leather bindings, library past and freshly inked stamping pads better than she liked the smell of burning incense at high mass.” Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
“I drive a motorbike, so there is the whiff of the grim reaper round every corner, especially in London.”  Benedict Cumberbatch
“It was the smell that hit her first. It was a sterile, antiseptic and very distinctive medical smell, a smell with an underlying metallic reek of blood beneath it. Disturbing as this was, Selena wasn’t necessarily shocked. It was a hospital, after all. Just like schools had a tendency to smell like chalk dust and sweat and cafeteria mystery meat, just like auto shops stank of gasoline and rust, hospitals had an odour reflecting their whole purpose, and it was sort of redundant to try and hide it.”  Rebecca McNutt, Insidious Resident
Using the five traditional senses: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell, should be an easy exercise.  
We’ve all seen writers devote pages to a character’s height and colouring of eyes and hair, the shape of their face, the style and even manufacturer of their clothing. They will vividly evoke the sound of a piano or the menacing slam of a car door; accurately describe what it feels like to stroke a cat or to plunge feet first into icy water; wax lyrical over the taste of that morning cup of coffee or the bitterness of an unripe apple. But nary a smell in ...  here I pause. The fingers stretch to type familiar phrases. Nary a sight, bereft of sound, not a touch, devoid of flavour but what then? Not so much as a waft? A sniff? I realise I am ranting a little here but mainly through frustration at my own short comings.
Writing a short story recently I wanted to evoke the sense of a particular smell and found it almost impossible because all of the phrases I came up with relied on the reader having had some personal experience of it. How many people would know the smell of blue and white Sussex clay dug from an old well or a pond base?  It has a specific odour and I suspect I am just being a little paranoid in wanting to nail that memory-evoking smell. It is not exactly stagnant, not exactly earthy, not precisely sour nor musty. How could I convey such a nebulous memory in mere words? 
I doubt conveying my own experience is even possible, and in the scheme of things it really doesn’t matter. Words like ‘rank’ or ‘cloying’ are perfectly adequate to for my reader to draw on their own past and set their mind’s nose twitching at the memory of it.


Meanwhile I am transported back to the River Lox (a Sussex stream with delusions of grandeur). Nine years old and calf-deep in water trying to construct a dam, for no reason other than I can, from sandstone and flints. Breathing in the nebulous scent of thick blue clay and recognising its acrid, claggy, earthiness as a brief moment in my own time.





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You can read more about Jan and her Bunch Courtney books on her blog HERE
In Her Defence is available through most leading booksellers in print and digital formats.
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3 comments:

Umberto Tosi said...

It worked! I can smell that Suxxex clay - or whatever version of it my imagination is producing - thanks to your vivid description! You're so right about aromatic descriptions add a powerful dimension to a narrative. Sense of smell can also help define a character - as, for example, noting the keen nose of an accomplished cook.

janedwards said...

Indeed - a passing waft of scent is that subliminal key to sense of people as well as
place :-)

Silver Screenings said...

An excellent reminder about the powerful sense of smell. Those descriptions really pull me as a reader into the narrative.