Avoiding cheap perfume

As one perceptive reader (Jame) figured out from my very first post here, I am now about to complain about the following line from Journey:

“Smell of wine and cheap perfume”

It wouldn’t be awful by itself, seeing how it appears in the song lyrics, but now that mythical ‘cheap perfume’ has infiltrated too many books for me to keep silent on the matter. Yes, I am very olfactorily-oriented. Yes, I am one of those BPAL people. But this post is not about BPAL per se but rather about the role of olfactory cues in fiction.

On one hand, many writers seem to recognize that these are important; they all provide convenient shorthand to evocation of mood. Smells of pinesap and cookies, of nutmeg and cloves remind those belonging to a certain cultural tradition of Christmas and pumpkin pie spice respectively, and the smell itself is a quick way to unlock those memories, to create a mood. And most writers manage such descriptions on the level of cinnamon buns and roasted-goose Christmases.

However, wander away from treasured childhood memories and ballparks with their ubiquitous popcorn, many writers seem to be at a loss in terms of smells. Bad or vague olfactory descriptions catapult me out of the story, and the main pitfall is lack of specificity. Consider the ever-present ‘cheap perfume’ – what does it smell like? Artificial vanilla, badly blended florals? Jasmine (ugh, jasmine)? Astringent alcohol? All of the above? No one knows, and the writers use it as a signifier that the place is a dive or the girl is a slut. Well, not good enough.

And ‘expensive perfume’ is not a uniform entity either. Some writers inform the reader with almost endearing naivety that their female protagonist smells of “flowers”. Considering that flowers have spent millions of years evolving their unique fragrances, it’s just not fair. Tell me which flowers. Then don’t pretend that it’s a natural human smell. No shame in wearing perfume.

Also, many writers do not seem to be aware that there is more to perfume than florals – there are spicy perfumes (vanilla, cinnamon and clove being common ingredients), there are resins such as camphor, myrrh and frankincense. There are woods – sandalwood and teak being common woodsy and spicy notes. Fruity scents are always popular – watermelon, strawberry, cherry, apple are all fairly common.

Besides all these notes derived from plant essential oils, a number of animal ingredients can be found in perfume as well – civet, ambergris, musks, honey, beeswax. No need to leave them out.

Same is true about wine – red and white wines have a completely different smell, and different kinds of wines offer further variety. If you tell me that you smell ‘spilled wine’ I laugh and demand to know what kind – is it sour and faint, is it bold and grapey? Does it leave a musky undertaste on the back of your throat? Is there a hint of spice? No need to get too detailed, but give me something to hang my olfactory imagination on besides ‘wine’.

Another common mistake I see is ‘either or’ smells – she smelled like roses or gardenias. There was a whiff of nutmeg or cardamom. People who write this sort of thing don’t seem to be aware that these are really different smells; those familiar with both roses and gardenias know that they could no more be mistaken for each other than a poodle can be mistaken for a mastiff in a visual description. Same for nutmeg and cardamom.

So the key to writing a good olfactory description is specificity – decide on a smell and don’t waffle. Many smells can be easily verified (spices, for example, are easy for anyone with a spice rack or a restaurant within a driving distance). Flowers can be a bit trickier, but thankfully many alternative health stores sell aromatherapy supplies, and they usually carry essential oils. ‘Single note’ perfumes might be a pricier alternative. If you don’t know what something smells like, don’t fake it, don’t hide behind a clichéd descriptor and don’t throw two clashing alternatives in hopes that one will stick. I’ll notice.


  1. says

    Neat post.

    I run an incense resource blog, so this subject’s pretty close to heart, especially in that trying to describe aromatic qualities is close to what Frank Zappa might have called “dancing about architecture.” The idea of cheap/synthetic vs expensive/natural runs through incense as well, and in the United States much of what you’ll find in stores is synthetic, often even incenses you’d swear are all natural (one of the world’s most famous incenses, Nag Champa, went at least partially synthetic several years ago). The largest Japanese incense company selling in the United States, Nippon Kodo, has very few purely natural lines, most of their scents smell like, well cheap perfume(s). :) I think what that often means is that synthetic aromas tend to flat line, they’re like digital approximations of something analog. I often describe it as clashing, as many synthetic aromas in conjunction tend to interfere with one another. Another comparison would be perfumed soap, because you’re not just smelling the perfume but the alkaline qualities behind it.

    Great points re: florals. Camphor’s a wood, but all aromatic woods get their aromas from the resins anyway (maybe you’re thinking borneol). And what’s interesting is that aromas are very cultural. Coffee incenses are huge in Japan, not so much here. Woody incenses based on aloeswood and sandalwood have been huge for 100s of years in Japan (there are pieces of aloeswood in museums), but there’s also modern lines for people who identify woodier incenses with tradition, funerals etc.

    I don’t think you tend to find too many incenses and perfumes with actual animal ingredients in them these days due to ecological laws, particularly musk, civet, naga (pangolin scales), and real ambergris. Usually they are synthetic or natural analogs, as these elements come from endangered species. But like the synthetic vs natural argument, animal ingredients have greater depth to them than the synthetic analogs. Like aloeswood, they have serious power to trigger old memories. Comparing some obscure Himalayan monastery scent to something with synthetic (or even natural, plant-derived) musk in it is quite astonishing. Animal musk has the same strength a skunk might leave behind.

    Some of my incense sniffing basics comes from viticulture and enology classes so your point is well taken there. I remember smelling over 80 different foil colored bowls to try and identify unknown aromas, all of them associated with wines, anything from vegemite to cherries.

    I also think the particularl confusions you mention such as rose or gardenia often come from blends that contain both of these elements. Nutmeg and cardamom come hand in hand in a lot of Tibetan incenses, as do cinnamon and clove. There are even more than one type of cardamon, and cinnamon is often the name used for cinnamon and cassia wood.

    Overall for any writer, I’d suggest checking out aloeswood in order to stretch the chops. It’s certainly (and often extremely) expensive and some of it falls under the same ecological trade laws mentioned earlier. But it’s unquestionably considered the finest, deepest and most contemplative ingredient out there, as if it creates a tabula rasa for memory. Your brain will go through fits trying to link it to your memories, demonstrating a real subconscious depth. The most expensive aloeswood, kyara, is rarer than gold, there’s a legend that says the aroma of kyara will produce the same state as 30 minutes of meditation. While I don’t believe that for a second, it should hint at the aromatic power and depth of this rare wood. Oud (aloeswood) oils can be found here as well: http://www.oriscent.com/

    Best, Mike

  2. says

    Same is true about wine – red and white wines have a completely different smell, and different kinds of wines offer further variety.

    I laugh because just last night I was working on a scene that required My Hero to describe a particular kind of wine. It had to be white, it had to be a specific kind of white, and I knew _exactly_ what wine to call on to describe it… only I’d had a glass of a hearty red with dinner, and that was all I had in my short-term memory. Much muttering followed because yes it really _was_ that important to get right…

  3. says

    Mike — Thanks for your comment! Great stuff. Far as camphor, it smells of resin rather than wood, so I lumped it with resins (and I would add amber to that category too). And yes on cinnamon and cassia — thankfully, most perfumers do differentiate between the two. I’m sensitive to the latter but not the former, so the difference is important to me. And you are right about much of the confusion arising from blended frangrances; I just don’t think that it’s a sufficient excuse. :)

    Laura Anne — I hear you. Getting it right is sometimes difficult, but so worth it. Just out of curiosity: is it for that new Vineart Wars series? I’m really looking forward to that one!

  4. says

    Yeah — I never thought I’d have to choose my wine for dinner based on what chapter I was working on!

    (I suffer so for my art…)

  5. says

    Interesting about smells. I know a couple of people who have lost their sense of smell and taste as the result of a flue virus, and they report that artificial substances smell foul and chemical and natural substances smell OK to their limited senses. So even without a normal sense of smell, these people can tell the difference between cheap & expensive perfume.

  6. Cora says

    I actually am one of those people who have no sense of smell (taste works just fine, though) and since I either lost it in very early childhood or never had it in the first place, I cannot even rely on memory in order to describe scents. Which poses some problems, since I either have to ignore smell in my writing altogether or have to rely on second hand impressions, neither of which is ideal.

    As for cheap artificial scents, the sort of stuff used in Strawberry Shortcake dolls, scented pens, scented stationery and the like, inhaling such substances is unpleasant for me because it literally hurts in my nose. I had similar reactions in chemistry class when cooking up aldehydes and esters, i.e. substances used as a base for artificial scents. Natural substances, even those usually considered unpleasant, aren’t a problem, because the concentration is rarely high enough that I will actually notice something.

  7. says

    Cora — second-hand impressions are fine, I think, but so are tastes. And to me a book without olfactory descriptions would be less jarring than one with lazy ones. You and Anne do bring up a good point though — there are individual limitations on how people describe things. I mentioned being very olfactorily oriented, but it is mostly because I’m very nearsighted and visual descriptions do little for me.

  8. says

    Oh, but what if the character’s nose is less well-educated than yours? If they don’t know a rose from a gardenia, “flowery” might be all they have to fall back on. Vagueness and generality can be a descriptor too.

  9. says

    Maybe I just haven’t been noticing or maybe its what I’ve been reading, but in my experience I’ve found that writers seem more likely to eschew olfactory descriptions than even that other offender, taste. It is rather remarkable when one thinks about how large a part smell plays in many of our lives in contrast to how small a part it often plays in artful descriptions. This does seem a case of wasted potential, considering that the ability to accurately convey a distinct or atmospheric odor is something the written word has over just about every other artistic medium. Obviously both film and music can invoke smells, but due to the visual nature of the former and the typical length of the latter, oversights of scents in these two mediums strikes me as being more understandable.

    As far as writers who attempt descriptions of smell in the seemingly lazy or inaccurate fashion you describe, I suspect language and the material might be the culprit. If you do not have a refined sense of smell or are unfamiliar with a certain scent but wish to invoke it you are essentially gambling on your reader either being equally unfamiliar with the scent or bluffing your way into a good description. If one does little research but chooses a scent-source for pure language, visual characteristics, or locational accuracy, you might get something like two lovers being “swept up in the romance of the Sumatran night-scents, the blossoming titan arum coating their nostrils with a heady blend of orchid and their own musky desire.” The orchid descriptor makes this a poor line even if you’re writing sexy undead romance, and in any other circumstance this is a jarringly inappropriate description of a flower reputed to have brought on fainting spells from its rotten stench.

    Personally, I have a clumsy, brutish nose and yet I still find a well-written smell to be more evocative than just about anything else. I think Science maybe agrees with me?

    By the by, what were your thoughts on the novel “Perfume” and its film adaptation?

    This post made my nose hungry, which is both an odd sensation and the obvious set up for a Duran Duran joke.

  10. says

    Chaz — I suppose, as long as it’s not every character in every book. My point is that olfactory descriptors are a really underused way of creating atmosphere; many writers already do not go above ‘flowery’.

    Jesse — I agree. Bluffing, however, only works with specificity and some discretion (one, for example, can rarely find a description of titan arum that doesn’t mention a revolting stench. Orchids, on the other hand, would be an ok description. While their fragrances differ, orchids used in perfume often have a similar character. Of course, orchids overall are very diverse and so are their scents — I have one that smells of white chocolate. But, floral orchids most people are familiar with in the form of prom corsages do have a very specific smell.

    Perfume the novel (haven’t seen the film) was… strange for me. I have a vivid olfactory imagination, and many many smells described there are vividly disgusting. I could only read it in short bursts. Overall, I thought it was an intresting experience :)

  11. Cora says

    For me, the main problem is usually remembering to mention smell in situations where the characters would smell something, because smell is not part of my world except in extreme cases.

    My solution is usually to ask trusted friends/family members (because people tend to give you odd looks when you say to them “I can’t smell”) what something smells like.

  12. says

    Hmmm. Now you’ve got me curious. I’m gonna go look at my submission to the old writer’s group for this week and see what kind of olfactory action I’ve got going on.

    (First, from the short story — first draft, sad to say.)

    The wind off the bay didn’t bother the Stalker; the black-dyed military surplus he’d used for his uniform was warm and comfortable and the sharp clean air kept the stink of the dump from making him sick.

    The heavy coat still smelled of cigarette smoke and the Stalker found the smell comforting.

    Inside the tent, its close odor of mildewed nylon the scent of camping…

    …then took off his smoky overcoat…

    (From the novel-in-progress)

    There was the scent of smoke and scorched paint.

    The dog leapt on the body and started tearing it open; inside it steamed and smelled half of cooking, half of burnt hair and ass.

    I dunno. Not awful but not good. A little lazy. That’s one of the ongoing struggles, though. Figuring out how to make the details really specific… and putting in just as many of those details as it takes and no more.

    This stuff is hard! And now I’m going to be paranoid about proper stink prose. Oh, well.