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’ â€“ 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 â€“ there are spicy perfumes (vanilla, cinnamon and clove being common ingredients), there are resins such as camphor, myrrh and frankincense. There are woods â€“ sandalwood and teak being common woodsy and spicy notes. Fruity scents are always popular â€“ 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 â€“ civet, ambergris, musks, honey, beeswax. No need to leave them out.
Same is true about wine â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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 clichÃ©d descriptor and don’t throw two clashing alternatives in hopes that one will stick. I’ll notice.