Clearly, there are plenty of words for smell. This means that the Verbal Barrier is not a vocabulary problem, it's a cognitive problem. -- Avery Gilbert, What the Nose Knows
So you want to incorporate scent into your writing or just weave in some smells in your novel, nonfiction or poetry? Take a master class on how to do it from these writers who use scent effectively. This is an ongoing project, so if if you come across any examples you'd like to include, please email me at emilygrosvenor [at] gmail.com.
1. Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
“‘When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls.”
2. Patricia Hampl, The Florist’s Daughter
“The flower shop was here and it was my father’s domain, but it was also marvelously other, this place heavy with the drowsy scent of velvet-petaled roses and Provencal freesias in the middle of winter, the damp-earth spring fragrance of just-watered azaleas and cyclamen all mixed up with the headachey smell of bitter chocolate.”
3. Cecily Wong, Diamond Head
“Inside the car, it smells like hibiscus. It was his mother’s idea: something subtle, she told him, but fresh. Something alive. As the man pulls from his driveway he is grateful, just this once, for his mother’s meddling. He breathes in. Already, the sweet smell is working on his nerves.”
4. Rene Denfeld, The Enchanted
“She has come to believe the homes of sad or hateful people smell different. When people have sadness or hate inside them, it comes out in a miasma. Dr. Hammond’s house smells like a form of slow poison has been hanging in the air for years. She has a sudden conviction that if she lifted all the furniture in his house she would find layers of squished black bugs underneath.”
5. James Joyce, Ulysses
“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.
6. Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil
“There are perfumes as cool as the flesh of children, / Sweet as oboes, green as meadows / — And others are corrupt, and rich, triumphant,
With power to expand into infinity, / Like amber and incense, musk, benzoin, / That sing the ecstasy of the soul and senses.”
7. Rhoda Janzen, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress
“Ever since, the smell of lavender had reminded me of the beautiful embroidered blue thing into which I once folded all the inchoate desires of childrehood. That lavender hankie was my silent pledge to learn the ways of the world, to sigh and dance the cotillion and wear lace underthings. Beneath the mysterious satin flap there was just enough room to tuck everything I longed for but couldn’t name.”
8. Bruce Barcott, Weed the People
“The smell of a grow room is the scent of transpiration, of fecund exertion. It’s the trapped sweat of a high school locker room, the funk of a hockey jersey steaming on a radiator.”
9. Judy Blume, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
“We moved on the Tuesday before Labor Day. I knew what the weather was like the second I got up. I knew because I caught my mother sniffing under her arms. She always does that when it’s hot and humid, to make sure her deodorant’s working. I don’t use deodorant yet. I don’t think people start to smell bad until they’re at least twelve. So I’ve still got a few months to go.”
10. Nina McLaughlin, Hammerhead: The Making of a Carpenter
"Sawdust spewed and dusted down onto the pavement, resting in craters in the cement, and the smell of pine moved with it, bright and clean, the smell of Christmas, renewal."
11. Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume
“There is little difference between the Zulu warrior who smeared his body with Lion’s fat and the modern woman who dabs hers with expensive perfume. The one was trying to acquire the courage of the king of beasts, the other is attempting to acquire the irresistible sexuality of flowers. The underlying principle is the same.”
12. Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk
“The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.”
13. Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train
“So when I closed my eyes, when I drifted into a half dream and found myself in that underpass, I may have been able to feel the cold and smell the rank, stale air, I may have been able to see a figure walking towards me, spitting rage, fist raised, but it wasn’t true.”
Here is an entire post I wrote on the use of scent in this thriller.
14. Isaac Marion, Warm Bodies
"As this happens, my sinuses ignite with a new smell, something similar to the life energy of the Living but also vastly different. It's coming from Julie, it's her scent, but it's also mine. It rushes out from us like an explosion of pheromones, so potent I can almost see it."
15. Jonathan Franzen, Purity
"But smell had also been heaven. Not outside the airport of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, where the wafts of cow shit from adjacent pastures mingled with the smellable inefficiencies of engines banned from California long before Pip was born; not in the Land Cruiser sure-handedly piloted by a taciturn Bolivian, Pedro, through diesel particulates on the city’s ring boulevards; not along the Cochabamba highway, where every half kilometer another brutally effective speed bump gave Pip a change to smell fruit rotting and things dying and be approached by the sellers of oranges and friend things who’d install the speed bumps in the first place; not in the swelter of the dusty road that Pedro veered onto after Pip had counted forty-six bumps (rompemuelles Pedro called them, her first new word in Spanish); not when they reached a ridge and headed down a narrow road as steep as anything in San Francisco, the noontime sun boiling plastic volatiles out of the Land Cruiser’s upholstery and vaporizing gasoline from the spare can in the cargo area; but when the road, after plunging through dry forest and through cooler woods half cleared for coffee plantings, finally bottomed out along a stream leading into a little valley more beautiful than any place Pip could have imagined: then the heaven had commenced. Two scents at once, distinct like layers of cooler and warmer water in a lake — some instantly flowering tropical tree’s perfume, a complex lawn-smell from a pasture that goats were grazing — flooded through her open window."
16. E.M. Forster, A Room With a View
"But, once in the open air, she paused." Some emotion -- pity, terror, love, but the emotion was strong -- seized her, and she was award of autumn. Summer was ending, and the evening brought her odours of decay, the more pathetic because they were reminiscent of spring. That something or other mattered intellectually? A leaf, violently agitated, danced past her, while other leaves lay motionless."
17. Anne Lamott, Grace (Eventually), Thoughts on Faith
"After a while, I stretched out on one of the benches and closed my eyes. The kerosene smelled like lacquer, and and I kept feeling waves of nausea. My bones were cold. I could isolate the icy scent of pine trees that sneaked through the walls. Sometimes grace is a ribbon of mountain air that gets in through the cracks."