Monday, September 6, 2010


Some of my orchids have bloom spikes this year. This summer’s rain and extra feedings have revived them, and during the night, the angraecum opened. The plant isn’t very interesting but the flower is graceful, waxy white with a fragrance that calls you back. I brought it inside for just that reason. Every time I walk by, I have to lean closer to enjoy more of it. The effect perfume should have.

Describing this particular scent isn’t too hard. It’s light, flowery, and sweet—common adjectives we all know. Though they don’t tell you exactly how it smells, they’re enough to give you a good idea. But how do you describe an unusual scent, one you can’t associate with something well known?

Scents are strong memory triggers too. Think about them. The heavy, cloying scent of lilies. Do death and funerals come to mind? What about hot, milky tea and buttery toast? For me, that was an after school treat. Or tomato soup and cheese toast. Talcum?—my great grandmother. What are some of your scent memories?

Odors, smells, scents, fragrances—there are subtle differences, and all can be useful in evoking mood or triggering something.

Here’s a bit where I wanted a scent to alert my MC to something, point him in a direction. The scent, a slight tang with a hint of decay, tantalized him. Green. A green, growing fragrance contaminated by death. The concrete of the city surrounded him, the wrong place for such odors. Turning in a slow circle, Will sniffed, seeking the source.

How do you do it? Do you have a description you’re willing to share?


Polly said...

Nice post, Ellis. Here's mine. My MC can't see, so the senses are critical to him.

"You have very soft skin. It's true what they say about losing a sense. The others senses become more acute, or maybe it's because we concentrate on them more." He hadn't stopped stroking her arm. "Touch is important to me. So is smell. You smell fresh, like rosemary shampoo and lavender sheets." His lips brushed her neck. Lower. Lower, his tongue probing. "And taste--"

"Don't go there, Daniel. Please don't."

Ellis Vidler said...

Hmmm. Fresh, pungent scents, familiar and distinct. Things you could call up and want more of. I like it.

Polly said...

This is first draft. I'm sure I'll rewrite it a hundred times.

Sheila Connolly said...

I used something recently in a blog post. I was describing Philadelphia in the summer, where if you walk by a subway entrance in the city, you are met with a rather pungent blast of hot air, combining the inescapable urine with burning metal from the train brakes. But there is a physical component, as the warm surge hits you in the face.

Ellis Vidler said...
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Ellis Vidler said...

Interesting description. Vivid enough that I can almost smell it and feel the blast, even if it isn't one I'd enjoy. :-)

Rosemary Harris said...

I haven't written about this but maybe I should...the smell of Coppertone brings back warm feelings of long days at the beach with girlfriends when I was a teenager in Brooklyn. It smells of youth and innocence and carefree days when all we had to worry about was whether or not that boy on the next blanket "liked" you. (As opposed to whether or not the man three blankets away is a perv, skin cancer, what's really in that diet soda, etc.)

Vicki Lane said...

Oh, my, Coppertone brings all that back for me too.

I love smell -- here's a bit from my upcoming (Sept. 28!) THE DAY OF SMALL THINGS.

It is one of those bright October days with the sky that endless blue and the sun setting fire to the reds and golds of the mountain trees – the sourwoods and maples and hickories.

Least brings out an armchair from the house and helps me to it, then tucks my Delectable Mountains quilt around me. My eyes has grown dim to where I can’t make out much more than shapes and colors but nevertheless it feels fine to be out in the air and breathing the smell of the deep woods that loom up across the way.

It seems that as my eyes has begun to give out, my nose has taken up the slack. I can travel the woods even though I can’t leave the porch and I draw in all the old friendly smells -- leaf mold and rich dirt, along with a world of other scents – spice bush and the clean smell of the water in the branch over yon.

There’s even a smell to the sun falling on a dry rock . . . and another for that some rock when the rain first strikes it and still another when the rock is soaked and cool. So many ways of knowing . . .

Ellis Vidler said...

Oh, my. I'd forgotten Coppertone in the hot sun--that does take me back. Rosemary, you made me laugh. It was different then.

Vicki, that's such a rich description--all smells I know. Lovely. I can't wait till you come to talk to us at Sisters in Crime.

VR Barkowski said...

What beautiful examples. I should use the senses more than I do, but description intimidates me. in this paragraph I tried to use the type of scent rather than a familiar smell to trigger emotion.

The Hope Cancer Center reception area gleamed. Its buffed oak paneling the color and sheen of fresh honey, the floor as glossy and white as porcelain. But the clean, sleek finishes couldn't disguise the bitter tang of fear in the air. It radiated from the knots of loved ones scattered through the huge room, all waiting for the inevitable.