vanilla and cinnamon – aromatics and aldehydes: five ways to describe smells in your writing

If you build a world in science fiction, describing the world should involve all the senses. Of the five senses, I find sights and sounds the easiest to describe. Smells, touch and taste are more difficult. Especially in my early drafts, aromas, tactile sensations and tastes are often missing.

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Including smells in my writing is much more than writing “the market smelled like boiling cabbage.” The range of methods and words to describe smell is full of possibilities.

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Gel-heads, aliens in the Meniscus series, smell disgusting. Words like oily, putrid, rank, rancid or foul would be suitable to describe their smell.Gel-heads, aliens in the Meniscus series, smell disgusting. Words like oily, putrid, rank, rancid or foul would be suitable to describe their smell.

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I don’t want a story stinky with description of smells, so, in the story I am working on, I chose five places and three characters to understand in terms of their olfactory landscape.

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The challenge is to describe these places and characters in ways to bring the reader into the experience. This can be done in several ways. The writer can describe smells in terms of:

  1. Parts of speech: verbs (waft, distract, permeate, intrude, bake, fry, rot, burn), nouns (wisp, aroma, odour, pocket, fragrance, stench, stink, smell), and adjectives (moody, acrid, crisp, earthy, shrill, putrid, rancid, salty, sharp, repulsive, spicy, stale, aromatic, fetid, loamy);
  2. The classes of odours (camphoraceous, musky, floral, pungent, ethereal, minty, putrid, almond, aromatic and aniseed);
  3. The chemistry of smells: the interesting words of chemistry might not suit every story, but occasionally, used from the point of view of a character who is a chemist or a perfumer, occasional use of a chemistry term might fit. We have the smells of human waste such as butyric acid (vomit), hydrogen sulphide ( rotten eggs), valeric acid ( rancid food), and ammonia (urine). Nutty smells like popped corn, baking bread and coffee are the product of alkylprazines. Bananas and wintergreen result from esters, and chemicals of cinnamon, wintergreen and vanilla are aromatics. One of my first labs in university chemistry taught me how to extract limonene, the terpene of citrus fruit peel.
  4. Experiences connected to smells, especially universal experience. Smoky smells of fire, pungent smells of drying autumn leaves, the revolting smell of sour milk, and acrid smells of a skunk’s spray are experiences common to many readers.
  5. Characteristics not usually assigned to smell: dark or bright, lite or heavy, sharp or dull, crisp or soft, creamy or brittle, soft or hard.

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If I ‘climb inside’ my landscape, I can describe the smells of a space using the five sources listed above. Then, as I encounter the landscape in my story, I have a ready-made list of odours.

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The woodlands on planet Meniscus have characteristic smells : the grammid trees of the Sintha Wood smell like cinnamon, like apple pie. Words like intoxicating, spicy, subtle, warm, aromatic, permeate, wisp.

The woodlands on planet Meniscus have characteristic smells: the grammid trees of the Sintha Wood smell like cinnamon, like apple pie. Words like intoxicating, spicy, subtle, warm, aromatic, permeate, wisp could be used to describe the smells of this space.

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The method above can be used to describe tastes encountered in the story, or touches and sounds.

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All my best,

(have fun with your writing)

Alexandra

 

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