With the Nose

One of my weaknesses, writing-wise, is food. I know it seems like such an odd thing, because it isn’t like I forget to eat regularly. Actually, maybe that would help…

No, seriously, I won’t starve myself. I know one of my handicaps as a person is that I cannot smell many of the things that other people take for granted. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I called my friend to remark about how I could finally smell the laundry aisle at the store, because it was the first time I could remember having that sensation. At first she remarked, duh, but then we talked about how I was in the sixth or seventh month of pregnancy, and that it took that much to get me to smell those scents. My nose is more sensitive to certain kinds of aromas, and others I miss completely.

Unfortunately, I can smell diapers. I could smell the mulch outside my daughter’s preschool this week. But I can only vaguely remember what the flowers smelled like during my pregnancy. I’ve never smelled most of them on my own, but not for lack of trying. My husband (before we were married) would bring me flowers. I would bury my nose in them and inhale deeply. It isn’t because I can smell the roses – I literally can’t – but it is one of those automatic gestures I do when I receive flowers.

When I started editing Don’t Tell Your Mother, I have several places where the characters have food or it is cooking. My critique partners underlined them, asking what they were eating, what they smelled at that point, or something else along those lines. Sometimes, I just can’t even imagine what I’m supposed to put in there. Even when I can describe the actual food, whether there are cherries in the dessert or rosemary in the pot roast, I don’t always know if those things give off enough of a smell for most people to identify them.

[Yes, I’m still editing Don’t Tell Your Mother. I’m still struggling over some of these food descriptions.]

I started asking other writers about food in stories. A few of them find it brings out their experience to have these things described. To bring them into focus even though the food itself is not dragging the plot forward, in most cases.

The other problem with that novel is that it takes place on a farm, where the smells are different than they are in the city. Livestock is kept on the farm, and there are certain smells that I’m sure I haven’t delved into the descriptions nearly enough for people who have never visited one. Thinking of that makes me want to print off another copy and highlight all the places where I might have missed some smells or other sensory perception that would aid in creating my setting.

What is it you look for in a scene where food is present? Scent is supposed to be linked strongly with memory, so do you find it more interesting when there are smells, tastes, and textures along with the sights and sounds? It’s definitely part of the “show, don’t tell” advice to bring in all the senses to bear when using description. Or does all of that just get in the way of the narrative when you’re reading?

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Description of the Senses

Often, as writers, we’re told to write what we know. It makes me wonder, though, about things we think we know or don’t know. Missing a sense does not preclude one from undertaking the written word – even braille can be translated for sighted people.

But do the blind writers show the same sights to the reader? Can a deaf writer make the reader hear things in the story? Are smell and/or taste also subjected to the same rules?

I’ve been thinking about my book, and I am pretty sure I never mention a single smell in it. Why? I smell almost nothing. My recent pregnancy showed me there was a world out there full of scents that are beyond my daily reach (which promptly disappeared after the baby arrived). Most people I know take this for granted – some even find it as an annoyance when faced with particularly strong aromas like perfume.

Recently I rode in a car with a couple sensitive-nosed women and another who wore perfume. I remained unaware through the entire ride there was perfume present. Only during (late) pregnancy did I smell things like dishsoap while washing dishes, the dirty dishrag that needed to be changed, and the laundry aisle in the grocery store.

I’ll remember all those new scents for a time, but what happens when the memory fades? Will I remember enough to write scents into the story? It’s such a struggle for me to remember things smell anyway. I know flowers do, not so much from personal experience but by social acclimation. People speak about the smells of certain things: flowers, perfume/cologne, manure, babies.

When I read, sometimes I think about lacking senses and the authors behind the work – but I admit it doesn’t come up much. Do you ever wonder about the author and the descriptions used? I struggle so much to include smell lately. I know it’s a weakness.

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