R. Shapiro photo


by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

October 2010

"A great writing exercise for sharpening the nose is to hold something close to your nose, smell it, and try to describe the odor."

In Writing 101, we all learn that we should use all of our senses when we write in order to make our scenes and characters more vivid. Most writers rely heavily on the visual and rarely use the olfactory senses: what the nose knows. Or when they do use smell, it tends to be stereotypical. If I read about one other man who smells piney or a woman with lemon-scented…grrr! But it’s hard to write about smells. Humans see the world; animals smell it. While a dog owner looks around at the world, his dog puts his nose right up against the sidewalk and inhale it.

A great writing exercise for sharpening the nose is to hold something close to your nose, smell it, and try to describe the odor. If you do that, you not only become aware of smells, but you will have a lexicon of odors (both alluring and repelling) to bring forth when you write. Rubber bands, old books, even the unseen wind, have marked odors. Usually the way to describe a scent is to compare it to a more familiar one that the reader can easily bring to mind. For example, “He smelled like (forgive me) pine.” Because the smells we can summon up easily have been so overused, you might want to compare a person to a something that you wouldn’t ordinarily think of in the “smell” category. “She smelled like summer,” for example, would suggest a woman whose scent was light and sunny.

". . . plot rises from the clash of wants between the protagonist and antagonist . . .

Focusing on scent can give you a whole new way of entering a story. In his short story, The Disappeared, Charles Baxter’s first line is:

“What he first noticed about Detroit and therefore America was the smell.”

Sometimes, to become aware of smells, to let them tell you about your world, you might actually need to close down your other senses by blindfolding yourself and go outside (maybe only as far as your porch) and let yourself try to describe the environment through its odors.

Just naming something with a definite smell can help conjure those odors for the reader. For example, my Persian neighbor’s cooking aromas waft through the hallway like an invitation to a dream dinner. I can smell the blend of cinnamon, cardamom, orange peel, turmeric, rose petals, angelica, saffron….” No need to fish for similes to give a reader a strong sense of strong scents. My mouth waters. I look up Persian recipes. But the next day, the airless hallway turns those aromas to odors: sour as sweaty armpits or incinerator rooms in August. I sneak out with my Fabreeze and spray the hallway carpet, which leaves the synthetic smell of lilac.

Other days, the nose-searing odor of polyurethane blazes from a neighbor’s apartment. It doesn’t matter whether it’s at the other end of the building and two floors above; there is no escaping the acrid stink of floors being refinished. Paint fumes can coat your throat like stinging nettles. The gardeners’ leaf blowers not only buzz thunderously, but smell like tailpipe exhaust.

Smell can be used to establish a relationship.

“Larry came through the door, his light gray t-shirt showing dark moons of sweat around his arms and chest. He put the big bag of rocks he’d been collecting for my garden all morning: the ones with the “bluish ones,” I’d told him. He put his arms around me. I closed my eyes and smelled the mossy scent of the ravine where he’d been, the aroma that I would think of on our next anniversary, and the next.”

Smell can be used for characterization:

“Sherry strutted in, enveloped in Tabu.”

Yes, “strut” tells so much, but Tabu, the perfume name does as well. And we associate Tabu with a strong scent, a notice-me-type.

Smell can help develop a climate or air quality:

“He went down, down so far that he smelled dampness and knew he was below ground level.”

Or this:

“She tried it, the helium balloon ride. I’m crazy, she told herself, as the balloon lifted her in the basket, crazy. But as the balloon rose and she breathed in the coolness, the air smelled as fresh as the new start in life that she needed.”

"If something has no smell, it can be telling.""

If something has no smell, it can be telling:

“Grandpa used to smell of Camel’s cigarettes, schnapps, and Old Spice. Now, in his casket, he just smells cold, like the impatiens grown in nurseries that no butterfly would ever be drawn to.”

Remember to inhale the world deeply to not only make your writing more alive, but to feel more alive as well.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro




Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.