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Monday, February 19, 2007

Use your nose

For every new scene, there’s typically some sort of description to ground the reader into the setting. Whether it’s a kitchen in a quaint farmhouse, or a Regency drawing room, or the wild Montana wilderness, or an urban police station.

As writers, we strive for accuracy. Farmhouses typically don’t have crystal chandeliers, and Regency drawing rooms wouldn’t have a computer sitting on the Chippendale desk.

But don’t just give your readers the visual descriptions—give them the experience of walking into the setting by stimulating their olfactory senses. In other words, smell.

Our scent memory is incredibly powerful. We don’t necessarily remember the exact smell so much as we feel certain emotions triggered by a smell, or even the mention of a specific scent.

Contrast a diner with the aroma of hamburgers and fries versus a Midwest farmhouse filled with the warm, spicy smell of Grandma’s apple pies in the oven. Or maybe walking into a New York high-rise office that reeks of the editor-in-chief’s Chanel No. 5 versus a Regency rose garden in the heat of summer.

Do a quick run-through of your manuscript and try to insert a sentence or a phrase in each new setting that will trigger your reader’s scent memory. You don’t need much, so don’t go overboard.

Be deliberate in your wording. Warm apple pie generates a very different feeling than hamburgers and fries.

Be specific in your wording. “Chanel No. 5” rather than “expensive perfume.” Or “hamburgers and fries” versus “greasy smell.”

You’ll be amazed at what a small olfactory phrase can do to spark up a setting.

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