Wednesday, July 14, 2010


“A perfectly healthy sentence, it is true, is extremely rare. For the most part we miss the hue and fragrance of thought; as if we could be satisfied with the dews of the morning or evening without their colors, or the heavens without their azure.”

- Henry David Thoreau

Once in awhile, I enter a coffee shop or place that has brewed coffee and I’m back in my paternal grandmother’s home. It had this unique aroma of coffee and something I can’t quite pinpoint. Although I know it’s (probably) not true, in those moments I feel like she’s there with me.

Every person, every place has a unique scent. I believe my ability to smell is stronger than most people’s. I whiff when things have expired while my husband cannot, and I often detect fragrances in the air first.

Babies have that lovely sour and sweet smell. I used to inhale the scent of my children’s skin as deeply as I could, hoping to capture it in a memory. But I can’t quite bring it back. And the evenings when I kissed their sweaty heads before I turned in, and they no longer smelled like babies made me mourn for the phase they’d left behind.

In my life I’ve moved eight times, and each time it’s not just the piles of boxes that make a place feel foreign. When I can no longer detect the scent of cardboard and newness, then the surroundings truly becomes home.

Houses often emit faint fragrances of the foods most often cooked. How can you separate the pleasure of eating with the anticipation of the food being eaten as the aroma greets your nose? I've heard people who lose their sense of smell also lose their interest in eating.

Since I was a child, for special occasions my mother always wore Channel No. 5. I never understood its appeal, since it smells synthetic to me.

When I was a teenager, other girls were enamored with Loves Baby Soft, but I wore Obsession, and then Poison. Can you imagine 84-pound me wearing strong scents like that? At some point, I switched to Shalimar because my best friend’s mother wore it, and she was the most beautiful woman I knew, resembling Paulina Porizkova:

In my twenties, I flirted with Tresor.

I’m not someone who stands out. Often my friends are prettier than me and capture more attention. But my fragrance choices remind me that I am more than I seem. It’s like wearing sexy underwear, but others are allowed to get a glimpse if they get close enough.

When it comes to perfumes, I no longer practice serial monogamy. Buying nice fragrances is one of my few indulgences, and learning about perfume notes is more exciting to me than learning about wine notes. In fact, when this book,

came out, I read it cover to cover.

My favorites:

Thierry Mugler Angel (Almost all year)

Bond No. 9 New Haarlem (Coldest days)

Kenzo Amour (Summer)

Chopard Cashmir (Summer)

Philosophy Grace (Hottest days)

When I was in the Montreal airport's duty-free shop, I smelled Kenzo Flower, but not the regular one, the La Parfum one, a parfum extrait. I had money from my birthday so I toyed with buying it. But I didn’t. Once I returned home, I regretted it. I stopped in Macy’s and Sephora, but neither carried the fragrance. When I went to New York, I dragged my cousin to the mall. Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, and Bloomingdales didn’t have it. When I returned home, I dragged my husband to another mall, to Nordstrom’s. They only carried it online. Grrrr! Finally, I ordered it from because I found a $10 off coupon. I’ve been wearing it everyday for a week.

Yes, I’m a little obsessed with fragrance.

As a child, snuggles with my father carried the comforting scent of Old Spice shaving cream. My first boyfriend wore Polo by Ralph Lauren, which most of the boys were wearing then. I loved it. My husband won’t wear cologne. When we began dating, I tried to get him to choose one, but now I appreciate his scent.

What are the boys wearing today? Axe. Invariably, someone sprays it at the start or end of class, and I have to endure it for the rest of the day. Girls all seem to love the fragrances from Bath & Body Works and Victoria’s Secret, and make the same classroom move. This trend of attempting to smell good for the opposite sex usually starts in fifth-grade. If only every student got the memo because some wait a little too long to begin using deodorant…

Speaking of Axe, you might like this video. It also gives you a glimpse of some of my fellow Long Islanders. I laugh each time I watch it.

What role does scent play in writing? When I write a scene, I’m often aware of my characters’ five senses. The author Cynthia Lord said when she did research for Rules she visited a place on the water that she planned to write about. Instead of a visual, the first thing that struck her was the scent of the sea so that’s what she mentions first about the location in the book. And that makes sense to me because when I visit the village in Northport, NY the strong smell of the salty, fishy harbor is as much a part of the experience as the view.

Somewhere I read about an author who wears a different fragrance for each book she writes. I think she chooses one based on what she imagines the protagonist would wear. I don’t spend much time thinking about what my characters smell like.

When I write, I often choose places I know, and knowing their scents helps add dimension to the manuscript. Aura takes place in Forest Hills, New York, which means it smells like… well… a city. But even in a city, the changing seasons and weather dictate the fragrance of a place. The Disappearances location is in a rural area of western Massachusetts, so I use Long Island and my visits to Worcester as a guide. In fact, nature is such a vital part of The Disappearances that I had to pay even more attention to environment. After all, the theme of the book is the state of our planet. So sight and scent cover virtually every page.

Since living in Cambridge, I miss the scents of suburbia. Often, car exhaust and filth baking on the street overshadow the flowers and leaves. And the scent of earth has been hidden by tar and cement. The Charles River doesn’t provide that energizing scent of the ocean. So when I visit home, I inhale everything. My in-laws property is filled with flowers, and when I’m not there, I miss their yard. My father’s property is dotted with pines, and when I get a whiff of pine trees, I think of his place. His girlfriend lives on the ocean, which is just… amazing. I slept at her place once. Sleeping to the sound of the ocean, and waking to its scent wafting through the open windows was like being on a vacation in paradise.

What scents matter to you?

What are your strongest fragrance memories?

If you write, what part does sense-of-smell play in your writing?


  1. I don't think sense of smell comes into play too much with my writing. But I do love some of the scents you mentioned, and take great comfort in them ... the salt air of the sea, coffee brewing. I also like the scent of a good meal filling the house on a winter day. So to me, I guess scents that matter provide a certain comfort. But as for perfumes and scented soaps, that sort of thing, I steer clear. For some reason those artificial aromas bring on instant headaches!

  2. I love the smell of our bed in the morning *grin* the night after we've put fresh sheets etc on and it has that perfect scent of clean and warm body. Find it very hard to get out!

  3. Scent, for me, has always been a powerful trigger of both memory and emotion. Almost every day, I catch the scent of something that reminds me of some other moment in my past.
    I have never smelled my favorite perfume on anyone else - which I find bizarre. People must wear it, or it wouldn't be available, but it is very elusive.
    As always, beautifully evocative post...

  4. Scent and reaction to it seems highly individual and linked to memory. I try to keep that in mind when I bring scent into my story. My MC finds the scent of pine very evocative of her father and his cologne, but I had to make that connection clear. To someone else, pine might remind them of a mean woodshop teacher, or the Christmas when Aunt Bess had a stroke.

    So yes, by all means, use scent for all its power, but the first instance it comes up, you might need to include a wee bit of "telling" emotion so the association for your character is clear and the reader doesn't bring his or her own baggage.

  5. I like the smell of grass in the summer. And I like the smell of popcorn in the movie theater, too. :) And I have to agree with you about guys and cologne; it's always nice when they know how to wear it. It's not so nice when they appear to have showered in it.

  6. This is a very interesting post, Theresa. I hadn't given scent that much thought, but you are right about all your points. My high school girls all love Bath & Body, too. The boys also love AXE.

    My mother has always loved Shalimar, so that is a comfort scent for me. When I was younger I loved White Shoulders, and then I fell in love with something else, but I can't remember the name right now. Smells are powerful emotional triggers! Good points. :-)

  7. @ Joanne, we have some of the favorite scents. Thanks for sharing.

    @ Nicole, I love a freshly-made bed too.

    @ Pureklass, it's good to not smell your own scent on someone else. I just blabbed about all my fragrances, but I've heard it's good to be quiet about what you wear so it doesn't get popular. But what if it gets discontinued? Can't win.

  8. @ Laurel, good point. If readers have different associations than what we writers are thinking, we'd better explain it from our protagonists' POV.

    @ Neurotic Workaholic, I love the smell of grass too. And they make that movie popcorn smell impossible to pass up!

    The kids and teens often don't understand the "don't shower in it" rule. But they should learn by the time they're adults!

    @ Shannon, I stopped wearing Shalimar because everyone's mothers wore it. Who wants to wear a scent that reminds people of their mothers? Not sexy.

  9. Surprisingly, scents aren't a huge part of my memories...probably because I don't have a very good sense of smell, lol.
    BUT there is this one Bert's Bees chap stick that always reminds of the summer that I volunteered in my local library (probably because it's close enough to my nose that I actually notice it...)

  10. I have a sensitivity to scents - anything strong makes me sneeze and tear up - irritates my contacts too. I can't wear perfume - or be too near anyone who does. *sigh*

    I do have scents in my MS - alley smells, sweat and food aromas.

    I think my favourite scents are homemade bread and vanilla :)

  11. One of my favorite things to do is ride my bike around the neighborhood after dark, when all the night scents are enveloping me.

    I have a bottle of Ralph Lauren perfume that my mom gave me (I'd say it's 8 years old) and a bottle of Calvin Klein perfume that I rarely wear. I really just spritz on some body spray I got from Victoria's Secret when I want to smell nice. Pomegranate, freesia, and cucumber blossom is the scent.

    In writing, two of my characters own and work at a cafe and so I enjoy writing descriptions not just of the sights, but the smells. Of pastries, teas, coffees, salads, sandwiches, all kinds of delicious foods that invariably make me hungry!

    And you're right about the taste/smell thing: every time I smell a guy with Axe on, I can almost taste it! Ugh!

  12. @ Kari, that's interesting you don't smell as much as me. I can't imagine it.

    @ Jemi, homemade bread and vanilla is up there for me too.

    @ Amanda, I like the cucumber lotion by Bath and Body Works.

    I love the smell of cafes too.

  13. Oooh they won't let me watch the video clip cos I'm in England - booo!!!

    Anyway!! What a fragrant piece!!:-)

    I haven't a clue about perfumes and such like - but I do like my Bodyshop buttercreams and shower gels and all the other bathroom things they do - they have tantalising flavours like strawberry and citrus mixtures so realistic in scent that I have to stop myself from eating the damn things!!!

    I remember when I first started taking my writing seriously - I used the phrase "smells like cut grass" and the person critiquing it underlined it in bold red and put stars around it and great big black arrows pointing to it and said something like "can't you think of a better simile than a cliche? Try using all your senses to elevate this sentence".

    take care

  14. Oh parts of this took me back to so many scents!!! The sense of smell is truly incredible, isn't it?

    We have Axe around here and when my son's friends come over, I open doors and windows immediately!

  15. I have a strong sense of smell too, and I don't wear perfumes or colognes. I prefer to wear body splashes like those at Bath and Body Works when I wear a scent at all. I love the way my church smells. I still call it my church even though I haven't lived in that town in over 10 years. I attend when I visit my parents and enjoy the scent of the building.

    The most powerful scent memory I have is a bittersweet one, heavy on the bitter. About a year after my little brother died from cancer (he was 23), I went into a Hot Topic store for the first time since his death, in search of a new pair of Chucks. I walked inside and the combination of the smell of the store, the merchandise and thumping music - both of which reminded me so much of my brother's style - assaulted me in a way that caught me COMPLETELY off guard. It was all I could do to rush to the back, do a loop around the shoes and quickly get back out of the store. I couldn't have stayed in there any longer even if they'd had any shoes to interest me. I barely made it out of the store before I burst into sobs, chest heaving and heart pounding with overwhelming grief. The tiny bit of sweetness came from knowing there was something out there that would remind me of him so strongly, even though the rest of the experience was so thoroughly painful.

  16. I got completely lost in this post...just a few weeks ago, I went 'home' to see my new niece. The little area has a feel to it. It has a smell-it smells like home. And I can't define it. My favorite scents are probably autumn and winter related. The metal-y smell of frost on a cold winter night-it evokes images of lone, weary horseback travelers, running toward/from danger. It's also clean and still. The smell of decaying leaves, moist earth, freshly harvested hay, apples and woodsmoke-these let me know that the holidays are near with good food, everyone being nice to one another, cooler temps, and for me, good stories begin on nights when the leaves are showing their true colors, a fire is snapping in the fireplace, wind and rain outside...I also LOVE Old Spice, Obsession, Poison, and Red. When I can get him to wear it, I love Drakkar on my husband. And I loved the video! Now I'm in a nostalgic mood....mmmmmm, thanks! Oh, 'bout forgot. Yes, scent will play a part, definitely.

  17. @ Old Kitty, I can't believe you can't watch the video. They don't have it on You Tube. I guess The Daily Show and/or Comedy Central keeps control of their content.

    I like Body Shop stuff too.

    And I like your cliche story.

    @ Bossy Betty, great to have you back!

    You and Shannon have confirmed my Axe/teen connection.

    @ Surfie, that's a bittersweet story. I'm sorry your little brother died so young. How sad. Thank you for sharing the memory.

    @ The Words Crafter, frost does have a metal scent to it. I love the mixture of smells that come with autumn. But those first sights and scents of spring are wonderful too. It's like life has reawakened.

    I would almost wear Red but there's some note in there that I don't love.

  18. I associate so many occasions/memories with scents. Certain smells remind me of "home", good times, bad times, vacations, etc. And I've been wearing the same perfume since I was 17 and everyone I know associates that fragrance with me now.

    Because it's so integral to me, I am integrating it into my writing as well.

    I have a very developed sense of scent too! Like you, I can always smell when things are going bad first - I think it's a good thing!

  19. Channel No 5 is my comfort smell! When I graduated from high school a lady from my church gave me a bottle as a present. Coming from a poor household I never imagined having such a posh perfume...My husband and I began dating when I was in college. While we were dating he bought me a bottle of Channel. For many years we couldn't afford it (although it's not that expensive if you compare it ot other designer perfumes), but it wasn't something I ever expected to have on a regular basis. A few years ago my Dad and my husband began buying me a bottle once a year. :) I use it sparingly as it means so much to me...

    Note to self: pay attention to smells in my writing!

  20. Interesting topic. I had never considered how scent can be you to bolster a story's descriptions.

    Unfortunately, my usually clogged sinuses cause me to lose sniffing power, I do realize the power of smell--as my first prevention of a burglary was because I smelled the fellow hiding (it was a unique scent in an area that I worked and new what is was supposed to smell like).

  21. Perfumes give me headaches. I love the smell of compost and pigs. Lavender is a favourite smell. Each time I walked past mine I grab a flower and sniff it to death... ahhhhhhh yummy!! hehe

  22. Lovely post Theresa. I agree about the importance of scent in writing. However, I also think people can have different associations with a scent you may love as a writer eg. I hate the smell of lillies, first encounter with them was at my grandads funeral, whereas I have friends who had them for their wedding bouquet.
    I also love the natural smells of sea and garden flowers especially after it rains.
    Like Kitty, I love Body Shop fragrances, natural and not too overpowering.

  23. I reckon I have an unusually sharp nose too...

    And I second Niki. Perfumes give me headaches... With the added bonus of making my tear up. Same goes for scented deodorants. Artificial scents usual make me flatten my ears and arch my back. But manure, compost, dirt I'm fine with. What am I doing in a city? ; j

    I try to phase out the smells of the city as I zoom around town, but in the 13th (asian quarter) I let myself go to smelling a bit: roasting duck, durian, fruits and veg, restaurants... Yum.

  24. @ WritingNut, I like the idea of wearing the same fragrance so it becomes identified with you. I thought I'd do that with Shalimar.

    Yes, knowing when something's gone bad IS a good thing!

    @ Sharon, Channel No. 5 is a classic. It continues to be one of the most popular fragrances. And it was considered revolutionary at the time because it was made entirely of synthetics. Plus Marilyn Monroe wore it.

    @ Slamdunk, sorry about your clogged sinuses.

    You have to write a post about sniffing out the bad guy!

    @ Niki, your responses sound like they came from someone who lives on a farm! I am so not a farm girl.

    @ Brigid, I agree. I love the way day lilies look, but if I'm in a room with them, their scent becomes cloying, and I feel the need to flee. I interned for a Congressman that loved 'em, and when he was in town we always got a bouquet of them. Torture.

    @ Alesa, ha! What are you doing in a city? At least there are many fragrant gardens to choose from in Paris.

    Chinatowns always have a similar, unique scent.

  25. I actually remember exactly the way my high school boyfriend smelled and it takes me back to that places instantly...funny how the senses transport us...

  26. What indeed?
    It's convenient for both our jobs. But our ten year plan does involve us getting way way waaay away to a coast or mountain side, preferably a coastal mountainside. : j

  27. Scent is an extremely strong sense for me and my characters. I recently did a whole novel critique for a friend and his story was outstanding. He is, by trade, and artist first, so his scenes were extremely visual. I encouraged him to add scents to his descriptions. The character was pressed in a crowd of unwashed bodies in the 1930's in the summer. Leaving out the odors that assaulted him was passing up the opportunity to make that scene live.

  28. @ Candyland, I agree, senses do transport us.

    @ Alesa, sounds like a good plan. The next time I go to France, I have to see places outside of Paris.

    @ Helen, definitely need to capture scent if a character is pressed in a crowd of unwashed bodies. Sounds like a few trips I've had on the subway!

  29. I have a hypersensitive nose and smells really get to me, good or bad. Yet I don't like perfumes and lean towards the more natural smells: pine, jasmine, ylang-ylang, lavendar. I'm weird, I know.

    And mold on food? I can smell it across the house when my husband can't even taste it much less smell it.

    It's definitely an underused sense in writing! (At least in my own.)

  30. Coffee, my horses, peanut butter, my farm, lemon vanilla lotion from Bath and Body works. Thank you for my walk down smelly memory lane.

    I love using smells in my writing. Because I want to invoke a certain feeling in the minds of my readers. And that's an awesome way to do it.

    What an awesome post. Thanks for visiting Putting Pen To Paper and following. Lovely to meet you. Nice blog. I love meeting new cyber pals. ^_^

  31. I add scent in all of my stories. I'm with you -- I have a shnoz. I love smells.

    My wife loves Axe, by the way. Says it makes her wanna jump me. But, that could just be my good lucks and charm.

    I love comparing scent between man and animal, though, especially dogs. I do this often. I've even written from a dog's and a bear's POV, and it focuses on scent and sound, not sight.

    I wonder if a dog "sees" something it cannot smell. Want an example: Dog's don't usually react to their image in the mirror. It isn't real, because there is no scent.

    And, if you analgyze scent into sight, and compare a human's sight (smell) to a dog's sight (smell) it would go like this:

    A human can see (smell) an object one mile away.

    A dog can see (smell) an object 10,000 miles away.

    So, Theresa, it is a sad fact that although you have some glimpse of "smell," that sense is for all practical purposes nonexistent.

    Just imagine what it must feel like to stick your head out the car window, if you were a dog.

    - Eric

  32. I'm so impressed with your sense of smell.

    The ocean is my love scent, and fresh cut grass takes me right back to my childhood everytime. So many scents, so many memories. Great post!

  33. I love smells! I like the smell at night through our window, when the scent of the flowers is so strong. I love the smell of grass, too.

    And coffee, of course. YUM.

  34. @ Jackee, a few other commenters mentioned natural smells too.

    I'm always trying to remember to use the five senses when I write. Then I go back and edit, and realize I forgot.

    @ Robyn, thanks for visiting my blog too.

    I love sniffing and eating peanut butter!

    @ Eric, next to a dog, I've got nothing on smell. But if I could smell all sorts of things that far away, it would be very distracting.

    @ Janet, I love grass and ocean scents too.

    @ Talli, I love coffee too!

  35. Everyone just skimmed over the Long Island video? First of all, Long Island cannot beat up Wyoming, or New Jersey.

    Three million people choosing to live on one little island. It must be the happiest place on Earth. Move over Disneyland. Long Island can punch out Mickey Mouse anyday.

    In regards to Long Island being the 51st state, however, no way. Not until we kick Rhode Island out first. Too many islands going on here. Hawaii can go, too.

  36. @ Walter, I'm disappointed more people didn't watch and/or comment on the Long Island video. I assure you, those men were in the minority.

    I have to disagree with you about the islands.

  37. I happily would have watched it, but Comedy central vids or locked from my geographical location... Can't watch hulu either.

    Perhaps instead of being disappointed that your readers didn't comment about it, you could consider this way: your personal writing and thoughts inspired your readers more than an external video you linked to in your post did.: j
    Rather flattering... and certainly better than the opposite.

  38. Hmmm interesting read. I associate scents to a lot of things. In my writing, I think I associate the smell of paper, the fresh scent of ink. I love the scents you mentioned but I don't wear perfume due to my son's ashtma *sigh*. I came across your blog whilst bloghopping. Will definitely come back. :-)

  39. @ Alesa, I had no idea these videos would be blocked for my European friends. You'd think Comedy Central would WANT more viewers. My hotel room in Ireland had Comedy Central.

    I'm disappointed that some people aren't getting the laughs. I always love comments about my writing.

    @ Len, paper and ink... my laptop doesn't make those smells. But I associate pencil and paper scents with school. I always took plenty of notes.

    I'm sorry your son has asthma. You probably have to be careful about a lot of things.

    Thanks for visiting!

  40. Your hotel room in Ireland? You could watch steaming content from CC in Ireland? Or did you mean you had it on cable? There is a localized version of CC for UK/Ireland... So that would not surprising.

    But the distribution rights to their online content isn't necessarily connected. The whole thing is a ridiculously complicated tangle of international licensing and distribution issues. O_o

  41. @ Alesa, it must've been cable. I thought it was funny because they showed the American version of "The Office" even though we had imported the English version and created the US version based on it.

  42. When I smell either a perfume or something in the air, if often brings back some memories too. Like if I smell Tommy Hilfiger perfume, it reminds me of my college days, as I always wore it then! Or the smell of rain on a warm day reminds me of my childhood for some reason, I guess all those wet Irish summers! Or the smell of pickles reminds me of Germany, as when I worked at a restaurant kitchen there, that's what it smelled like, ah the memories!

  43. @ Olive, I love your pickle scent memory! Who needs a time travel machine? Imagine writing a book where people could go back in time from bottled scents? Maybe I shouldn't share that idea...

  44. When I smell Axe in the hallway at school I get worried because my best friend's allergic.

  45. Brooke, your poor friend. In schools, Axe is EVERYWHERE!