Thursday, April 23, 2009

Would a Rose by any other Name Smell as Sweet?

By: Marilyn Baron

Touch. Sight. Smell. Taste. Sound. The five senses. But what if you don’t have all five senses? Would that place limits on your writing? I think so. I was born without a sense of smell, a trait I inherited from my grandmother. I think that puts me at a disadvantage. In writing workshops I learned the importance of capturing all of the five senses. How can my writing describe the hero’s “pungent aftershave,” or the fact that the heroine “carries the scent of cinnamon,” when I have no personal experience in that area?

Since I never had a sense of smell, I don’t miss it. Although I can’t smell roses, I love the way they look and the way they make me feel. I grow roses in my backyard – the New Dawn variety – which cross the barest hint of white with a blush of pink. They have spread up my Weeping Yaupon tree, which I now call my rose tree. I can’t smell food, but I love to eat. I think I have a sense of taste but perhaps it’s deficient and I don’t even realize it.

Not having a sense of smell has its advantages. I can’t smell stinking garbage or dirty diapers. I also can’t smell smoke. Once, I was in my kitchen cooking dinner, engrossed in a TV program I was watching through the wooden partition that separated the kitchen on the upper level from the downstairs den, when my husband came running down the stairs screaming, “The house is on fire.” I was in the middle of a room thick with black smoke and I never even knew it.

When I read the way other writers describe the way a character smells, I’m amazed and that’s when I know I am missing something. So I have to try harder and I’m never certain if my words are ringing true. To compensate for my missing sense of smell, I have developed a keen sixth sense about what is about to happen that has turned out to be pretty reliable.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts about the importance of the five senses in your writing.

Marilyn Baron


Tami Brothers said...

Great post, Marilyn!!! I had no idea you didn't have a sense of smell. It's amazing what you learn about people.

That was scarying about the fire. I can see how not being able to smell could be a burden and a blessing at the same time.

I love the 6th sense, thing. I too have a sixth sense with my dreams. Trouble is, they don't happen for years. And then if the dream is particularly bad, I get to hope and PRAY it doesn't come true... Another blessing and a curse...

Have a great day and definitely take time to SMELL/NOTICE the roses!!!

Tami Brothers

Marilyn Baron said...

Thanks. I would love to be able to "smell the roses," but like you said there are pros and cons to the sense of smell.


Debbie Kaufman said...

Goodness sakes! You really have to call on the power of imagination to write sensory smell details!

For me, smell is a part of the sense of place. But now I'm wondering just how much I've used it in my writing. Sigh! Something else to revise :)

Sally Kilpatrick said...

Great post-and it made me think of something else. Is it possible to use too much sensory information as you write? I try to appeal to all of the senses; smell happens to be one of my weaker points. I'm just wondering if anyone else out there has ever read a book and thought to herself, "Gee, the hero smells like sandalwood. I get it already!"

Marin Thomas said...


how amazing that you have no sense of smell and were born that way. I imagine it would be tough to describe the sense of smell in your writing--however if there was a character like yourself in a story...that would fascinating to read how they interpret their world.

Marin Thomas
A Cowboy's Promise (April 09)

Anna Steffl said...

When an author gets the smell thing right, it is a great addition. But honestly, if you don't put it in a story, I'm not going to freak--maybe that's because I don't pay attention to how people smell unless they're wearing way too much perfume or just plain stink.

But, I do notice how peoples homes smell different!

Neat post!

Marilyn Baron said...


Thanks for your comment.

Your sensory overload comment was funny.


That's an interesting idea to feature a character without a sense of smell in my book.

Peoples' homes smell different? Wow!

Marilyn Baron

Nicki Salcedo said...

How important are the five sense? Not at all after reading your post. There is a sixth sense (yes, I see dead people) and I think it is emotion. It doesn't look or taste or feel or smell or sound like anything. Helen Keller was a wonderful writer. Maybe being without means you must spend more time looking within.

On a side note, I'm really curious about your sense of taste! Do you like spicy things? What's your favorite dish? :-)

CiCi Barnes said...

Well, who knew? I can't imagine not smelling, as I'm sure you can't imagine the different scents.

Using the five senses in writing is a weak link for me, especially smell. I don't tend to notice smells all that much unless they are overpowering and it's gotten worse as I've aged.

Touch is a good one. I like to feel things and get a sense of texture. My heroines like to run their fingers over every inch of a man's body. Oooh. Tingle.

And, of course, sound is good. Gurgling water is the best.

I guess if you had to live without one of the five senses, smell would be the best to do without. It's not high on my list of importance, so you're lucky in that respect.

Good, thought-provoking post, Marilyn. We needed that little prod to remind us to watch our senses in our writing.

Thanks for the nudge.


Marilyn Baron said...

Ci Ci,
I think that if you had to lose a sense, losing a sense of smell would be the best one.

I love spicy foods. As a matter of fact I made some 5-alarm chili the other night that my husband couldn't even eat. (Did I mention I'm not the world's greatest cook?)

But my favorite food of all time is spaghetti with white clam sauce, carabonar, or really any kind of spaghetti.


Anonymous said...

OMG, Marilyn, I didn't even know it was possible to be born without a sense of smell (not sure why, since many people are born unable to hear or see.) I guess it really does change things for you although when I was pregnant (and the slightest whiff of anything made me throw up) I would have volunteered to trade places for you the whole nine months! I think that use of the five senses can definitely enhance writing, but some people try to use their gift for detail in place of true storytelling talent. At the end of the day, it is the character I remember, not what he smelled like or even what color his eyes are.

I've judged contest entries where they used the five senses so decisively that it was like they had a check list and everything was, from a technical standpoint, well-written but I didn't get invested in the character. Then I might pick up another manuscript where the author made a few mechanical mistakes, but sucked me in with the budding relationship between hero and heroine. It wasn't even until I got to the part of the scoresheet where it asked about description that I realized it was lacking! The trick is to find the right details--the ones that stand out and really give meaning to your story without necessarily waxing eloquent for a page and a half about what the wallpaper looked like (not that any of you would do that, of course!).

>>I'm just wondering if anyone else out there has ever read a book and thought to herself, "Gee, the hero smells like sandalwood. I get it<<

Sally, I can tell you from past experience that there are some editors who feel this way :-) I don't remember now what scent I associated with my heroine in Hers for the Weekend, but it was referenced three times in the manuscript, the editor wanted just once, and I think we compromised at two :-)


Stephanie J said...

One of my friends was also born without a sense of smell. She sees the positive side of it but she does worry about it. They only realized that she couldn't smell when there was the beginnings of an electrical fire in her room and she didn't know it. She also thinks that NOT being able to smell a dirty diaper is bad -- I guess because she doesn't want people to think she's a bad mother when she doesn't notice.

I do notice sensory description when it's included but I don't notice if it's not included. I wish that certain scents were used LESS in novels (like the sandalwood!)...

Marilyn Baron said...


Since I didn't have a sense of smell I overcompensated by changing my kids' diapers all the time just to make sure they were clean.

I first noticed it when my brother and sisters and I came home from school one day and my brother said "I guess we're having hotdogs for dinner" and I said, "How can you tell?" And he said, "Can't you smell them?"
No! I couldn't. So that's when I first knew. I never even missed having a sense of smell because I didn't know what I was missing.
I sort of thought it was neat that it was hereditary and that my grandmother was also born without a sense of smell.


That's great advice. I remember entering contests knowing I had to use an element of smell and I had the darndest time trying to manufacture an example.

But you're right focusing on the character is much more important.
Thanks for your comment.


Cyrano said...

Tanya is right.
At the end of the story I remember the characters, not that her personal fragrance smells faintly of roses or that his scent conjures the image of clean laundry drying in the afternoon sun.
The senses are incredibly important when it comes to story telling, but they're more like icing on a cupcake. And what's a cupcake without icing you might ask? Why it's the most important part. It consists of a slew of important ingrediants that are precisely chosen, measured, baked and cooled. The ingrediants form a warm, satisfying base necessary to slather the icing on to begin with.
So without a good story, an excellent plot or compelling characterization the reader won't feel satisfied even if your heroine happens to smell like buttercream.
Thought provoking post Marilyn my dear.
Have a warm, sunny (you don't have to use your nose to appreciate them) afternoon!

Marilyn Baron said...

With all that talk of icing, I'm getting hungry.

Oh, I can tell you about an interesting incident regarding my sense of smell.

Last year, my husband and I were visiting his brother and my sister-in-law in Denver and they took us to a tea factory (I think Celestial Seasonings)and we took a tour of the factory. When we got to one spot, the guide said, "Now this is our peppermint room. But the smell is so strong you won't be able to stay in here for more than a few seconds. Well peppermint is my absolute favorite flavor (taste anyway). So everyone took turns going into the warehouse and they practically ran out because of the strong aroma.
Well I went in there and I actually smelled something. I was so happy. I'm not sure if I got the full impact but I definitely smelled something for the first time in my life and I just stayed in there for a long time until the guide had to come and drag me out.

I haven't had that sensation since but I guess that aroma was so powerful than even I could smell it. I'd actually forgotten about that until just now.

I'm sure it would open up a whole new world to me if I could get back my sense of smell. Maybe if I conjur Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz she could help. The Scarecrow, the Lion, the Tin Man and me.


Cyrano said...

Well now that you know what pepermint smells like you can base a whole romance on it. It can start like this...They met in a pepermint factory...
That's the makings of a best seller Marilyn. I'd go with it if I were you!
Can you describe the smell of pepermint to me?

Marilyn Baron said...

It invaded my senses and smelled like what I imagine menthol might smell like, but sweeter.

Cyrano said...

Cool and icy?

Marilyn Baron said...

Yes I like that.


Susan May said...

Neat post. I'm working on using more of the senses in my writing. I think we take them for granted.

Marilyn Baron said...


I agree. And I have to work extra hard on the sense of smell. Thanks for your comments


J Perry Stone said...

Marilyn, I'm so mad I haven't been able to post till now. My computer connection has been on the fritz and I really wanted to tell you how much I loved this post.

The truth of the matter is, I think everyone has a weak sense and has to pay special attention to it when it comes to writing. Yours happens to be one of my strongest. Mine, however, is hearing. When I write, I have to really work at hitting that sense, other than in simple responses to dialogue.

Fascinating, though. I wonder about your sense of taste. What do you hate eating?

Sandra Elzie said...

Hi Marilyn,

How did I miss your blog yesterday? It was great. I can't imagine not being able to smell and then trying to write using that sense. Hummmm

I try to put the 5 senses in my stories, but sometimes it doesn't happen to a great degree until the editing stage of my story.

Thanks for a great post.


Marilyn Baron said...

Thanks J and Sandra for your comments.

My sense of hearing is like Superman's. So I guess that compensates for my lack of sense of smell and I have a good ear for dialogue.

I do have a sense of taste but I have no idea if it's as well developed as other people's sense of taste.

The things I hate are mayonnaise, sour cream, cream cheese, things like that which strangely, are all bland. Can't account for that.

I'm glad you both enjoyed my post.

Marilyn Baron

J Perry Stone said...

Really? That's interesting. Can you taste those things? Or is the texture that oogs you out?

Maxine Davis said...

Marilyn - I love learning new things about people! I think I have an overactive sense of smell. If I complain that I smell the garbage, my husband says he doesn't smell a thing - I wonder if that is his way of putting off taking it out - you reckon?. But really, I drive him crazy. I'm always smelling things he doesn't.