What exactly are we smelling when we smell ‘fresh air’?
So asked a question in The Guardian newspaper’s Notes & Queries column a couple of weeks ago.
Answers searched to explain it, some to describe it, all feeling their way in a varying combination of science, description, comparison, and humour.
It’s… “similar to the short-lived smell of washing dried outside.” Or “simply absence of smell.” To do with “water vapour.” And “Like the pleasure of ‘hearing’ silence.” Also “Depends on when I last showered…” One person responded “I’ve never noticed people smelling of ‘fresh air’ when they come inside in the winter,” which goes to show that we never know as when each of us as individuals is experiencing the same thing.
Yet we know it can be a strongly evocative even deeply nostalgic sense, which can set a mood or conjure up a place, a person, an experience, in few words. It’s personal—not just our own personal scent but what we enjoy smelling and the feelings, thoughts, and memories that we attach to them.
A few months ago, I considered the challenge describing smell in writing as one of the senses that can be overlooked, and with some of the above considerations in mind…
Sense of success
A common piece of advice in writing is to use all five of the human senses. I think this is especially important in romance and erotica, when you’re creating something sensual, that needs to appeal to and gratify the senses.
It’s relatively (relatively!) easy to focus on the visual and the auditory. The ‘easiest’ to neglect are probably taste and smell. Sights and sounds will have individual connotations, but the gustatory and olfactory are, arguably, more personal still.
Let’s focus on smells. A particular odour can ‘take you there’, the gritty damp of concrete to a cell; frying pancakes to your childhood kitchen. Then think of your favourite smells – hyacinths perhaps, baking bread, fresh coffee, or jasmine? Then again it may be something more complex, the garden after rainfall, say. That may include wet earth, damp stone, crushed petals releasing their scents; the freshened grass, as if green…
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