Posted by: reneewildes1 | July 15, 2011

The 5 Senses – Taste & Smell

Smell and taste are so intertwined as to be virtually inseparable.  If you don’t believe me, plug your nose and eat a taco.  Or jambalaya.  Doesn’t taste anything like what you thought or remembered, does it?  Halfway through, unplug your nose and take another bite.  Wow, what a difference!  I had a roommate with a defective sense of smell; he overseasoned everything.  He could eat Habanero peppers straight.  His bloody marys were brown!
Breathe through your nose.  Then breathe through your mouth.  What’s the difference?  Describe it.
Smell and taste are probably the most neglected senses in fiction.  They truly are sensual, they enrich your world-building by adding depth.  Like sound, they’re vital to transforming your reader from an observer to an active participant.  Don’t just list them like an inventory, tear them apart, put them on, roll around in them, revel in them.
Say you’re going down a tunnel.  Is it dry and dusty or damp and mildewy?  Is the dust laced with minerals that stings your nose and puts a tang under your tongue?  Copper’s good for that.  Iron, too – like in blood.
You’re walking along a beach.  Is that body of water fresh or salt?  Don’t tell the reader which it is – have your character scent it on the breeze.
You’re walking through a field.  Do you just smell the loamy scent of dark rich earth or is it mixed with manure or a chemical fertilizer?
Walk into a stable.  Inhale warm horse and wood, metal and leather, urine and ammonia and manure.  Straw bedding will smell different than peat moss or wood shavings.  Pine shavings smell different than cedar.  Smell the hay – grass hay has a crisper, sharper edge than the sweetness of a leafier plant like clover or alfalfa.  Try the oats – dry dusty smell but a sweet, almost nutty, taste.   Nuances.
Walk through the forest.  Has it just rained?  Is it about to?  Describe it.  A springtime forest differs from an autumn forest, a conifer forest from a deciduous forest, the taiga from a rainforest or jungle.  What can you smell?  Nuances.

Don’t just say “She smelled smoke.”  Wood smoke?  Pipe smoke?  Cigarette smoke?  Burning plastic or rubber?  Gasoline or oil? Charcoal? BIG difference.
Don’t just say “Candles were burning.”  Beeswax or soy or tallow?  If they’re scented, WHAT scent?
People have a scent, as well.  Deodorant, fabric softener, soap and shampoo aside, each person is unique.  Just ask a bloodhound.  Scents can either attract or repel.  It’s a big component of “chemistry.”  Ever go out with someone, only to discover there was “no chemistry”, “no spark”?   Then you meet someone else, and WHAM!  And that scent can change.  Sweat can change.  Are they sweating from the sun or exertion, from fear or arousal?  How pheromones work isn’t important to the average writer, just be aware that they do.  Smell can be an incredible memory trigger.  A friend of mine finds English Leather incredibly sexy, because an old boyfriend used to wear it.  Old Spice has the opposite effect on me – my grandfather used to wear it.
Taste comes in four basics – salty, sour, sweet, and bitter.  Next time you eat, slow down and focus on your meal.  The warm yeasty smell of bread, that first bite of hot buttered crust.  Crumbled bleu cheese or feta cheese on the fresh spinach salad, maybe fresh ground pepper.  Taste the basil and oregano in the tomato sauce, the sage and onion in the stuffing.  Apple-smoked ham differs from maple-smoked from honey-cured.  You can mix flavors, too.  I make a wicked pork or chicken, simply simmered in chicken broth and orange juice.  (Lime juice is great, too.)  Savor a recipe that calls for Madeira or Burgundy.  Specify the type of mushrooms in the stroganoff.  Don’t be afraid to have your character revel in rich egg custard or smooth buttery caramel.  Pay attention to flavors, smells, textures.  Crisp celery or mushy porridge and everything in-between
Example #1, from HEDDA’s SWORD Chapter 1:
Entering the main room, he was struck by the blissful warmth from two roaring fireplaces, one at each end.  Shadows danced on soot-frosted walls.  The smell of hot stew, roasting meat and — Lady Goddess, fresh-baked bread! — made his mouth water.  Underpinning these were the sour scents of bitter ale and many people in desperate need of baths all crowded together.
Beneath it all, Cianan also caught the sharp smell of fear.
Why was everyone afraid?  And of what?
He strode up to a beefy man serving behind the bar.  “I need a room, and stabling for my horse.”
Haggling ensued until Cianan was satisfied he had not been cheated.  He paid the innkeeper in copper armbands, then took his gear upstairs to the last room on the left as instructed.  It was a tiny cell with worn furniture, but clean and vermin-free.  He laid his cloak afore the fire to dry, wrung out his hair and changed into dry clothes.  He hung his wet clothes on wall pegs, wrinkling his nose at the smell of wet wool.  Stashing his pack under the bed and the flute beneath the pillow, he returned to the common room.
The innkeeper served him a mug of hot cider and a trencher heaped with mutton stew, a fist-sized chunk of sizzling roast pork and a thick slice of steaming brown bread dripping with melted butter.  Cianan carried his meal to a table, where a couple of merchants slid over to make room on the bench.
“Heyla.”  Cianan took a big bite of the bread and closed his eyes in sheer bliss.  Ah, the simple pleasures mortals took for granted — like hot bread drowning in butter.  “Nasty night.”
Example #2, from HEDDA’S SWORD Chapter 3:
            A sense of creeping darkness, of dread, made him pause.  He had felt such but once afore.  Something is wrong.  Cianan moved down the hallway to a narrow, dark stairwell leading down.  Grabbing the smoking rush-and-tallow torch at the entry, he started down the steep winding stairs.  It got damper and mustier as he descended, until the air was nigh unbreathable.  There were no guards.  But Cianan did hear something moving around somewhere below him, the weight of many souls.  The sharp, sour scent of fear, the darker stench of despair, crushed the breath right out of him.  Partner?
            Prisoners.

They are innocents.  Cianan reached the bottom.  The dungeon.  Horrific flashbacks of Safehold Keep, of the demon in Jalad’s consort Tegan twisting mortal men into giant ba-pef warriors, assaulted his memory.  The same cold darkness, the same smell of damp stone and human waste.  He saw rows of rusted iron-barred doors on either side of the corridor, barely visible by the light of a few torches.  He peered through the first tiny slot.  “Dracken rue!”

            Three women, six children, huddled together in the corner for warmth.  Dark matted hair, hopeless dark eyes, skeletal and filthy.  The next cell held the same — Drifter women of all ages, and children.  And the next.  No blankets, food or water.  Fury quickened his steps.  These were no criminals!  Why was Sunniva holding them prisoner, and in such a manner?
            Something moved behind him.
            “Well, well.  So we meet again after all.”
            Surprise stiffened his spine.  Cianan took a deep breath and turned.
Now try it for yourself.  Your characters are sitting down to a meal.  A gourmet meal in a five-star restaurant or a trout over a campfire, doesn’t matter.  Make it come alive with smells, textures, flavors.  Revel in it.
The trick is layering.  What’s the first smell to hit them when they walk into a room or outside?  When you take a bite of something, what’s the first flavor?  Then what surfaces after a bit?  The trick of threes works well.  Read a wine bottle.  You have the initial bouquet, the prominent notes, and the finish.  Keep that in mind when you try your hand at this description.
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