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.
In RIEVER’S HEART, Chapter 6:
Aryk carried his mug of yeast-scented ale to the corner table, where a round loaf of black bread and a generous pat of butter sat midtable. Verdeen followed, watching with approval as he sat in the corner looking outward.
“Two orders of shepherd’s pie, a bowl of pork stew and another ale and hot, spiced cider,” Aryk told the slender brunette server in a stained, low-cut bodice. She nodded and sashayed away, flounced black skirts swaying. He reached for the butter.
Verdeen slapped the back of his hand with the flat of her knife. “Wait.” She tore a chunk of bread from the loaf, slathered it with butter and took a bite. She chewed slowly, rolling it around in her mouth. No fire, no tingle, no hint of numbness or bitterness. She swallowed. “You want to find out the hard way the cook’s favorite seasoning is bitteralm, be my guest.”
Aryk growled. “Poison’s dishonorable—a coward’s tool.”
“Dead’s still dead. You die, Beloq wins. ’Tis one truth you must never lose sight of.”
Aryk’s gaze was level, measuring. “You’re a taster.”
She nodded. “Amongst other things. Never assume things are as they seem.”
“There’s more to you than meets the eye.”
“You’ve no idea.” A glint in his eye warned her he might enjoy finding out. She swallowed hard at the lingering shimmers of heat. “I’m to help keep you alive. This is part of it. You eat and drink naught afore me. Understand?”
“I drank two ales afore you.” His tone was one of humoring her.
“You were at the bar. You watched him pour them.” Aryk nodded. “Then you’re probably safe. ’Tis what’s prepared where you can’t see bears scrutiny.”
Valkyn joined them with an ale, his face flushed but composed. He caught her gaze and grinned. “You left afore it got interesting.”
Aryk frowned and growled at his second. The serving wench brought their drinks and food. Verdeen took a swig of Aryk’s ale, but her whole face screwed up at the bitter flavor as she swished and swallowed. “Pgah, wretched stuff.” She took a drink of cider to wash the taste of it away. “You sure you want to drink it?”
Valkyn laughed. “Puts hair on your chest.”
“The last thing a woman wants is a hairy chest.” Verdeen tested both pies, deemed them harmless and delicious. She slid Aryk’s across the table to him. “You’re right. ’Tis wonderful.” Tender shredded lamb in rich gravy, with potatoes, turnips, peas, carrots and celery, seasoned with onion and herbs, topped with mashed potatoes under a bubbling crown of melted cheese.
“Times like this I wish pigs could survive on Isadorikja,” Aryk mourned.
“They’d freeze.” Valkyn tore off a chunk of bread. “Our home’s not for the weak.”
Verdeen had the sinking feeling Valkyn didn’t refer just to pigs.
They finished their meals in silence. The server brought another round of drinks and a hot bubbling dish of sliced pears baked in honey and sweet spices. Verdeen swooned at the taste. ’Twas the most amazing thing she’d eaten in ages. She curled her arms around the bowl. “You can’t touch it. Have to save you from yourself and keep this dish all to myself.”
Aryk smacked her with his spoon. “Hand it over, greedy wench.” He slid his mug over to her. “Here. Put some more hair on your chest.”
Eew. How cruel to hand her ale after honeyed pears.
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.