A field of colza (Loire Valley, France)
A field of colza (Loire Valley, France)

In a fictional scene, smells can evoke both places and emotions:

In the end, I go out to breathe in the morning, the street, the fog, all you can see in dustbins: fish scales, cans, nylon stockings; at the corner a Pakistani who sells pineapples has opened his shop; I reach a wall of fog and it’s the Thames.
– Italo Calvino, “The Name, The Nose”

Mushrooms were better. They didn’t care about having names. They had smells instead, strong, earthy smells, smells of decaying leaves, of heated iron, of oxidizing copper, some of them like rotting animals and some with mysterious smells that didn’t exist anywhere else.
– Lars Gustafsson, “Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases”

He kept coming, bringing the rank sharp violence of stale sweat.
– Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Now try these exercises:

1. Imagine a character in an emotionally charged situation. (For example, a former runaway returns to her childhood home.) Focusing on smell, describe a place through this character’s point of view. Once you have a draft, expand on those details that seem especially significant (i.e., ones that create or heighten an emotional state, such as joy, longing, disorientation, or fear). Can you convey your character’s feelings without directly stating them?

2. Describe a setting—such as a hospital, amusement park, or woods—in which smell plays a prominent role. Using each of the following methods, create a sense of place by evoking its wide range of smells:

  • naming (“disinfectant,” “charcoal”)
  • adjectives (“pungent,” “musty”)
  • similes and metaphors (“like maple syrup”)
  • verbs (“waft,” “seep”)