Much thanks to Dan for having me on his blog – and the bravery of allowing me to pick a topic. Since we both enjoy finding the right, evocative turn of phrase, I wanted to talk about the use of the sense of smell in Flow particularly and in description in general.
I’ve always been really drawn to the use of scent in descriptive passages. There’s something of an irony to this: I myself have always suffered from severe allergies, so my sense of smell is almost nil. I miss scents that other people consider obvious … though my sense of taste is relatively normal. Perhaps on a personal level, it’s because what scents I do notice are those that are most distinct and telling – details that leap out in my surroundings. Many of these are warning signals, like the smell of fish (also allergic) and flowers.
On a more universal level, I find scent to be a very visceral and immediate thing. Unlike sounds or sights, it cannot be transferred remotely (… yet!). Our experience of scent is more instinctive, less rational. Our sense of smell is less developed than other senses – which on a descriptive level invites more ambiguity and metaphor. It’s also a sense less frequently used in fiction. Descriptions tend to begin with the visual, sometimes include the auditory depending on the scene, but often don’t consider scent.
For Flow, I had decided early on that Chailyn would be particularly keyed into the scents of her surroundings. As a dweller in an underwater city, I knew her experience with smell prior would be limited or at least very different – and decided it was something I wanted to highlight throughout. (As a side note, a quick search through Google now seems to indicate that we’re only (fairly) recently exploring the possibility that certain mammals can smell and follow scent trails underwater.) The recognition of the aromas of land was important to emphasize how much of a stranger she was to the world the rest of us take for granted.
Indeed, the character’s very first point-of-view sentence is: “Chailyn inhaled deeply of mist and storm, and then another scent that was unfamiliar to her: dirt and loam, cold under the fall.” (Fall = autumn, in context.)
In some cases, I simply had fun playing with snippets of description, for instance in a diner that was incidental to the plot, where I mentioned the scent of lavender soap and open flame. It evokes a different “image” of the setting than a strictly visual reference.
Chailyn was one of two viewpoint characters in Flow. The other, Kit, was a contemporary teen, more accustomed to her surroundings – so for her, while I didn’t avoid scent descriptions, I put no emphasis on them. Whether or not the difference is obvious to a reader, I tried to maintain the distinction.
In a novelette / novella (depending on where you break the word count for that) I wrote entitled “Scenting Rain,” part of the premise is the main character losing her sense of smell as part of a pact with a spirit. To establish that contrast, the opening (and the ending) of the story are rife with aromas – which was interesting to do in a desert setting, because to me, that’s a distinct and much subtler set of smells. I indulged in some metaphor to encompass it: “The crisp, empty scent of infinity surrounded her.”
I think that scent is something we often taken for granted and perhaps don’t notice until it vanishes – or hits us over the head. Maybe that’s why I find it so compelling from a descriptive standpoint. Regardless, I find it adds a new dimension to the atmosphere of any tale.
LINDSEY DUNCAN is the author of contemporary fantasy Flow, just released by Double Dragon Publishing. Flow follows the water-witch Chailyn, on dry land for her first mission, and Kit, a contemporary teen with mysterious powers, as they seek the man who killed Kit's mother ... a goal which catches the interest of the darkest of fairies. They must also deal with the Borderwatch, a zealous organization that hunts fairies and has been in a cold war with the water-witches for decades.
Flow can be found here: