Just Write

Sensory Detail – Smell

How do you put the sensory detail of smell in writing? Let’s sniff out ideas.

Take a deep breath and imagine the smell of:

fresh lemons




fish – cooked, or freshly caught

roast turkey right out of the oven

popcorn – movie popcorn with melted butter

How would you describe these smells to someone who cannot smell or who never smelled these particular scents?

What does a crunchy red apple smell like? Does a red apple smell the same as a green apple? Does an apple smell different if it’s crunchy or mushy? If it’s cold, it might have that earthy smell of a river. Or an apple might smell like a hot summer afternoon in an orchard. Can you put apple smell into words?

If you can, walk through an orchard or a field where the earth has recently been plowed. Inhale. Describe that earthy smell.

What does a river smell like?

Describe fresh cut lawn.

What about describing smells for other things? What does” old,” ancient” and “calm” smell like?

Here are some ideas:

old . . . smells like parchment paper

ancient . . . smells like musty book

calm . . . smells like summer rain candle

But what does parchment paper, musty book and rain candle smell like? Can you describe these smells?

How about adding sounds:

“old” sounds like coughing and wheezing

“ancient” sounds like rattling breath

“calm” sounds like church . . . sitting in church

The following is from The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury:

There was a smell of Time in the air tonight. . . What did Time smell like? Like dust and clocks and people. And if you wondered what Time sounded like, it sounded like water running in a dark cave and voices crying and dirt dropping down upon hollow box lids, and rain. Time looked like snow dropping silently into a black room or it looked like a silent film in an ancient theatre one hundred billion faces falling like those New Year balloons down and down into nothing. That was how Time smelled and looked and sounded.

A glorious line about smell:  “The air took on its mossy evening smell.” — Elizabeth Sims, September 215 Writer’s Digest.

Your turn: How do you infuse smell in your writing? Tell us. We want to know.

Lemons                        River                 red apple

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  1. Ke11y

    Sensory detail is something about which I have to work hard. Here goes:

    Cyrano poured his fingers over the old encyclopedia, scattering dust and demons onto the first rays of light that piled down through the high windowsills of the old library. “You still believe you can solve the mystery of time travel, don’t you?” The girl said, stood back from the light and leaning against a doorway with her arms folded across her chest. “It’s not that I want to go back too far, Jackie, just far enough to meet up with Raven. Spend some time in the old farmhouse. Walk on the farm’s powdered soil and smell the fever of the sun. See again how the man touched the tip of his hat and hear the summer wheat in his breathing.”

    Jackie dropped her arms and shifted into the beam of warm light. The redness of her hair flamed orange. She hovered her hands over a thousand dusty volumes. “You said, meet back up with…so, you lost track of him, this Raven?” Her shiny red lips pursed their query. Her accent perfectly in keeping with the chewing of gum and the wearing of a short plaid skirt with high-heeled shoes; through the toe of which her red toenails protruded. She was the immediate source of sexuality in an otherwise damp, fertile, and peaty ambiance.

    “Yes, after Lorenzo.” He replied, his mind preoccupied with the volumes sitting on the topmost shelf, guarded by cobwebs.

    “Lorenzo?” she probed. Her pursed lips tightened until her mouth screwed offset.

    “Yes, on June 10, 1960. Lorenzo flew in from Cuba. Before that he’d been living in a room on the twenty-second floor of the Hotel Cohiba, in Havana’s Vedado section. I traced him there. Lorenzo was a priest, living among money changers and prostitutes.”

    “Did you need divine guidance?” she asked, her voice craftily slipping passed a smirk.

    “I needed to kill him,” he declared.

    Jackie stopped her delicate hands above the velvety books, frozen. She turned, momentarily unstable in high-heels on a cobbled stone floor. Her eyes sparking disbelief. Gone was the smirk in her voice. ‘You’re joking, right?’

    Cyrano didn’t respond but added, while dragging a ladder across the wall of books, and on which he would risk climbing, ‘that was his disguise; his acceptance into the community.’ He paused, locking the fragile equipment into place and setting his left foot on the first rung. He then continued, somewhat distractedly, casting his eyes from left to right across the leather-bound array of volumes. “I first met him in a railway car traveling from Cadiz, on his way to Tangier. He was eating a green banana, passing himself off as a Spanish nobleman, a visionary. He appeared very aware of himself. Cool as ice. He spoke strangely, as a poet, saying his visions had first to be smelled, fondled and listened near. He was a lothario for sure, but his soul was that of a monster, and when you got to know him you discovered strange things, unfathomable, repulsive and then again, delightful things. Around women, well it was as if he stirred a symphony inside their hearts. Around men, well they became mere skeletons. That was always the way he was. Evil. And do you know how evil smells, attractive, like childish music, it is the deceptive odor of magic spells, Jackie. Lorenzo knows the secret of the Blue Bottle, religion. Phantasmagoria.”

    1. mcullen Post author

      Powerful writing, Kelly. Thoughtful, careful writing. You set the intriguing scene and fill it with exquisite details. Well-done. 🙂

    2. justinefos

      Kelly: You have such a fantastic way of writing. Your words demand that I read each one slowly, because the expressions as so luscious. “…smell the fever of the sun.”
      put me there, on a hot day, on the farmer’s soil, smelling the dust and the hot cornsilk and leaves. – kind of…green and musty. I have to confess, when the name Cyrano came up, I thought,”Kelly is going to talk about smells – who better?” Your description of Jackie, and her accent was wonderfully done. ..along with her snapping gum – she had to be a redhead! And on through your piece. The old dusty library really came through, and then to add the intrigue about Cyrano hunting down a Spanish nobleman eating a green banana gave me an unexpected giggle. Interesting
      mental pictures, all.

  2. justinefos


    A river has so many different rich smells, especially on a very hot day. Wet – how does wet smell along the richly wooded levy, the fragrance of eucalyptus, rich and full, dry, and not like a cough drop, or VapoRub! Dried leaves mingle with ferns and suntan lotion, depending on which brand one wears when going water skiing.

    When I was in high school and college, my father and I, and friends, spent many, many hours on the Sacramento River; sometimes gliding across the water, smooth like glass, sometimes choppy from the wind. The wind had different smells, depending on what the farmers were growing or applying to their crops. Occasionally the river had the odor of diesel fuel as a tugboat navigated a barge up the river.

    Other times were spent in the water after a not so smooth glide resulted in a crashing, splashing fall during an attempted high speed crossing of the towboat wake to get from one buoy to the next, on the slalom course. Once the river water was coughed out, you could smell defeat, because not enough buoys had been rounded to get enough points to get ahead of the skier ahead of you. Too many times I collected third prize trophies when only 3 contestants were in my class of skiers. Thus, defeat smelled like roasted chicken, baked potatoes, canned green beans, and humility (not the proud kind) served at the awards banquets.

    I did have an award I was proud of, when I won second place during the California State Championships on the Sacramento River, Miller Park, Sacramento, CA. Unhappily, the trophy went missing after a move of residence.

    Water skiing was not the only reason I would spend time at the river. My parents bought a home just three houses from the levee. I spent many hours walking under the canopy of trees, cottonwood, birch, oaks, as well as shrubs and grass, smelling the fragrances of the combined flora. It never occurred to me to be afraid of being there by myself, because, I was…by myself to think poetic thoughts. It was there that I wrote my first poems.

    So closes my tale of Scents as well as Trophies I have won.

    Happily Writing – J

    1. mcullen Post author

      What a great story, Justine. Scents and trophies, indeed, a winning combination. I love the awards banquet reminder of food smells, sprinkled with humility. Ouch! I’m so glad writing is working for you. From poems on the levee to sensory-filled writing = good work!

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