I try to put sensory descriptions in my writing, and one I like to use a lot is the sense of smell. This morning I was researching autopsy rooms (what do you do with your Fridays?). I came across an older blog post, written by forensic pathologist and author, Jonathan Hayes, which imparted some interesting information from his perspective, but still no real answers.
I have been around a few dead bodies in my time. Fortunately, most of them were very recently deceased, in a bag, embalmed, or in the process of being embalmed. The scents I remember are from early “removals” when I was about 12 years old, and the smell remained part of my memory as I worked (for a very brief stint) at a nursing home. Death there smells like old milk, urine, and powdered eggs. A co-worker of mine worked with formaldehyde, which he called a smell of “sweet sorrow” (I’d probably call it burning sugar, acetone, and mud).
But a nursing home death and the bodies already prepped for embalming are “clean”. You get to them quickly, before putrefaction sets in. Death outside of these relatively controlled environments has a very different smell, something Hayes had heard described as “the stench of loneliness”. It’s the smell that a neighbor notices after someone hasn’t been seen around in a while, something the cops refer to as NCFO: Neighbor Complains of Foul Odor.
Some of that can be considered poetic. Beautiful words wrapped around a dark subject, but those words do little to put the reader there—in the harsh, white lights of a cold room—staring down at something that until a few hours or days ago was a living person.
To try and convey any sort of smell requires exposure to, at the very least, its byproducts, with the awareness and ability to make a comparison. While there were powdered eggs in the nursing home, I don’t remember any spoiled milk, but something triggered that comparison in my brain. It’s this awareness and identification of similar things that can take description beyond pretty metaphors. Skin that tastes like coffee, salt, and smoke is a lot more evocative than skin that “tastes like a man.”
If you want to impart a sensory knowledge on the part of your reader, it’s important to take the time to get your comparisons believable. We all like to think our kisses taste like honey, and for a mainstream romance novel, that might very well work (I knew someone whose kisses always tasted like garlic). But a coming from a jaded detective, “honey” sounds out of character or at least cynical (which could also work). Writers who want to give the full effect of the suspension of disbelief have to be able to impart information to readers through the character who is experiencing the sensory stimulation.
So the next time you’re tempted to put in something poetic and flowery to describe a smell or a taste, you may want to sit back and think about how you—how your character—would experience it. Try to conjure up those comparisons, and see if you can put your reader there. It takes a little more time but can be very worth the effort.
Comment and let me know what kinds of descriptions put you “there”. ☺️