Making Scents

Authors are told to use all five senses to draw readers into a scene. We are to describe what characters see, taste, touch, hear, and smell. I tend to go a little light on the visuals, and often have to sketch those in during revisions. I’m pretty good with sounds (musician…) and I could probably do more with taste and texture. I am naturally drawn to the sense of smell, though.

I believe the historical world had far more olfactory variety and punch than we are used to today. Herbs and spices, medicinal plants, and homemade remedies took the place of our disinfectants, medicines, soaps, and cosmetics, and most of the historical concoctions would have had the pungent impact lent by fresh ingredients.

Hygiene was different 200 years ago, at all levels of society, and diets were much richer in fiber. Heating, lighting, and transportation were all odor-intensive, and getting any scent out of clothing, hair, or upholstery was a matter of some expertise and effort.

Neurologically, the olfactory part of the brain sends its impressions straight to the amygdala, our emotional memory storage unit. Other senses take a less direct route into memory, so smells tend to be more evocative than snippets of music or the feel of fuzzy socks. In terms of activating memory, smell is a superpower, and as an author, I need all the superpowers I can get.

As little old me, though, I am sometimes slow-witted. All around my house, honeysuckle is blooming in the hedges. This year must be ideal conditions for honeysuckle, because I just want to stand in the yard, close my eyes, and breathe through my nose. I am transported by that light, intense fragrance to a place where all is joy and benevolence and ease. If I could find a honeysuckle perfume that lived up to the natural article, I’d wear it.

When I first moved to this house decades ago, somebody had planted beds of mint and lemon balm near the kitchen door. Those beds faded, and I replaced them with annuals, but I well recall the pleasure of sitting on the porch and breathing in the fragrance of summer (and natural insect repellent).

For more than ten years, my dad’s research focus was flavors and fragrances, and that too might influence my natural affinity for scents. I do wonder, though, why  it took me until this year, to plant petunias in my kitchen-door flower beds? To plant a lavender border against the side fence? To pick some of that lavender and have it sitting in a whisky glass by my little writing corner?

I know fragrances bring me joy and take me out of my overly busy mind to delight in the natural world. Why haven’t I done a better job of keeping that joy at hand? Sachets and potpourri, even scented candles, can help, but this is a lovely self-care job I have fallen down on. I hope I do better going forward, because the joy is real, and I need that too.

Do you have a favorite scent? A favorite means of keeping pleasant scents in your day? A favorite memory that’s evoked by a particular scent? Watch out how you comment, because I’m choosing a signature fragrance for Mrs. Matilda Merridew, our heroine in Miss Dauntless (pub date November).

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47 comments on “Making Scents

  1. When we bought our house, I purchased a 99 cent chive plant from the grocery store and planted to the side of the patio and backdoor. My parents gave me some mint from their garden and WHAM, 25+ years later, there is mint and chives galore! When I weed that patch–which has black-eyed susans as well as other herbs, it it the mint and chives I smell. It’s comforting and pleasant and when the wind and weather is just right, their odors can be smelled in the whole yard.

    I’ve tried to plant things that mean something to me from my childhood in our yard, such as lilacs and lily-of-the-valley. When I get a whiff, I’m transported to another place and time!

  2. What a lovely piece, Grace. I’ve had to stop several times recently while walking my dog just to try to inhale as much of the lovely honeysuckle scent as I possibly can as there’s none in our yard. It truly is unparalleled. We have lilacs, and they made their appearance even earlier than usual this year, so I sniffed hard while I could since their stay is so short.

    I do remember several of your characters mentioning scents, so I’m sure you’ll find something satisfactory for Matilda. I’m partial to light musk scents myself, although my favorite cologne of all time was the simple and inexpensive Cachet that has, sadly, been discontinued.

    • WHY do they do that? Discontinue great scents? Years ago I found a lily-of-the-valley scent that held up nicely, and wasn’t a “baby powder + some mouget…” fail. I bought one bottle and… discontinued. GRRRR.

  3. I also have been breathing deeply of honeysuckle with an undernote of multiflora rose here in western Virginia, especially in the evening. Its ambrosia for the soul.

  4. I miss honeysuckle. There were huge banks of it on people’s fences where I grew up, including my dad’s office building. But I’m having enough trouble with my homeowners association (still controlled by the developer) without planting anything so invasive.

    What I HAVE planted, being scent deprived when the windows are open, are banks of rosemary, lavender, and roses. All three should do well in sandy soil aka fill dirt & full sun here in zone 9 & both the roses & lavender have bloomed already. The deer are voracious at the moment in destroying new shoots & buds on my roses, alas, but the lavender is not on their menu & doing beautifully. As the developers continue to ravage the landscape, the deer will move along, so I’m fertilizing mightily for now to keep the plants going until the inevitable happens with phase 3 & all the apartments the county demands be slapped up along the interstate in their haste to cash in.

    My rosemary was doing nicely until I had to turn the sprinklers on to save the mandatory lawn & I lost chunks to being overly watered. If the destroyers, er, developers would stop their 19th century obsession with lawns, I’d plant my entire front with climate-appropriate fruit trees, herbs, veggies & more roses. But the obsession with environmentally damaging stretches of useless grass continues, so I endure & roll my eyes every summer when the toxic algae warnings go up from all the lawn care runoff poisons the local waterways.

    • Oh, what you said. What is this obsession with grass? Are we still afraid the Visigoths will sneak up on the castle walls and so we mow down the shrubbery and man the arrow slits? I pass one yard on the way to the horse barn that’s planted property line to property line with “wild” flowers the pollinators love. Looks lovely, serves a purpose, doesn’t have to be mowed (carbon footprint, noise, air quality…) and there’s not an HOA in Maryland that would allow it. We stupid. We so stupid.

  5. Honeysuckle! Oh how I envy you surrounded by it. The small 19th century house I grew up in had honeysuckle climbing the front porch. I spent many, many evenings on that porch and just a whiff of a honeysuckle vine will immediately take me back to that porch. The porch cushions were old and had that canvas tent smell that also comes to mind when I smell honeysuckle.

    You can’t buy that same honeysuckle anymore as I’ve learned it’s terribly invasive. I’ve tried to transplant from wild vines whenever I find them, but so far no success. I don’t understand, if it’s so invasive, why can’t I get it to grow around my patio? I have lilacs, lavender and sweet Autumn clematis to enjoy but would really love to have some of that old honeysuckle.

  6. Vanilla is my favourite in the summer because it reminds me of ice cream which I love .The magnum white choc bar when available is most delightful and disappears very quickly.In the winter I love the aroma of mulled wine.Also the smell of fried onions get my taste buds dancing.Spring aroma is a flower that I grow every year and fill my home with its delicate splendour.The rose.Autumn(fall).I choose lavendar.With the nights drawing in and it’s getting colder in the evenings the heating turned on and pyjamas and fluffysocks put on hours before bedtime.
    Lavender relaxes and calms before shut eye time.Many aromas,many gifts of nature for my well being.But I have to be strict with myself about the ice creams.To much of a good thing.Good old fashioned scents.

    • I love a good vanilla ice cream, and think it’s hard to improve upon. Difficult to get a good chocolate flavor in an ice cream, but vanilla just seems made for cold, rich dairy.

  7. You have just motivated me to plant flowering shrubs or vines near our front door – if they will grow and if I can chip through the clay earth. I would very much like to have honeysuckle near our front door. It is an invasive plant here so I have some faith that it might flourish. I have a nice wrought iron fence near the front door and would be happy for it to twine there to its heart’s content.

    I love the smells of honeysuckle and mimosa blossoms. My little sister and I spent many wonderful hours climbing in our mimosa tree. It would not thrive in our clay soil so I am going to stick with the honeysuckle … although I may look for a mimosa tree. I haven’t seen one in years and suspect some plant disease killed them.

    • I also miss my roses. At our old home, I grew antique roses – the ones that were quartered and absolutely packed with petals. After we moved here, I discovered that the developers had scraped off all of the top soil and my entire yard is clay. (fyi the product clay buster does not work) We planted three flowering pear trees and they all died. We have large magnolia trees, and crepe myrtle does well so that is something. I remembered that my husband is very allergic to bee stings so honeysuckle near our front door is out. :sigh:

  8. I am a big fan of lavender. The real thing only. So many of the items and products out there have some sort of imitation and most of them are yuk.

    As far as perfume goes o stumbled on a scent called Happy by Clinique. It is a light floral and the name just tickled so I smile whenever I use it.

    • I sniff my way through the green houses, and any lavender I plant has to knock my socks off. Few are hardy where I am, so that doesn’t leave a lot of selection. I still should have been experimenting with borders before this. Might have found The One by now…

  9. I love the smell of daffodils, and of Lily of the valley. But lilac is my favorite scent, that smells like the backyard of my elementary school years. I wish it grew in the climate I live in now, but alas.

    • I have some in my yard, and they have good years and bad years. This was awful–too many, too late, freezes. I hope that means a big year next year. I even love the feel of a bunch of lilacs. All soft blooms and woody stems…

  10. We used to have honeysuckle beside our front door. After we moved, the new neighbor deer decided they loved the taste of it too much to let us grow it. The same goes for the mint I attempted to grow. They do leave rosemary alone so I have several plants in both front and the back yards. Lemon balm, bee balm, oregano, and basil have to be planted in my gated veggie/herb garden. When the plants are large enough, I love to take cuttings and hang them to dry in the house.

  11. For me my favorite scent is almond flavoring. I have a distant memory of my mother using a hand cream that (at least in my memory) smelled like almond flavoring. It may have been some kind of Jergens lotion. Although in later years my mother and I rarely saw eye to eye, that memory of a young and innocent Tina lives on. Almond flavoring is my favorite flavor to use in my Christmas cookies (I make 6 or more kinds for a total of around 700 cookies each year!). Several of them are almond flavored. I guess part of me wants to revel in those pleasant memories.

  12. I love the smell of freshly baked bread and freshly dried laundry.
    I love almond in all its almond glory.
    I recently purchased a pure beeswax candle and the scent is heavenly! It’s a rich, luscious honey scent… so lovely!

    I also love lemon and orange. Hmmmm… lots of food related things in my olfactory system! ;p

    I tend to stay away from flowers generally as they make me sneeze and can be overwhelming to me.
    But, for flowers, you can’t go wrong with lavender.

    I’m much more attuned to the look and feel of plants. I LOVE fuzzy plants… Lamb’s Ear is a particular favorite as are Snapdragons.

  13. I love Jasmine. We live very far from a zone where I could grow it outside, but this is making me wonder if there is a strain suitable for a houseplant. Unfortunately, as I age I’m developing more sensitivities to flowers and the weeks our lilacs (now) are in bloom are quite uncomfortable. Lilacs used to be one of my favorite scents, so that is a loss. I can no longer drink regular coffee (and have decaf as a special treat only) but I adore the smell of coffee and would love to wake up to the smell.

    • I allow myself one cup of jasmine green tea every morning when I sit down to write. It’s luscious, and it reminds me of the night-blooming jasmine at my parents house in San Diego–one of few things I enjoyed about visiting them on SoCal.

  14. I love the smell of spices. I have 2 recipes that calls for a spice blend called ras al hanout. I think it varies according to the cook. The one I have smells incredible containing cinnamon, pepper, ginger, star anise…

    • Oh yum! I adore assorted chai spice blends from India, from the rose blends (Madras?) right up to the peppery ginger ones. Now I’ll have to research your cooking blend & how it’s used. Do you like saffron? My Persian friends got me hooked on saffron sugar cubes & a rice dish that has tiny red berries in it that are somewhat like miniature cranberries in taste. I can’t remember the name.

      • The spice blend that goes in donair is incredible, too. I like saffron, but from afar. Good vanilla is costly enough!

  15. I love the smell of lilacs. My grandma had some in her garden. Even now as an adult, if I walk past a blooming lilac, I will inhale deeply. Brings back lovely memories.

    • And you know, strictly speaking, I should not use lilacs in my Regencies. They were grown in France 200 years ago, but not the lovely, fragrant varieties we are familiar with.

  16. Lilacs are my favorite scent and they have just faded and I am sad.

    Your reference to scents in your books was one of the first things that stood out when I started reading your novels. I always sit and try to conjure up the scent when it is mentioned in your writings.

    • And even if you didn’t conjure the scent, your brain would probably be making the associations subconsciously. I do worry sometimes that I go on and on about scents the way some authors can wax lyrical about fashion. Fashions don’t particularly interest me, but the flowers… I can’t ignore them.

      • Oh, no! Grace, please don’t worry. Even for “under-scenters” like myself, it is a great detail. AND, there was one scent that is one of my absolute favorite descriptions; when you described Max Haddonfield as smelling like bread, I wanted to find the man and follow him around. 😀 😀 😀
        So! Please keep doing what you are doing because it totally works! 😀 😀 😀

  17. Jasmine. The actual flower scent. There are many candles and such that all called Jasmine but none are as lovely as the real thing. I grow it indoors as I’m in a cold winter climate. Second favorite of mine is gardenia.

  18. My favorite scent is vanilla. I wear vanilla fields cologne and have for decades. My grandmother use to use real vanilla & dab it behind her ears & knees.

    I think the best compliment is when children tell me I smell like Christmas cookies. But it’s interesting how many men complement me on my “perfume”. Sometimes I think grown men are simply tall little boys who think Christmas cookies are sexy.