Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it

Vladimir Nabokov

I remember aromas and fragrances long after I’ve forgotten people and places. Aromatic memories always play a part in the way I write a description. If I had to tell my readers about that guy I used to date when I was at university, I wouldn’t be able to remember all the details about him, except that he smelt of Davidoff Cool Water. Now that I think about it, there must be some memories tugging at me from my twenties, for I’m using again Carolina Herrera’s Classic eau de parfum… the one I wore back then.

This is not a piece about travelling down the memory road, though; nor has this blog turned into a fashion & beauty one. It’s about writing compelling descriptions.

It’s difficult to write descriptions that are both evocative and cliché-free. We all want our characters to be memorable, and our readers to “feel as if they really were” in the places we describe. Unfortunately, we tend to focus on how our characters look, or on the geographical features of our settings.

Movie makers are lucky guys. They have microphones and cameras to help them show everything about a character or a place. Writers only have words, but words let us show our readers more than how the world looks or sounds: we can show them how it smells, feels or tastes.

The aroma of seawater
“Instantánea” by Joaquín Sorolla

How could we describe the woman on the beach? We could write about how fragile and mysterious she looks, hidden under her big hat. We could also write about the golden sand, and the frothy water but what about how the cool, early spring breeze feels on her face? Why not mention the smell of seaweed, the salty taste of her lips? I imagine her wearing a sweet gardenia perfume that clings to her clothes and her hair.

You get the idea. When describing a person or a place, engage all your senses. A description written using a sense other than the obvious one might surprise and delight you and your readers.

Some time ago, I wrote a short story about a boy attending a concert. The orchestra was playing Ravels’s Boléro and all the story was a visual description of the performance. No “sound” was used, only the body movements of the musicians as they played their instruments. Still, when I asked my friends what piece they thought was being played they nearly all guessed it.

Hear the sounds; smell the hay
Van Gogh – The Siesta

Can you describe your first flat only by the way it smelt? Can you write a scene about a woman eating a cherry pie using only the sense of touch, without mentioning the taste? Can you convey the calmness in Van Gogh’s painting by the sounds that surround the sleeping couple? Go. Try and see where it takes you.

Featured image by Kristina Saiyan at


4 thoughts on “Aromatic Memory: Use your senses

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