It’s the Five Senses, Cowboy

Writers are often reminded to bring depth to their stories by using the five senses. Characters see, taste, touch, hear, and the oft forgot sense, smell.kid-holding-nose

I know, you’re thinking eww. That’s because you are thinking the word smell, not smelling the smell. Let’s have a quiz. Pine leaves—quick what do you see—a Christmas tree. Roses—Yep, Valentine’s day. Who said funeral? I heard that! Turkey roasting in the oven—got it—Thanksgiving. Roast beef permeating the air in your living room? Sunday roast, holiday, or family event. Fried chicken (I’m a Southron, it might mean more to me than you)—fourth of July picnic. The harsh bite of gun powder? Target practice or the fourth of July—depends on whether you had a misspent youth. Hand raised.

Okay, you get the idea, but there’s more. If the above smells had meaning for you they brought to mind more than a smell. They called up an emotion, and maybe a memory or two. Back in the stone age when I got a degree in psychology, we were taught that scent was more strongly connected to memory than any other of the five senses. Just as the hip bone is connected to the thigh bone, so scent is connected to the limbic system. The old brain.beach

Not only is smell connected to memory, it’s connected to emotion. Do you believe in love at first sight? That potent attractor you’re not aware of is the scent of the other person. Okay, another eww, but it’s true.

How does this relate to writing? Easy. Scent is the perfect writer’s shortcut. With a single smell, you can depict emotion, setting, and memory for your character and your reader. While it’s true not every reader brings the same emotional intensity to the scent, most readers will have some reaction.

fireplaceThe elusive scent of wood smoke wafting on a breeze on a cold winter’s day brings feelings of comfort and camaraderie. The acrid smell of smoke on any day brings feelings of fear and self-preservation. The briny scent of the sea, the earthy scent of the air before a thunderstorm, the loamy smell of fresh turned soil, all of these place your character, and depending on her associations, set the scene for comfort, pain, anticipation, anxiety. No narrative to slow the story, no telling, the scent says it all.

What’s your favorite scent? Mine’s apple wood burning in the woodstove while snow drifts past my windows, and fresh basil mingling with the tangy scent of a fresh tomato in the heat of summer.

Author photos 009Kait Carson lives in an airpark in south central Florida with a pilot husband, eight tropical birds, and six rescue cats. By day, she’s a practicing probate and litigation paralegal, in the evening, legal pads give way to a keyboard, and she spins tales of murder and mayhem set in the tropical heat. Kait writes two series, the Catherine Swope series, set in Miami, and the Hayden Kent series set in the Fabulous Florida Keys.

Kait loves to hear from readers, check out her website at www.; follow her on Facebook at, on Twitter at @kaitcarson, or e-mail her at





11 thoughts on “It’s the Five Senses, Cowboy

  1. Well now, this post SMELLS . . . good! Nice job of thoroughly expanding on the importance of using scent/smell in fiction. You nailed it; a whole realm of experiences can be awakened by a sudden whiff that strikes the memory. Well done, Kait. 🙂


  2. A scented note from Kait. Very nicely done. With all the choices you give I don’t know whether to drool or barf, but i did notice some drooling. Possibly the turkey. My nose drives me nuts and sometimes I wish my sense of smell would take a hike. Because of it I use a lot of scent in my writing. Which reminds me of how my dog loves to “bush jump” into the shrubs where the feral cats sleep in this area. He arrives back from his walk smelling like cat piss and is very happy. Ugh. I have an herbal spray i use on him. I’m glad you brought up the need for evoking the feelings we all have from smell. Kait 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks MJ – I can relate to the cat smell. We have six cats – all fixed, all indoor but around a certain time of the year, every male stray seems to show up to mark our bushes. UGH. I too am sensitive to smell and sometimes find I’m bombarded by memories or emotions before I realize I’m surrounded by smell. I’ve known two people in my life without a sense of smell. One was born that way, the other lost the sense after an illness. I can’t imagine!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I used to have a handwritten note above my typewriter (yes, long time ago) that said, “Can you see it? Hear it? Smell it? Taste it? Feel it? Then it must be real.” It was a reminder to use those senses in my writing. I agree “smell” is least used and most evocative. And — for me — hardest! I guess I just need to spend more time with my nose against things 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Ellen, ah, typewriters indeed. I still have my IBM Selectric II. Z doesn’t work, but then, how often do you need it? What a great motto to have above a writing desk! Thanks for stopping by.


  5. This is an important post because it is the hardest to write about. Thanks for reminding me! I have allergies, so perfumy smells make it hard for me to breathe, but others elicit wonderful memories of camp fires and being on the beach.

    Liked by 1 person

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