Forgotten Senses: Smell by G.K. Parker

Forgotten Senses: Smell

Anyone who has ever read a writing craft book or taken a course will no doubt have heard authors encouraged to use senses in their stories. Nobody disputes that fact.

Why is it then the only senses that are used with regularity are sight and hearing? And even hearing tends to be relegated to voices, phones, traffic and other cliches. Touch is not used as much as it should be, especially in novels with erotic content. Tactile touch can make any scene more sensual, but it's often overlooked or given minimal attention.

But the sense that is overlooked the most is scent. It's one of our most powerful senses, even if
nowhere near as powerful in us as in other animals, such as dogs.

How often have you caught a whiff of something and immediately had a flashback to another time and place? Pheromones, odors that are a microscopically undetectable can trigger desire and rage. Smells of all types can be powerful that way.

So why is it overlooked? I think it's because we live in a society that deems most natural smells to be undesirable. We spend billions of dollars every year to make sure our bodies emit minimal natural odors—bad breath, body sweat, stinky feet, etc. We'd rather fill our homes with the artificial odor of flowers or, ironically, a 'fresh' air smell. Artificial fresh air? Why not use real fresh air?  Because the truth is, we don't like real smells.

How often have you heard of people who buy houses on the outskirts of town because they want the illusion of living in the country. But the moment they smell the real country air, they lobby their local politicians to ban farm animals since they stink. Our homes and buildings are becoming hermetically sealed from the outside world. Germs are equated with bad smells, so we buy sprays that promise to destroy those germs and all the associated smells in exchange for chemically ‘good’ ones. Even in the face of rising allergies and asthma that has been linked to these chemicals, we persist in thinking if it smells good, it must be good.

We're so ingrained with this that as writers we tend to downplay it in our stories. This is a mistake. Use olfactory senses and your work will become all the richer for it.

As writers we’re always supposed to be aware of what’s around us. We listen in on conversations and watch people. While you’re doing that, be conscious of what your nose detects. Take a walk through a woodlot, farmers market or down an alley with dumpsters a day before pickup. Think about the odors, then try to think of words you could use to describe those smells.  Then take your new senses and use them in your stories. It will make them richer.

In my debut historical novel, Ashes & Ice, a great deal of the story is set in New York’s Lower East Side in 1888. The infamous Five Points of Gangs of New York fame. This was a time when plumbing was just being put in throughout the city, but for the most part only in the wealthier sections. Poor areas like Five Points still used outhouses and chamber pots, the latter simply dumped out the windows of tenement buildings into alleys that would often be filled with garbage you had to wade through it. Add to that the waste from free roaming pigs, chickens and the occasional cow, on top of what the thousands of horses in use at the time and you had an olfactory nightmare. The wonder is not that there were ongoing outbreaks of cholera and dysentery, but that so many survived and moved on to better things.

In my novel I try to capture some of that horror in the lives of my characters, Caitlin Walsh, Johnny Dorlan and the native boy, Finn Gallagher, hopefully without grossing the reader out too much. I hope I’ve struck a balance which will help bring my story to life and help the reader understand a little what it was like to live in such a place at such a time.

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GK Parker is an enigmatic man who keeps to the shadows where he writes dark historical fiction which explores the deepest shadows in such places as New York City's most notorious slum, Five Points made infamous by Charles Dickens and police reporter Jacob Riis, whose photographs of the Five Points and the abject poverty the residents -- mostly Irish, Jews and Italians -- lived in. They shared the streets with pigs and diseased cows where 'blue' milk was used by the poorest. disease was rampant in the Points, with cholera and typhoid being the most common.

But Parker's writing is not confined to the east coast. He's also delved into Prohibition in Los Angeles, where the LAPD didn't stop gangsters from setting up business, they got rid of them because they were competition. All major American cities had criminal outfits which made sure the alcohol kept flowing. The LAPD filled that role. It was a time period rich in stories that haven't been told yet.

When not writing or researching, Parker enjoys his Doberman Pinschers, Slik and Jake, traveling, a good brew and hunting. He currently resides in Topanga Canyon. But he's always on the lookout for new places to explore.


Janet Greger said…
Great post. Of course, your novel is focused on a place and time with lots of odors.
I try to put at least one or two descriptions of smells in every novel. I know I should insert more fragrances into my work.
Eileen Obser said…
This is a very good post. I talk about the senses with my writing students, and I will enjoy sharing this take on "smell" with them. Thanks for hosting G.K. Parker, Marilyn.
Hi, Janet, glad you stopped by. I try to put myself in my characters shoes in the place she/he is a take a deep breath.

And, Eileen, this is perfect for a writing class.
Billie Johnson said…
As a true SPENSER fan, I note that THAT Parker always included lots of smells...women who smelled of good soap, Susan's cologne, Pearl's doggie breath, good food cooking...and a couple of times, the smell of cigarette smoke alerted the intrepid PI to trouble!

It's a detail that really engages the reader!

GK Parker said…
Thanks for having me, Marilyn. Whenever I talk to other writers about the craft I always try to talk about the descriptions we use, and how it's not right we so often only use maybe one or two at the most. Using all the senses brings any story to life so much better.

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