Smells, what’s the worst that can happen?

“What’s the worst that can happen”, is always a phrase that is a prelude to something bad, catastrophic even happening. So, when we talk about smells, I think that something bad could be a body rotting in the sun or even meat that has gone bad in your fridge. (Probably should have led with the bad meat one first.)

I was a chef for around 25 years. Working in the industry as a chef, I was infused with many smells everyday. Stocks, meat grilling, herbs, rice, garlic, onions, and many, many more smells. I still can walk into a kitchen and identify the majority of ingredients that are being used just by the smell. Not all smells were good. Burnt meat, chicken, rise, milk, butter, and other foods gave themselves up to the kitchen gods on many of night in a busy kitchen. Nothing smells as bad as bad chicken. Seriously, trust me on this.

Now I’m a meat cutter (Butcher) for a large grocery chain. I deal with meat, chicken, pork and lamb everyday. With most meats you can tell when they god bad by just looking at the color. Sausages, now that is tricky. Sausages will have a sheen on them and have kind of a sandpaper feeling to it. If you ever go to a grocery store and you look at the sausage and it looks like this, it’s bad. BUT, nothing compares to chicken or turkey sausage that had gone bad. The human nose has evolved over hundreds of thousands of year to be repulsed by the scent of rotting flesh. Most animals can stomach rot, but us humans can’t. Bad chicken or turkey sausage is repulsive, sweet, acidic smell that you will remember.

With all that being said, I have noticed that very few authors include smell into their writing. The problem with scent or smell, however you want to think of it, is that it’s incredibly personal. I love the small of frying onions and garlic because it takes me back to when I was a child and my mother was cooking. The sent of pizza always makes me think of when I was a kid and Mr. Royal Jones, my PeeWee football coach, would take us to Roundtable Pizza after every game. Those are good memories.

The smell of hospital cleaning solutions, they have a unique smell to them, reminds me of when I had to go and say good bye to my father after he had his final stroke, and he was on life support. Or seeing my grandmother after she had passed away, laying there frail and small in her hospital bed. God I hate these memories.

Writing about a smell is a powerful tool to use. How do I describe onions and garlic cooking? It’s a sweet smell, a little earthy with a hint of savory. Bread smells like yeast and flour. I do not have to go into a complicated description of how bread smells because there is bread, one form or another, in every culture on this planet. Most cultures cook or use garlic and onions in one form or another.

Now for the hospital smell. It smells like fake lemon, stale bleach and death. I have to equate this smell with an emotion because that’s what it brings up in me. I once met an EMT who could not stand the smell of pizza and beer. He was on a call, a man coded and he had to preform mouth to mouth on the guy. The guy vomited into this EMT’s mouth. He vomited beer and pizza. He That was years ago and he still cannot smell pizza or beer without that memory crashing in to the front of his mind. The word “vomit” bring a powerful feeling to almost everyone. We have all vomited at some point in our lives. That feeling, that scent, is forever engrained into our minds.

What does the land smell like? If you ask a hundred people what does a forest smell like, you’ll most likely get a hundred different answers. How about chocolate chip cookies? A sun rise? What does a 105 degree day smell like in the middle of the desert? The desert smells like Juniper bushes and dirt. I know, I’ve been there. If you ask someone from a cold region what -10 degrees smell like, I bet they can give you an answer. I don’t know, I was raised in the desert.

Writing in smells can pull your reader deeper into a story. George RR Martin did a decent job at first writing smells into Game of Thrones book. He got away from it later in the series, but by then, it was all about White Walkers and Dragons.

Smells are personal feelings that snap into people’s memories and will send a reader in a direction that you want them to go.

Thank you for reading this.

Today is a much better day.

J.W. Berwyn.

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