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Making Scents of the Past

Make "scents" of writing historical fiction with this excerpt from The Art & Craft of Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom.

Keep your own senses open, your antennae out. It works in all the senses.

The sense of smell is said by scientists to be the most evocative memory prompter. Your mood can be changed, for better or worse, by a whiff of something you haven’t smelled since childhood, like, say, your father’s shaving soap, or some dish you haven’t smelled cooking since your grandmother made it half a century ago, or old substances like mothballs or camphor, or linseed oil in an artist’s studio, or the first time you were close enough to smell the perfume behind a girl’s ear. Memory by scent is useful, even though your printed page is odorless.

I say, practice it. A few years ago as my wife and I were on a suburban road in Ohio one mild night, we caught a faint and familiar scent in the slipstream by the car window. “Smell that?” she asked.

“I do,” I said.

“Skunk or Starbucks?”

Of course, it doesn’t take long to realize which, but the surprising thing is that for a moment, until it gets bad enough that you know it’s skunk, it could be that dense and inviting aroma of dark-roast coffee.

I’m not trying to insult the coffee-shop chain when I urge you to pay attention the next time you get a slight whiff of one or the other. It doesn’t seem a likely comparison. But most people I mention it to come back eventually and say, “You’re right!

Writer and reader share the same senses, and you can be a better writer if you stay keenly conscious of scents and sounds, flavors and textures, and the ways of seeing things—use all the evocative power of our rich language to put your reader in the sensuous center of whatever scene you’re writing.

And keep in mind that the past was quite smelly, back in those days before mouthwash and deodorants and flush toilets, before meat refrigeration; when towns had tanneries and stockyards and butcher shops; when public buildings had spittoons; when horse and ox manure paved the streets. To describe a stroll through a populated place in the “good old days,” in a way that puts your reader right down in it, you could use half the adjectives in your vocabulary, especially the odorous ones.

On the other hand (while we’re on the subject of animal poop), my personal field research up on the Great Plains surprised me in a pleasant way. Out there where there’s hardly any firewood, the fuel for campfires and cookfires often was buffalo chips or cow chips: sun-dried dung. I gathered enough for an evening campfire on the bank of the Missouri and kindled it. I had never heard or read anything to prepare me for the smell of such a fire, so I stayed upwind at first. But that wasn’t necessary because burning buffalo poop smells like burning grass. And why wouldn’t it? Grass is what they eat. Next time you’re cooking with buffalo poop (as you surely will), notice that it burns clean and almost smokeless. That is, if it’s dry. Don’t use it if it isn’t. (You’re welcome for that useful advice.)

In modern times, we don’t use our sense of smell as much as man has done through the ages. Much has been done to suppress the stink of life. Our sense of smell has been damaged by chemical pollutants in the air. I live in a hardwood forest. The foliage constantly purifies the air here, and if a car goes by on the road a few yards away, I can smell its exhaust for several minutes afterward. Driving through a city is an assault on my sense of smell, because I’m not used to the chemicals, the industrial pollutants, or all that vehicular exhaust.

Not so very long ago, people relied on their noses to find food and to avoid danger. Natural air was clean, and they could detect life scents in it. A bear smells like a barn. A rattlesnake smells like cucumbers. Man’s sense of smell is much inferior to that of dogs and most other animals, and, of course, that’s one reason why dogs are so useful to us in sniffing out game or danger or missing children or fugitives, and, in the modern world, drugs and explosives. I say elsewhere in this book that animals, both wild and domestic, will probably be very important somewhere in your historical novel. You can hardly write a historical story of any verisimilitude without animals. A part of research in daily life, when you don’t even consciously think you’re researching, is the close and caring observation of animal behavior.

I had an Irish setter long ago who liked to sit beside me under a big oak tree on the ridge here at sunset time. I was watching the sun go down over the valley, and my eyeballs moved. His nose was always quivering. He was smelling the wind to determine where it had been. I’m sure he was getting more information through his nose than I was through my eyes.

All the beasts, including humans, live and act according to the sensory stimuli they get. This was even more true in the old days, before we tamed the environment around us with deodorants and air fresheners, central heating and air conditioning, insulated clothing, and all the comforts and other stimulus-numbing innovations of modern life. Keep that in mind when you’re researching and writing about the past. You want your reader to “be there” in the noisome past, so give them all the stenches, dins, eyesores, putridity, and physical discomforts that people dealt with in those days. And now and then write in a song, for your reader’s ears.

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