I have recently seen some on-line discussions (including those of my books), questioning the use of scents and smells, especially in romantic fiction. This also came up more than once during some fiction workshops I was on, and I thought that overall it is an interesting topic to be discussed.
Scientific research shows that sexual attraction is actually to a large part driven by smells — usually not the overt kind that we can easily detect from a few feet away, but the more subtle kind, the chemical stimuli that we often don’t consciously register. These smells actually transmit a signal of genetic compatibility, since biologically sexual attraction is all about procreation and in the end the main reason for being attracted to a partner is the subtle sense that she/he will be the right parent for your offspring.
Some people are more sensitive to those smells than others. Those more sensitive people can actually distinguish the smells of human skin at a very close range, and those of attractive partners would resemble something pleasant, while others would not. This has nothing to do with the smells of sweat or unwashed body, but with those chemicals that signal compatibility.
I am one of those people overly sensitive to smells. Without going into any evocative examples, I always feel that my daughter’s skin smells of honey, while a guy I hated in college had a distinct smell of butter at a very close range (I hate butter, and please don’t ask me how I detected his smell so close :-). I have met people whose skin, to me, smells of fresh grass, sour milk, steel, tulips, musk, juniper, and violets — just to name a few. To me, these factored into my interaction with these people, even if some of those with less pleasant smells were still great as colleagues or conversation partners. My own skin has a distinct smell to me which I cannot name, but it is, fortunately, pleasant. I assume it is this way for most people, otherwise it would be very hard to live with yourself.
Scientific research suggests that even for those people who don’t feel such smells consciously, they still define, to some extent, the experience in their personal interactions. We sense smells even if we don’t know it, in the end these are just molecules floating through the air and landing on our receptors.
Being so keenly aware of smells, I cannot help using them as a tool in fiction. The romantic relationships I describe are often driven by those smells, and this is just part of a personal experience, nothing to do with perfume or exaggeration. I have seen it in at least one other case — in Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent”, where Rachel’s skin smells of fresh water. This immediately resonated with me when I read the book.
In my recently released “Blades of the Old Empire”, Kara and Mai are described through these smells by people who are romantically attracted to them. Kara’s skin smells of wild flowers, while Mai’s, to different people, smells of river water and pine. It is always interesting for me to see how some readers love it and others tend to comment on “how come she had a flower perfume on her when she should have smelled of nothing but sweat?” or “how come at this moment the air has been conveniently infused with pine?”. This, to me, reflects right there the extent of olfactory perception people experience in their every day life. And, by the way, different people’s sweat also smells very different, and it can be pleasant to some but not others. In the end, it’s all in the nose of the beholder.
Writing to an audience always involves making these decisions, compromises between what you sense and what the majority of readers would likely relate to. My use of smells is, to an extent a conscious choice. I would be curious to see how many people can connect to this, and how many tend to discard it as an oddity or an exaggeration.