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Thread: Please help me with smells

  1. #1
    Willing to Learn Cinnamon's Avatar
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    Red face Please help me with smells

    Hello everyone!

    I'm not sure where to put this thread, so here it goes. It isn't a writing question per se, more of an "inspiration writing" question. I always wanted to ask people this, but never exactly found a group of people who would answer me this without being weirded out. Most always ask "why do I want to know?" and it's embarrassing to reply that I want to write fiction. So, this forum seems like a good place to ask:

    Are there any smells, to your experience, that smell like other things?

    People told me, for instance, that railtracks in subways smell like fried liver, or that there are plants in Asia that smell exactly like semen. I am looking for these kinds of observations, do you have any to add?

    The problem is, I am anosmic which means I lack the sense of smell, and therefore have no idea how to perceive one or to describe one. I mainly just copy what other people write, and it seems to fool some readers well enough, until not =). Yes, sometimes I mess up terribly, and people are confused about my smells descriptions, mostly when I try to be more evocative and flowery, or just metaphorical in describing a scent or aroma. I know that for a person who has no idea what smells are, it is a basis for failure, but I do love writing pretty images and on-point (in my opinion) similes. But while with colors and sounds it might work fine, with smells I am underwhelmed with my "simile/metaphor game". If you know something, or some scent has ever struck you as an unusual one, or an inspiring one, please tell me. I am very curious and would be glad for every little observation.

    I've been told by people that smells are very subjective. Some people tell me nail polish smells awful, others say it smells wonderful. Most everyone says cut grass is amazing, and that pertichor is a lovely smell - two of the best there are. One person says he liked the smell of creosote, and I even had no idea something like that would smell, so it is a useful thing for me to know about. So, on par with odd smells, could you also please tell me what, in your opinion, smells amazing?

    Thank you in advance, and sorry if it is ill-placed here.

  2. #2
    writer, rider, reader...ex-pat! BethS's Avatar
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    I love the smell of honeysuckle, roses, and gardenias. Can't bear lavender at all or lilies at close quarters. Cinnamon and chocolate...divine. Sauerkraut is gagworthy. Smells like garbage gone bad. Likewise certain smelly cheeses. Some odors make it hard or impossible to eat certain things, because smell and taste are inextricably linked. Cannot stand the fishy smell of seafood (any kind) and can't eat it, either. The spice cumin smells like sweaty gym clothes to me, and tastes like it, too. Don't care for it. Dislike the smell of most perfumes. Too many odors together in one place.

    I do love the smell of fresh-mown grass or fresh-cut hay. Horses smell good to me. Even their manure is not objectionable. Cows are a bit stinky, though, and pig manure is vile. Love the smell of black tea leaves (before you make them into tea).

    I could go on and on, but you're right--smell is subjective.

    In regards to your situation, I think you can get by with having characters like or dislike certain smells. You can be as individual and idiosyncratic as you like with that. Nobody can tell you that disliking the smell of chocolate is wrong. (OK, weird, maybe , but not wrong.)

    I would be very careful about using metaphor or simile to describe smells, since you really can't know what they smell like. OTOH, you can certainly use metaphor and simile to describe a character's reaction to a smell he likes or doesn't like. Like my description of cumin smelling like sweaty gym clothes. That's a personal reaction. Lots of people like cumin and like the way it smells.
    Last edited by BethS; 10-15-2017 at 04:38 PM.

  3. #3
    Your Pixie Queen Kerosene's Avatar
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    It's hard to say what smells smell like other things... I couldn't tell you off the top of my head with certainty. In regards to rail tracks smelling like liver, liver is high in iron which has a specific smell and rail tracks are made with iron which oxidises and that can be smelled as iron--people relate those smells. Semen has a... chemical, salty smell to it, and most common flowers don't have pleasant smells to them so I guess I can see something of that connection.

    I will say I find sensory detail like this a bit useless without an emotion linked up to it. Smells and tastes are some of the weakest senses a reader imagine, but what they can do is evoke an emotional response when brought up. And especially they evoke a response in the character smelling them. I don't have the strongest nose. It's refined, but I don't notice scents until they're very strong or specific. For example, if I meet someone I might not notice their perfume at all for a long time (unless it's fresh and I'm real close). But if I start dating that person, I start noticing the scent of their perfume and after a while I can pick it suddenly when other people are wearing it. The scent has an emotional response for me, thus I respond more strongly to it. And even though I know that specific perfume very well, as a writer with all my experience backing me up I could not whatsoever describe what that perfume smells like. It's flowery... something like that. But if I would be writing about it, it doesn't matter; what matters is what the perfume evokes. The same with taste. I can't describe what molasses taste like... it's toasty and sweet... but whenever I do taste it distinctly I remember back to my grandmother making pancakes and pouring molasses and corn syrup on top.
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  4. #4
    Derailed WriteMinded's Avatar
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    Vanilla extract, puppies, and babies smell like Heaven.

  5. #5
    Willing to Learn Cinnamon's Avatar
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    @BethS, Kerosene,

    Thank you so much! I love reading descriptions of what other people find funny/curious/enjoyable about smells because it enhances my perception of it. For example, I find it valuable that some people describe strawberry to me as being very sweet-smelling while I can't eat it usually no matter how ripe it is because it's so sour-tasting. Most people don't even realize that =), but I would probably be very confusing if I described strawberry scent as being sour in my writing.

    And I absolutely had no idea people might find flower smells annoying, unless they're smelling lilies. So that lavender thing is surprising, thank you.

    Concerning the smells that remind people of stuff - yes, I definitely use those, because they are good tools of conveying ineffable attraction/nostalgic thoughts, but of course I'm also looking to refine my current ideas on smell. Like, I do imagine glass might smell, but most people tell me it doesn't. (I picture it a bit icy or crystally, but that's nonsense that only exists in my head). And I have made mistakes like this in the past when I tried to describe an unpleasant yet somewhat gothic/romantic scent of graveyard, and people told me graveyards don't smell either. So that was essentially silly on my part, but I like to learn new things so the whole experience was kind of valuable to me.

    Thank you again for those descriptions. They are very atmospheric, by the way, and I enjoyed them.

    @WriteMinded, thank you. I know about vanilla extract - I also heard melon extract is divine. I can relate to those two a little since I can eat them in pastries ^^, but babies and puppies - I would never know. I mostly think they smell warm, but so does everything else I hug too close to myself =).

    Also, these are all different, right? Or are they reminiscent of each other?
    (I did hear once on TV how someone said babies smell like cookies, but I don't know if they weren't just being cutesy).
    Last edited by Cinnamon; 10-15-2017 at 06:01 PM.

  6. #6
    practical experience, FTW SciSarahTops's Avatar
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    Ah what a difficult question!
    Sorry to hear you are anosmic BTW. I lose my sense of smell regularly. My sense of taste goes along with it too sometimes and I get really quite miserable at those times, missing flavours especially.
    Maybe it's best not to use smilies but try and evoke emotions, the smell of summer being a particular flower, the feeling of lightness that comes with it. Sorry if that's too cliche.

    Have you read Perfume by Patrick suskind? Maybe that will help?
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  7. #7
    practical experience, FTW Tazlima's Avatar
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    Hmm. It's hard to compare smells to other smells. Often, if something smells similar, it's because they have a similar base to the scent. For example sourdough bread, yeast infections, and breweries, all have a "yeasty" smell, and can be compared to each other in various combinations, depending on whether you're going for pleasant or disgusting. Sourdough tastes very much like yeast smells (beer doesn't), so you'd have a good idea what the smell is like.

    Things that smell totally different from how they taste, though, are trickier to describe. Coffee tastes bitter, but smells divine. I've loved the scent forever, but was well into my twenties before I learned to enjoy drinking the stuff. You know the pleasant sensation of running your fingers through fine powder (such as flour)? To me, the smell of coffee is sort of like that. It's just nice, a gentle, subtle, and pleasant sensation.

    Then you get the foods that taste amazing and smell terrible. I adore Parmesan cheese, but I'll be the first to admit it smell like stinky feet. You know that gross, sticky feeling you get after you've gotten a lot of exercise and, for whatever reason, haven't had a chance to shower (i.e. on a camping trip). Your hair gets greasy, and your skin sticks to itself, you've put on sunscreen and now it's running into your eyes and making them burn a little bit. Really stinky feet smell like that feels.

    And speaking of stinky feet, feet aren't always stinky, and they definitely aren't equally stinky. The stink can come from being unwashed, or from wearing stinky shoes (Some shoes are much more prone to getting funky than others. Baking soda fixes the problem), or from athletes foot and other infections. Clean, dry, healthy feet smell fine.

    Oh, one other interesting element of stinky-but-good-tasting foods. I call it the "Corn Nuts Effect." If someone in your vicinity is eating Corn Nuts or sardines or something with an equally strong and unpleasant smell, the easiest way to handle the problem is to eat a bite of the stinky food (assuming it's a food you like). One bite, and the smell will cease to bother you.
    Last edited by Tazlima; 10-15-2017 at 07:02 PM.
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  8. #8
    Scribe of the girls in the basement Marissa D's Avatar
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    Subjective--good heavens, yes. I love the scent of cumin, and strongly dislike the smell of vanilla and dogs. But then there are scents like the herb cilantro; some people have a genetic predisposition to perceive the smell and taste of cilantro as repulsively soapy (raises hand) while other find it fresh and delightful. Not so subjective...

    I agree with SciSarahTops--focusing on the emotional associations of certain smells and tastes for your characters, rather than trying to use scent in an quantifiable, absolute way, is probably safest. Plus beta readers in case you run into the glass and graveyard issue again.

  9. #9
    practical experience, FTW cornflake's Avatar
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    This is such an interesting question...

    Parmesan smells like vomit -- because they contain the same compound.

    I have a fairly sensitive nose; I can smell stuff other people don't notice for a bit, like someone smoking a ways away, stuff like that. I also really dislike and am sensitive to most air freshener things. I find them overwhelming and they make me gaggy.

    Love the smell of coffee, toast, grass, rain (I think it's negative ions in moving water), dirt after a rainstorm, ozone in a storm, cut grass, manure (which some people hate, and I don't mean sticking my head in a pile, but that wafts from horse pastures or barns -- some people are like ew, manure. I love it. It's not like people manure, heh.). Lemon, most all citrus really, most all fruit and veg -- cucumber, lettuce, melons, berries, fresh spring asparagus, peas, apples, pears, fresh cauliflower and broccoli, almost all herbs save cilantro... I LOVE the smell of new books, like the smell of chalk and chalkboards, fresh laundry (depending on detergent but usually), butane (my grandma carried an old-fashioned lighter, reminds me of her)...

  10. #10
    All about that action, boss. ElaineA's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Cinnamon View Post
    And I have made mistakes like this in the past when I tried to describe an unpleasant yet somewhat gothic/romantic scent of graveyard, and people told me graveyards don't smell either. So that was essentially silly on my part, but I like to learn new things so the whole experience was kind of valuable to me.
    This is interesting to me because I think cemeteries and graveyards have a scent, just not a rotting corpse scent. The wide open grassy ones often smell like fresh-mown grass and turned earth; The ones I've been to in Italy are more crypts in a wall and the footing is stone paths and gravel, so there's a strong, metallic scent of stone around those. In England I was in a tiny walled cemetery beside a very old church and that had it's own scent which I took for weathered stone, grass, the smell of leaves from the tree, and a sort of pleasant beeswaxy, incense smell I imagined had leaked from the church over the years. It all might have been my brain hoping for this romantic interpretation, though.

    I love the smell of the beach because there are so many layers. There is the dominant salty smell of the water, and the kelp/seaweed, which I experience as an intensely "edible-greens-soaked-in-brine" smell, then there's the smell of the debris above the tide line--crushed shells and dry rock and dry sand, again, a metallic scent, but infused with salt--the scents of beach grass, which smells more like straw when it's dry, the smell of charred driftwood where someone has had a fire. All very distinctive.
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  11. #11
    deafwriter @ Chase's Avatar
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    I'm deaf with what I believe is an enhanced sense of smell, evidenced by detecting odors long before others do.

    Here's one crazy similarity. Cat urine smells like juniper bushes and vice versa.

  12. #12
    practical experience, FTW indianroads's Avatar
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    One of the mental games I play when riding my motorcycle is to mentally describe the smells and sensations around me. Rather than relate one smell to something else, I sometimes try to say something smells sharp, or soft, or warm or cold. More often I try to paint the scene with scents the reader should probably already know.

    You can also use a smell description to give a location a greater depth of feeling.

    Standing in an open field smells of dry grasses and dust.
    Her breath smelled of spicy apples, and he knew she was already drunk on the moonshine.
    The dojo smelled of decades of pain and sweat.
    In the kitchen the hot damp air smelled of overcooked vegetables...
    The cool air of the warehouse smelled of ancient motor oil and damp wood...
    His rented room came with threadbare carpets that smelled of cigarette smoke...

  13. #13
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    Quote Originally Posted by WriteMinded View Post
    babies smell like Heaven.
    Not all the time.

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  14. #14
    Beastly Fido Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    Smells I love:

    That smell rain makes on the ground when it's been dry for a while. Hard to describe--sort of fresh but nitrogenous. For me it conjures up the emotions associated with renewal.

    Coffee. Sort of a rich, dark smell. Velvety. Not bitter like it tastes, or only a little like it tastes. Some of the richness comes through in the flavor of coffee, but it's a learned thing to detect it.

    Jasmine. It's sweet and strong to the point of almost being too much. It's a nighttime sweet smell and makes me think of stars and moonlight.

    Lilacs, on the other hand, are sweet in a different way. Less overpowering and definitely more of a daytime smell. It makes me think of bees and sunshine.

    And there's that smell that comes in through my window in the late spring, when our camphor tree is blooming. It's sort of a pungent, almost sweet-smell, but spicier than most other flowers. It conjures up the approaching summer, with its long, slow twilights and pleasantly lazy, unstructured days.

    I wouldn't describe creosote as a pleasant smell. It's acrid and tarry to me, sort of bitter. It tickles my nose a bit. It's not horrible either, but I associate it with waterfronts.

    There's also that sweet, spicy smell that comes from the desert in spring or early summer sometimes. Some kind of plant, I assume, though I'm not sure which one.
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    Passion fruit smells like private parts.
    A meth lab smells like burning rubber.
    Dog paws smell like corn chips.

    (To me) oranges smell like Christmas; frozen pancake and sausage with maple syrup smell like Roach Motels.
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  16. #16
    practical experience, FTW indianroads's Avatar
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    Another thing to remember is that smells are closely tied to emotions.
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    The olfactory bulb has direct connections to two brain areas that are strongly implicated in emotion and memory: the amygdala and hippocampus.
    When my daughters were little it was my job to get them dressed, fed, and off to school every morning. So for breakfast I would go with something easy to make that my daughters would without fighting about it... ie. Oatmeal. So, a character may smell oatmeal and think of babies, or vice versa.

  17. #17
    is watching you via her avatar jjdebenedictis's Avatar
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    Durian fruit kind-of smells like propane and onions. Cumin spice kind-of smells like sweaty bodies.

    My problem is that there are so many smells that my brain can't break down into anything else. What smells like an orange? Only an orange. And yet at the same time, I distinguish smells clearly enough that I can't understand why other people say [X] smells like [Y]. Skunk spray smells like burning rubber? No it doesn't; it smells like skunk spray. "Chocolate" orchids smell like chocolate? No, they smell like perfume.
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  18. #18
    Super Procrastinator Kallithrix's Avatar
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    In the spirit of discussion about semen and cat urine smells... I can say that bunny musk (the smell that emanates from a rabbit's bits when it gets, ahem, somewhat excited) smells just like weed. Please don't ask me how I know this

    However, I'm siding with those who say that evoking the exact smell isn't as important as the emotions and memories it conjures. I've always heard that smell is the most powerful sense for prompting memory recall, and this is certainly the case with me. For instance, when I was a teen I remember buying a turkish delight flavoured lipbalm that instantly took me back to when I was five years old - i could remember being in the living room of my house with its horrendous 80s sofa and 70s patterned carpet, hugging my baby angel doll (which was about the same size as me at the time). And all because the lipbalm smelled JUST like the perfumed plasticky smell of her plastic head that I would lay my cheek on.

    And now, every time I wear Christian Dior Dolce Vita perfume, I'm in the hotel Euripides in Athens 18 years ago, trying on a bright blue sarong I'd just bought in the Plaka - it had a white batik design on it of a fish with a Greek key border, and a tasselled fringe. I can even remember what the bedspread on the twin beds looked like, what sounds were coming from the window with the balcony overlooking the street. It's just for an instant but it's vivid, because this was the first time I put on that perfume, which I'd bought duty free at the airport.

    Smell is a very powerful aide memoire for me.
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  19. #19
    Super Procrastinator Kallithrix's Avatar
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    Oh, and to add another one to the smell-thesaurus, I always think that male BO smells like cheese and onion pasties. That's why I've never been a fan of Greggs bakery - going in there makes me think of sweaty builders (and not just because Greggs tends to be full of them, LOL)
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  20. #20
    Willing to Learn Cinnamon's Avatar
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    Thank you everyone for replying. All of your advice is very good, and your observations about smells are very evocative and amazing to me. I enjoy perceiving smell vicariously through descriptions like these.

    I do think I might perceive smells on some "memory" level because sometimes I have strange flashbacks to my childhood with a sharp sense of actually being in my old room for a few seconds. I guess it must be smell, but I can't put my finger on it, and have no idea what smell it even might be. But it just works (I suppose), subconsciously, without me knowing it.

    And, speaking of pot - how would you describe the smell of pot without knowing it's pot? Like, if a character smells pot for the first time in his life and then realizes that he knows that smell already, having smelled it previously on people? Is it inherently different than tobacco smell? Also, opium. Sorry for going this route, but since I read a lot of smell descriptions that mostly consist of "the room smelled of cheap cigarettes", and the "rich cherry-tobacco smell", and this odd description of opium smoke as "a flower on fire" I wonder. Do all flowers on fire smell like opium? Are all cigarettes worse-smelling than tobacco? Can you really guess the cost of a smoke just by smelling it?

    And this also weird question about animal... um, dung. Supposedly, dung smells not nice, right? But some people do say that cow/horse dung smells lovely, so I would like to know if it's the association with it being dung that makes it smell bad in one's head, or is it really not that pleasant in the first place and it only takes the combination of good memories and habit to start liking it? I do not know how public bathrooms smell but I guess I have like a "placebo effect", or "alief" of it in my head since everyone tells me how awful they really are, because I can't breathe in them and sort of choke a lot. Or like the perception of the vanilla-scent I mentioned earlier. I can't actually taste it because vanilla, like all herbs, is just nastily bitter to me, but when it's in cookies and other baked goods, it makes me feel fancy to consume it. I guess it's mostly sugar anyway that makes me feel vanilla must add sweetness, but I can't do anything with this "placebo-effect" it has on me while I am eating it. I wonder if a lot of smells are also subject to aliefs in the way they are influenced by the bias and perception of individual people based on others' accounts. Or, even the subliminal desire to copy other people's behavior in attitudes to scents.

    Also. Coffee is bitter? That is cool, I always perceive coffee as sour-tasting and that makes it so strange to hear so many descriptions of it as being/smelling bitter. And since I was born anosmic, I don't actually experience the loss of taste, sorry to hear those who do and are miserable because of it. That must be frustrating.

    Thank again!

  21. #21
    It's just a jump to the left... SWest's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Cinnamon View Post
    ...I mostly think they smell warm...
    This is really quite beautiful.

    I don't often worry about how things smell in narratives (though I've a high-fidelity sniffer IRL).

    So unless there's a good reason to bring it up (and there never has to be an odor-detecting consensus in order to tell readers "There was a strong smell of diesel -the truck must be in one of these garages." or "She stuck her face deep into the bouquet."), I'd vote to go with your own style of feeling the world.

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  22. #22
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin raine_d's Avatar
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    Evocative smells...

    Hospitals - chilly and antiseptic, the smell of bulk-bought disinfectant and cold airconditioning.

    Newly cut grass, especially dewy or after rain

    The scent of faded lavender, old pot pourri, lavender or lily of the valley talc has a delicate old-fashioned feeling

    Roses are often quite heavy and sultry

    I'm not the only person I know who has found the scent of old flowers (eg a dated arrangement left on a grave) at a cemetery cloying and sad.

    Cinnamon is always a happy smell, especially in a sweet recipe, smells of nostalgia (actually quite people have different ideas on what 'smells of childhood', different nursery foods, their mother's perfume or soap)

    Old books or bookshops are one I've heard quite a few people mention, musty and dusty and sometimes earthy, almost impossible to pin down but absolutely wonderful to us bibliophiles.

    Which does tend to bring up what others have - a lot of descriptions of smells do tie into memory, because scents are very much an emotional thing. The best way to describe one may be to bring in an echo of this ('the musty smell of small flowers pressed in an old book') rather than try and describe the smell itself.

  23. #23
    practical experience, FTW
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    Subjective: Besides learned associations that vary by individual and across cultures, there are some important genetic variants, too. I have the gene that lets me taste (smell) the sulfur-bearing compounds in many types of cabbage. Brussels Sprouts smell like rotten eggs, and broccoli is terribly bitter. But those who lack that gene taste it as sweet.

    There is also context and concentration. Think of analogy with sound: a pleasant warm tone in the background turns into a horrible distraction if the same sound is played loudly. People have mentioned cheese: One way of making cheese really does smell like rancid sweat, because it literally is the same substance. Bacteria create lactic acid, and this can be a sign of germs in one context, but the desired farmed species in another. So, to people who like that cheese, a low-level smell is appetizing. But a more intense smell, like opening the sealed package of cheese, can make one think of a gym bag that was left a week instead of having its contents washed right away.

    My brother-in-law: Whoh, that smells like stinky feet!
    (after eating made-to-order gourmet mini pizzas)
    BIL: Got any more of that stinky-feet cheese?

    Conversely, to a lover, a man's natural body odor can seem to include notes of cheese or milk.

    There are a few smells that seem hard-wired; especially bad ones. Smelling salts can rouse a person to consciousness, even though he has no real-world experience with similar smells to form an association. People will instinctively keep their face away from various cleaning products.

    Components in the smell of cooking meat (the Maillard reaction) has been shown to stimulate certain brain structures associated with reward when viewed in fMRI, even among vegetarians who claim that meat stinks, and even when the isolated "notes" don’t smell like meat or bread or anything familiar really. The list on the page I linked here has a list of foods that have this, and you can suppose they all contain this same evocative sensation to some degree. See https://www.scientificamerican.com/a...ocolate-smell/

    Other than that, the meaning of a smell is formed by association with experiences.

    Another thing you should understand: people don’t have a conscious understanding of what smell is measuring, actually. With sound you have notes that vary by frequency; with vision you have R G B primaries that can combine to mimic the reading from some specific wavelength, and the colors that are perceived as different (rather than a sliding scale) are primaries and correlations between each pair of primaries. But smell? Each thing is simply different. It was only recently that researches figured out how the sensors measure specific fundamentals of electron vibration within the molecule; or rather, the part of the molecule in the way it fits in the reading slot. You can combine primaries to mimic any given smell.

    But that’s not really the point I’m going for. A specific smell is like a chord of music: several notes going at once. You can pick out different voices in a crowd of people talking at once, by paying attention to one. But humans are very poor at separating mixed smells. Dogs, on the other hand, are said to have a "layered" sense of smell because they can.
    Last edited by JDlugosz; 10-31-2017 at 10:47 PM.

  24. #24
    practical experience, FTW
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kallithrix View Post
    In the spirit of discussion about semen and cat urine smells... I can say that bunny musk (the smell that emanates from a rabbit's bits when it gets, ahem, somewhat excited) smells just like weed. Please don't ask me how I know this
    Inquing minds really want to know.

    caw
    Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.

    -- Terry Pratchett

  25. #25
    practical experience, FTW
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    Quote Originally Posted by SWest View Post
    I don't often worry about how things smell in narratives (though I've a high-fidelity sniffer IRL).

    So unless there's a good reason to bring it up (and there never has to be an odor-detecting consensus in order to tell readers "There was a strong smell of diesel -the truck must be in one of these garages." or "She stuck her face deep into the bouquet."), I'd vote to go with your own style of feeling the world.

    Choose simplicity.
    I think there is a tendency to imitate the highly successful Harry Potter books. The author is noted as acheiving a rich ambiance by including smells in her locations, so now kids are being taught to do that.

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