Sunday, January 27, 2013

Common Scents in Romance...

How's that for a play on words?

Today I'm talking about the common scents found in romance books.

For my research I went into my home library - so this is not exhaustive research. I literally pulled books from my own shelves and jotted down what references I could find to smells on a quick look.

I found something quite interesting, but perhaps not that unsurprising.

In general most novelists tend to forget about smells in their books. However, what references there were, tended to have a distinct theme and vary in number of references according to genre. Most notable was that there were very little reference to scents or smells in standard romance novels. The numbers increased somewhat more in erotic romance, and significantly more could be found more in paranormal romance.

Reasons? My guess is that when you're getting down and dirty in the erotic romance genre, scent becomes a more important sense - the more graphic the novel, the more gritty the scents. However, and possibly unsurprisingly, paranormal romance took the cake for the most references to smells generally. Probably because you're writing about magic, werewolves, vampires, shifters and other beasts that depend on there sense of smell more than the average human.

Anyway, below is a list of smells I found in the books you can judge for yourself which are found in what kind of book!

Sweat - Sweat is an interesting odour and there are three notable types of sweat smells used in writing.

Generally if the odour of sweat is being described in theis genre, it is described as rancid, sour, and unpleasant. Body odour is caused by 1) old sweat. This is when the human sweat mixes with the bacterial flora of the person's body and produces a particular smell. Depending on food, drink, age, chemical composition of individual sweat, and the type of bacterial flora on the individual  it can be vinegary, oniony or a cheesy smell.

There were a few occasions in the books when the smell of sweat was described as attractive and manly, as well it might. 2) Fresh sweat does not have the offensive odour of old sweat and some believe the scent contains pheromones that women find attractive. The smell of fresh sweat (untainted by deodorant or perfume) smells like the individual person. Every person has a unique scent signature, and without perfumes, deodorants and moisturizers, a clean person will actually smell like...themselves. Amazing! Describing that scent can be tricky, I've read it as a faint scent of vanilla, or 'sun-warmed skin' smell.

There is however another sweat scent that garners a mention in the genre and this is, 3) fear sweat.
A study by Stony Brook University in New York found people who are scared give off "pheromones" that subconsciously trigger parts of the brain associated with fear. They concluded that fear could be "contagious". The differences in odour between fresh sweat and fear sweat comes down to chemical make up. A frightened person pumps different hormones into their sweat when they are scared, where as a man who's been working-out may just smell like fresh sweat (himself). So what does fear sweat actually smell like? Well, again its up to the individual. Some state is as an almost metallic smell, others as sour and vinegary.
Experiment Time!
Want to really experience true fear sweat smell? Try this...
You can't always smell your own sweat, but you can try it on yourself or if you've got an indulgent male friend, husband boyfriend, get him to give it a go!
Step 1. Go have  a good shower, and wash well so you're squeaky clean, with a non-perfumed soap preferably.
Step 2. Go and watch a scary movie.
Step 3. Go and have a sniff of the arm pit and smell the true scent of fear - and let me know!

Blood - Yes this is primarily a paranormal thing. We all know what blood smells like and there are few variations. Generally speaking blood is described as smelling salty and metallic.  You may also get variations of  such as old blood, and the smell of death.
So what does metal, salt, old blood and death smell like? Good question!
Metal - the metallic scent often attributed to blood, usually refers to the iron in the blood, sometimes it's also referred to as a copper like scent.
Salt - Salt is a crystal, and will only smell if it actually has something on it. I believe when blood is described as smelling salty the author is trying to evoke the taste rather than smell, or perhaps  they are likening the scent  to salty ocean or briny estuary smell. I'm not sure.
Old blood - Old blood is blood that has been left out in the open. The iron in the blood oxidises in the air to give off a rusty metal scent this combined with decomposing biological matter (red/white blood cells, platelets and plasma) gives of a sickly sweet rotting smell.
Death - I suppose this can smell wildly different depending on what is being described. Humans often soil themselves upon death, so the fecal stench combined with old blood is probably one of the most widely used descriptions. The blanket "stench of death" description is used a lot in paranormal, and really the author is allowing the reader to make up their own mind on what that exactly smells like.

The scent of Summer/Winter/Spring/Autumn - seasonal scents also popular, particularly the scent of summer. Again it's a blanket description that allows the reader to make up their own mind. For some the scent of summer might be mowed lawns or smell of the beach, perhaps its the smell of summer fruits etc. The smell of the seasons is an individual thing.

Flowers - Be careful with this one, I once read  a book where the author described the scent of a flower which actually has no perfume at all. It was very off-putting. Be aware, that your readers may also be gardeners.

Perfume - This generally is related to the perfume a heroine wears. Most times the scent was merely referred to as "the scent of her perfume..." without any description of what that perfume actually smelled of. It is of course, perfectly fine to do that if you're want your reader to choose the scent of your heroine.  Otherwise maybe she smells of roses, gardenias, freesias whatever.

The scent of sex - this is probably the most popular scent that crops up in the erotic genre. This includes male ejaculate and natural female lubrication etc. I'm not really going to go into what exactly this smells like because I don't want an +18 rating put on my blog. So feel free to google it yourself - and I don't want to know if you choose to experiment on this one.

And that my friends is it. As I said, there wasn't a great range in smells described in books. However, I feel I must add that I do have one series of books in which the smell of magic is done wonderfully. In these book the you could smell rotten old magic, which was very evocative.

When I first started writing this blog, I wrote a post about smells which you can read HERE.

Do you have any other smells to add to my list? Smells that have cropped up in books you've read? I'd love to read about them.

Have a lovely week.


  1. Hmm...interesting.

    Probably the most amusing thing to me is that while reading the entire post, I had to force myself to focus on the words because the librarian in me just wanted to reach through the screen to your bookshelves and straighten them. Most of my pet peeves revolve around books, which is probably one of the reasons I became a librarian in the first place.

    It seems that most books do tend to focus more on sight and touch and sound than they do on smell or taste, but I guess it really does depend on the genre as well as the specific plot and characters within each story.

    Thanks for the post. It is a topic that really makes you think.

  2. LOL Danielle, I know. Believe it or not, they are straightened once a week... My kids then come in instantly and take them down again, shove them back in, the wrong way around. Ugh. Its one of the crosses I have to bear. :P

  3. My favorite aroma is paying oral homage to my lady after her morning run !

  4. Mikey (above) is making me blush! I think you make a good point about scent being important in paranormal novels - I think that's true of mine. Scent is important to shifters, vampires etc, so we tend to concentrate on it.


    1. LOL, yes, me too :S
      It was a fascinating bit of research this one.

  5. Thanks Nicola for your Common Scents Post and I did enjoy the pun!

    You reminded me i need to use scents more and in different ways, rather than being stuck in the sweet or sweat. Even scents can show something of your characters or move your story forward.


    1. I was very proud of my pun - thanks for acknowledging it!
      Glad you found the post useful! :D