Smelling the Setting: My Novel Isn’t Smelly Enough!

December 1, 2010

I realized recently that my novel doesn’t smell right, by which I mean it doesn’t have enough smells.

The setting of my book is London, 1813–a time of a particular…er…olfactory ripeness when horses pooped in the streets, people rarely bathed or had clean teeth and everyone tossed their body wastes into the gutter.

In other words, if my dream were to suddenly come true and I was instantly tele-ported back in time to London of 1813–let’s say, in the crush of an Almack’s ball scene in high summer, for instance–I would probably take one whiff and pass out from the shock of it. My delicate modern day nose wouldn’t be able to handle all of that body odor!

Eau de London 1813. Ew, indeed.

Smells, however, can make a place come alive. Scent is a very powerful body sense, linked to taste. If I say ‘lemon’ your mouth can curdle. If I say ‘coal smoke’, my nose can feel that acrid burn. Bringing these essences to the setting enrich it, make it believable, livable, alive.

I’ve decided my novel isn’t smelly enough.

Is yours?


  1. My novel is set in a world where water is scarce. I don’t even want to THINK what it smells like. I rationalize leaving stuff out by telling myself my characters are used to it. But you’re right. Smells are evocative.

    And I love your comics. They’re great:)

    • Thanks! I think you’re right, the characters aren’t going to go: OMG, what stinks around here? Because they are immersed in their world, and its not that unusual to them.

      I’m thinking I need to strike a balance between cluing the reader in, but keeping the character true to her times.

      Thanks for dropping by! 🙂

      Julie J.

  2. Good point. My WIP takes me back to 1903 and that is definitely something to consider.

    I recently read a book that looked back at the Vietnam war and there were times when I felt I could see and smell the place.

    I like being transported when I am reading, I am just always so glad I can come back to the creature comforts of home.

    • Yes, I know what you mean! I read a book that took place in early 19th century Instanbul and the author (who escapes me now) did a great job of weaving in these setting details, so that place really came alive.

      Smells seem to really make a place come alive!

      Thanks for dropping by!
      Julie J.

  3. Julie,

    Have you read anything by Glen Cook? He does a good job of covering smells, and sights (knee deep manure on the streets) in his books.


    When you read stuff that was written in those times, the smells aren’t mentioned, unless they are really bad. Frankenstein by Mary Shelly, and Dracula by Bram Stoker mention smells hardly at all. Both were written in the same time frame as your novel. How about Charles Dickens? Again, he doesn’t mention smells. Or the Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas? Again, smells are a very small part of it.

    In our clean, 21st century world, we think that the smells of that time would be noticeable. But the people who lived then don’t mention them.

    I think it all comes down to the images you are trying to portray to your reader.


    • Yes, you raise a good point! It’s like Jane Austen’s books…there aren’t a whole lot of smells and also you’d think with all those Country Houses in her books, there’d be heaps of descriptions of how they look…but actually she rarely describes the houses other than to say “Country Houses”. Her readers, living at the same time as she, would just know what she meant.

      The same likely goes for the smells. They wouldn’t think to mention manure because it was just there and thus really unremarkable.

      I think I’m aiming for a balance. I am trying to make an unfamiliar world (to us) more familiar…smells can add to that, I think! Some, but not too much!

      Thanks for dropping by!

      PS I will have to look up Glen Cook. Thx for the tip!

      Julie J.

      • I guess the other thing you have to remember is that you are writing for the future. Would what you are writing make sense to the proverbial ‘Man from Mars,’ or a man or woman from the 22nd century?

        I’m watching the BBC Wales production of ‘Life On Mars’, where Sam Tyler gets hit by a car in 2004, and wakes up in 1973. My wife was living in England in 1973, and she was absolutely fascinated by how well they got the past right, the clothes, the cars, and the little bits of culture like the little girl and her doll on the BBC test pattern screen.

        TV of course has it easier, it can show pictures. The novelist has to work harder. Some manage it in a minimalist way, like Anne McCaffery. Others like Raymond Chandler provide a rich tapestry.

        What’s best of course, is what works for you, and you’ve got experiment to find that out.


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