Walking beneath the gatehouse at Ashton Court the other morning and smelling woodsmoke immediately conjured up images of days gone by, of draughty castles with a fire blazing in the great hall, of cosy 18th century cottages and sprawling Elizabethan mansion houses. There’s a place in south Wales near Cardiff called St Fagans: National History Museum, a place where dozens of historic buildings from all over Wales have been re-erected in beautiful parkland, and that smell of woodsmoke on Tuesday morning took me right back there, to a cold day in winter warming ourselves up by the roaring fires in the cottages that were permeated with the delicious smell of woodsmoke.
The senses play a huge part in writing fiction and bringing scenes and places to life. I read a blog post yesterday on The Story of Ink and Papyrus‘ blog, which included an extract of her novel that made my nose wrinkle at the thought of the stink of rotting fish and human waste. Sometimes a simple description is enough because as readers we know what coconut, cigarette smoke, car fumes, fresh bread, or indeed rotting fish smells like (or at the very least we can imagine how disgusting rotting fish smells).
Just like listening to a piece of music can take us back to a certain time in our lives, certain smells can remind us of places we’ve been to or experiences we’ve had. I love the smell of woodsmoke – it’s an evocative and somehow comforting smell that not only makes me think of the past and St Fagans but it also reminds me of Christmas at my grandparents farmhouse in Norfolk where Grandma would go downstairs early in the morning to clean and reset the fire and by the afternoon the living room would be filled with warmth from the glow of the open fire and the whole family would be curled up on the sofa and armchairs watching TV or playing a game.
I use smells quite often in my fiction: honeysuckle framing a doorway; the taste of salt in the air; damp soil after rain; and the richness of roasting lamb being released from the oven. In fact the smell of woodsmoke and horses features in the first chapter of my children’s novel, Time Shifters. My new WIP, which I’m giving the working title of The House of Stone, is one where I think the senses, smells included, will play an important role. I spent two weeks in Tanzania and Zanzibar a few years back and I vividly remember the assault on my senses from the heavy sticky heat, the feel of hot sand been my toes, the pungent smell of spices and the less appetising stench of fish guts sweating and old blood drying in the sun that made me gag when walking through the fish and meat market in Stone Town.
Do smells play an important part in your writing? Does a certain smell trigger a memory of a good or even bad time in your life?