Smell in Writing – Interview with John Oehler

John Oehler

John piloting a boat on a tributary to the Yantze River

John Oehler of Aphrodesia fame has released his second book called Papyrus whose female protagonist, Rika has eyes…

like fire trapped in black opal

You can read more about Papyrus and Rika at Olfactoria’s Travels.


Tonight we are talking with John about how he has included the sense of smell in the writing of his latest book.

John, I am thrilled to be interviewing you again. Will you share with us some of the background to Papyrus in relation to the sense of smell?

John Oehler: The best writing a novelist can produce is writing the reader doesn’t notice, because he or she is totally engaged in the story. We want you to identify with the character, to feel what the character feels, to feel like you’re “there.”

One way to deepen the reader’s involvement is to invoke all of the character’s senses. Most writers will show you what the character sees and hears. Some will describe touch (hot, cold, smooth, itchy). Fewer invoke taste — unless the character is eating something — or smell.

To me, smell is a powerful way to draw the reader into the story. My novel Aphrodesia is an extreme example because it takes place in the world of commercial fragrances and stars a character whose nose is as sensitive as a bloodhound’s. But I try to use smell in all of my writing.

Smells are all around us. They can be attractive or repulsive. They can warn us of danger, clue us into the emotions of a secondary character, or simply add depth to the setting. My recently published novel Papyrus: A Thriller is a case in point, and I’ll give some examples below.

Heroine: “Molded to him, she felt his heart beating against her cheek, smelled the cotton of his shirt, the heady tang of his perspiration.”

Villain: “Raising the barrel to his nose, he inhaled the gun smoke. For a moment, he closed his eyes, relishing the sulfurous sting in his nostrils and the metallic taste the odor produced on his tongue.”

Queen: “Sweet fragrances came to her, numberless scents of flowers and exotic vines, rare woods, aromatic roots.”

Male lead: “Aromas of wood smoke and roasting meat reminded him of those perfect mornings in the mountains when you emerged from your tent to smell bacon frying on the fire.”

Male lead: “A faint smell of saltwater still clung to her skin.”

Heroine (during a napalm attack): “She felt the searing heat and smelled the sickening sweetness of jellified gasoline.”

Heroine: “For the next few hours, she sat on her cot, head in hands, the stink of incinerated flesh clinging to her.”

Male lead: “The lemony smell stung his nostrils, as if a whole bottle of polish had been rubbed into the floor between his feet.”

Upon entering a colonial-era hotel in Africa: “The reception area smelled of stale curry.”

Villain (describing an underling): “His gray suit, purchased a month ago and proudly worn every day since, wafted the underarm odor of boiled cabbage.”

Heroine: “The piney stink of institutional air freshener.”

Heroine: “The office smelled of mouse droppings and old paper, more like an attic storeroom in some English country school than a workplace for serious research.”

Secondary character (upon entering the Cairo Museum): “His impression was of an outsized mausoleum, cold, dark, and silent, filled with smells of dust and stone and, if his imagination wasn’t conning him, the parchment smell of the desiccated dead.”

Heroine: “She inhaled the familiar smells of canvas, axle grease, and burlap.”

Villain (looking at his captive in an interrogation cell: “The boy, his wrists and ankles bound with yellow plastic lock bands, lay next to the floor drain beneath the glare of a 500-watt ceiling bulb. He would waken to white concrete walls, splotched brown from the various fluids of previous occupants, and to a nauseating abattoir smell that buckets of disinfectant couldn’t purge. For some guests, that was enough to induce cooperation.”

Heroine: “the crystalline scent of rocks ancient beyond fathoming.”

Villain (at his boss’s villa): “The smell of wet grass in the manicured lawn mingled with scents of lemon trees and chrysanthemums.”

Heroine: “Tall trees cooled the air and filled it with scents of cedar and eucalyptus.”

Male lead: “The room smelled of the sharply pungent perspiration he associated with black athletes.”

Heroine (in a desert canyon): “The air, surrounded by so much limestone, smelled like hot cement.”

Heroine: “A waxy, floral scent like those candles the English burned at Christmas.”

Heroine (describing a colleague at the museum): “He grunted, then shuffled past her, clutching a sheaf of papers and leaving behind an odor of musty wool.”

I hope these snippets illustrate my point that smell in a novel does not have to be about perfume. What it should be about is enriching the experience of the reader.

Thank you John for these insights into your writing process. I believe your next novel is set in South America.
Write On.

Papyrus has a page on Facebook and is available at Amazon.

Paperback $US12.79
Kindle e-book $US 2.99

Available on Amazon

Further Reading
The Origin of Papyrus – Author’s notes
Papyrus – Book Review on Olfactoria’s Travels
Aphrodesia – Perfume Thriller – Book review on Olfactoria’s Travels
John Oehler – Author interview
John Oehler – The Smell of Space
John Oehler – Fragrant Reading List

6 responses to “Smell in Writing – Interview with John Oehler

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