Smells Like …?


Alright, not Teen Spirit although Nirvana might have been onto something.

Olfaction and petrichor?  How can two seemingly bland words mean so much?

While writing yesterday, I found myself struggling with finding the right words to convey how something smelled. Of all the senses, I seem to find the most difficulty in this descriptive arena and I’m not sure why. It’s not for lack of having a sense of smell; it’s just my difficulty in describing it. A scene in my story takes place late morning in a diner. A small town diner to be exact, where the dining space is limited, sounds reverberate throughout the rooms, and smells permeate your being the moment you walk in.

So what does breakfast smell like? To me, it usually smells like eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, and coffee. Sometimes there is a hint of maple or fresh fruit. Other times it smells like chorizo, warm tortillas and beans. When summer arrives, it often smells like a mixture of all of the above in addition to campfire and pine scents. Breakfast is a beginning, a huge “hello world” to start the day. It could also be the end of a day, say Denny’s at one in the morning. Maybe that is my dilemma. My scene takes place late morning. Breakfast at this time of day in my story serves two purposes: my character is simply hungry and needs to be seen. Maybe the smells don’t really matter here or maybe there is an association with the smells of breakfast that fits my plot.  Damn, I might have solved my own problem.

Smell association? I could run with that. Hotdogs smell like baseball. Hot buttered popcorn smells like the movie theater. Turkey and stuffing smell like a well-deserved after dinner nap. Patchouli smells like the seventies, although I hear it’s making a comeback. And then there is rain.

Of all the smells that stimulate my senses, next to breakfast, my favorite is the smell of rain. Having spent the majority of my life in the Southwest, rains were not as common as they are now. We would get a rain during the monsoon season that was usually preceded by a smell of dust or dirt in the air. Of course the ominous purplish brown sky moving slowly in our direction was a hint of things to come. The smell always hit us first and remained during the first few hours of rain. I loved those rains. Now living in a rural area in the Northeast, we get rain year round. I haven’t figured out winter rains yet but spring, summer, and fall all have very distinct smells associated with each.

Maybe it’s the novelty of year round rain that I find myself using it in my stories. Rain is more than a smell here. It is a time of year, a sense of peacefulness and beginnings, or a reminder of nature’s strength. It’s about both solitude and love. It’s about springs first planting and fall’s last leaves blanketing the forest floor. My favorite rain by far is summer rain accompanied by a lightning storm. We have a covered porch off the back of our house that faces the woods and I can sit out there for hours taking in a summer rain. This rain to me is intimate. It’s about both humility and power. It’s about amazing light shows and musical sounds that tickle your senses. It’s about the dampness that caresses  your skin or the way an evening coffee just tastes different. And when it’s all over, just as it began, it’s all about the smell.

By the way, olfaction is the sense of smell and petrichor is the scent of air after a rain.  Yeah… my thoughts exactly.

If I could sum up my feelings of a summer rain storm in a song it would be this one.  Go ahead, take my hand, close your eyes, turn up the volume and listen. Tell me if you smell the rain.





  1. Sometimes I smell things more acutely when my emotions are tied to the moment. Like coffee, I always smile when the bouquet of my favorite roast is served with my eggs and toast. Over easy!

  2. Growing up in the constant presence of humidity, I had a different relationship, complete with wetlander associations, with rain. When I moved to the desert, I freaked out for a few months. It did something strange to me, that aridity, lack of trees, and air devoid of moisture.

    But the desert taught me to value water, told me that water has it’s own scent, and brought me the deep gift of unbridled gratitude the first time I watched clouds roll down the western face of the Sandias. Rain is synonymous with ideas of fertility, quasi-orgasmic joy, and an unfurling of the self that I never would have known if not for the desert.

    Scent association is one of the strongest attributes of our animal nature bridging with our higher brains–it is both emotional and linguistic. To me that means that the limbic system is desperately trying to convey images, feelings, and wordless memory imprints that our prefrontal cortex has long discarded. Memories lost when language is acquired are held onto by our emotional centers, often in sensory data that have no verbal translation.

    That is the duty of writers, to put language to the ineffable tapestry of human background–the meaning of context. Breakfast in a late morning diner, which may smell like all the things you’ve described, also smells hot, soapy, and steamy from the dish pit. There’s a strange, but not quite unpleasant aroma from the mountain of plate scrapings and food scraps hovering somewhere in the background. As well, if it’s an open-plan diner, don’t forget the flat top grill–the smell of hot, oiled metal is nearly as distinctive yet elusive as petrichor.

    Great post. It’s left me churning and invigorated. As always, I love the use of imagery and questioning quality in your weekend posts.

    • W.C. Cunningham

      March 31, 2015 at 8:31 pm

      There is a beauty to the desert that many will never experience. I’m glad the Sandias welcomed you.

      You just gave me a needed jolt on thought process regarding my diner scenario. Thanks Erin!

  3. Hello, Hello, Hello…I know what you mean. It’s got me thinking.

  4. I adore this post. While I was reading I felt like I was actually there. Weight lifted from my shoulders and for a moment I was listening to the rain tumble to the ground and though it seems weird, I could imagine the smells to the point of almost tasting them. You raise a good point, but you also answer it in your post. Just write the way you write, Bill, because you got this 🙂

    • W.C. Cunningham

      March 31, 2015 at 8:34 pm

      I’m literally craving spring and summer rains. We had more snow today and snow forecast for the weekend.

  5. Awesome post as usual!

  6. Love the smell of rain! Funny how the mention of coffee triggers smell without really describing what it smells like. That’s what fascinates me about “sensual” writing — sense can be intertwined. Great post!

  7. Great post, Bill. For some reason, I find the smell of rain mixed with cigarette smoke extremely evocative. Not old, stale cigarette smoke, but the smell of someone smoking on a porch or under an awning in the summer rain. Brings back so many memories of summers at the beach.

  8. Terrific post Bill and I love the smell of rain though as we get so much of it in good old England I guess we take it for granted. But the best is enjoying a walk in the woods after a dry spell, and the rain comes bringing everything to life and then the smell is everything…

  9. Breakfast to me smells like my grandma’s kitchen––inviting, comforting. The aroma of cinnamon and maple waft into my nostrils and takes me away to worry-free times. Great post and love the music. Very relaxing. 😀

    • W.C. Cunningham

      April 11, 2015 at 9:46 am

      I use to love breakfast at my grandparent’s house. My Tata (grandfather) did all the cooking. Fried eggs, over refried beans and tamales and these very thin flour tortillas. Your grandmother’s kitchen sounds wonderful too! A lot of people around here make maple syrup. I love it.

  10. The article lighten my heart. Thank you.

    • W.C. Cunningham

      May 2, 2015 at 9:29 am

      Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. I just went and explored your site 🙂

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