Ah, scent. Of all the senses, it’s often used to anchor memory in the mind, so that the whiff of fresh mown grass takes you back to childhood summers or the odour of rank socks reminds you of house-sharing with a sporty type.
It’s been said that outer space smells of dust. And if a novelist tells me that a made-up food tastes like peaches and shampoo, I can make an educated guess at what that might be like without trying to experience it myself.
Sometimes, however, it helps to smell a scent first-hand.
From the more recent past, some of the things which perfumed history are still around.
For example, while writing a story set in the summer of 1914, I might describe the perfume one of the female characters was wearing. How would I know what that smelled like? Blogs like Yesterday’s Perfume show the way.
It might not mean much to other writers, but I am keen to keep my historical fiction as accurate as possible before I twist it my way. If I write that a character was drenched in Tabac Blond, he or she better not be drenched before 1919.
Likewise my latest short story, Dogger, Forties, German Bight. It’s set in the 1950s, in England, and the country was still under post-war rationing. My characters aren’t wealthy, and they live in a small rural community on the shore of the North Sea.
They aren’t the sort to drench themselves in Tabac Blond, or L’Heure Bleu. They smell of ordinary things: carbolic soap, newspaper ink, Brylcreem.
I know what these things smell like, because they’re still around. Carbolic soap, in big rough pink blocks, was the staple of school washrooms until at least the late 1980s. You can even still find Izal Medicated! Listerine has that clean sharp buzzing taste, the original version, but was it as harsh in the 1920s?
The trench hospital montage in the Imperial War Museum – when I visited a few years ago, anyway – hit you in the schnozz with a waft of dried blood and TCP. At the time I was up to my eyeballs in Great War history, including the John Buchan volumes (not all 23, I hasten to add), so I reckon the museum curators had it spot on. After all, there were still a good few WW1 veterans around when the display was constructed, and nothing beats experience when it comes to recreating something from scratch.
In the (mighty fine) novel Perfume, The Story Of A Murderer, a hero with no scent of his own lives surrounded by the odours of Paris and Provence which the author describes in lavish detail. We have perfume recipes from the era in which the book is set. We even have perfumes that claim to be from that era, and the scents of the Parisian fish markets and tanneries have remained unchanged for centuries.
We have the same olfactory organs, the same sensitivities, as people in the past. Once you smell a scent and know its name, you can use that memory to translate others. Hence wine buffs going on about “oak” and “black cherries” and “lemon pips” and “the scent of fresh linen on the spring day a child takes her first Communion”.
There are other sources of smells from the past. Historians have recreated Bronze Age beer, and made ancient-style bread, using modern stock of the old genotypes of wheat and barley and rye. Archaeologists in Siberia regularly excavate mammoths so we know, or can make a good guess, what their diet was, and what they might have smelled like on the wind blowing across the taiga when the Ice Age frosted Europe.
But when you have a truly lost scent, or the scent of an alien planet, how can you convey that on the page?