Synaesthesia, the senses and why characters in books need to smell

Synaesthesia, the senses and why characters in books need to smell

I’ve written before about being something of a sensitive bod but I’ve never mentioned except in passing anything to do with synaesthesia. One of the reasons for this is that it’s such a complex subject and is actually little understood. The usual explanation is that the brain gets its wires crossed and therefore some people can smell music, or see numbers as colours, or perceive words as textures. This makes it sound weird and a bit of a problem. It can also make those who do not experience things in this unusual way feel subconsciously that they might just be missing something, or that those who do are freaks. It can be a very emotive subject.

The way that we perceive the world around us is always unique to each person. I went to school with a kid who only discovered at aged 13, in some standard test from the school nurse that he was red/green colour blind. Up until that point, he was under the impression that everyone saw things the way he did. This is an extreme example but I often find myself wondering quite how different someone else’s perception of a thing might be to mine. I can sometimes “see” energy fields. I deliberately tune it out now, because it feels like spying on someone.

My experience of my own form of synaesthesia is not as dramatic as that of many. It tends to work around the sense of smell, and most smells for me have dimensions I can’t always describe. Combinations of smells and words evoke such strong emotional reactions that I can end up feeling faint. Smells often have colours, and sounds that come with them. The scent of rosemary is a silvery-blue, and it comes with a very high note of a hand-bell. Pine oil is brilliant white, usually and is silent. Vanilla. Now vanilla is old gold, velvet(a texture) and the sound of saxophones.

It’s hard to explain that these are not learned associations but something spontaneous. It’s not the case for every smell either, or colour. It’s often random and ridiculous. I will like or dislike a smell based on these reactions. I’d really love one day to visit the Fragonard fragrance museum in Paris and use the scent organ, a collection of essences where you can experience the process of creating  a new scent.

One of the things that will draw me most into a book is if it evokes the senses powerfully. I’m not interested in the slightest in mentions of clothing designer brands or shoes, and it might well make me give up as I have no mental image to associate with these things because they never enter my radar. If a writer tells me the heroine is wearing a Gucci dress, all it tells me is she has or has had more money than I’ll ever see in my life. I have no blueprint in my head for what this random fact means except money. But if you tell me as she swept past, the silk of her dress carrying in its rustling wake the odour of Bulgarian roses and a touch of honey and fine herbs, then something in me will sit up and a vivid picture has formed in my head. I can relate to the sound of the dress, and the scent it carries. The names of designers for me are pretty much meaningless, or actually quite negative in their connotations. They put me off reading more because their presence excludes me from the world of that book. I appreciate for many these are names that are familiar and desirable but not for me.

Evoking a world of reactions using well chosen sensory words is very difficult because our reactions to scents especially is very subjective. I had a client when I did reflexology who loathed the scent of lavender; it brought up a lot of emotions that she wasn’t ready to deal with. Yet for most this fragrance brings good images of clean laundry, cosy grandmotherly ladies and old world charm.

When an author names a famous fragrance I also find it hard to connect with if it isn’t one I have actually smelled. Some, like Chanel No.5 have a whole mystique built in around them, so that culturally there is a kind of persona about the perfume that many people may understand. However, this is usually gender specific; I wonder how many guys understand the subtle codes of perfume choices women make. So I don’t find it helpful to be told a character wore a certain perfume as the name alone rarely evokes any response in me.

In my own writing, the only time I have named a perfume a character habitually wears is in an unpublished novel (now published The Bet )where the female main character  wears Poison. I chose the perfume with care; I have smelled it, didn’t much like it and I felt that it was a perfume with the right name for the character. Moderately expensive, excessively strong and rather aggressive and the marketing that goes with it is the kind that would appeal to the character.

I do usually know what my characters smell like often before I have got far writing a novel (or indeed a short story) and that scent picture is part of the back story for people. Chloe, best friend to Isobel of Away With The Fairies and due to have her own book out soon, smells of a mixture of jasmine, sandalwood and a hint of potting compost. The scent of jasmine is very much a part of her story, though she doesn’t realise it till much later in the story. The sandalwood is from a battered, old but authentic Buddha made of sandalwood she inherits from her grandmother. The potting compost? Well, she’s a gardener. But I knew what she smelled like before I wrote most of her story.

The characters from Strangers and Pilgrims all had their scent-signature too. Elizabeth, while she was still a nun, smelled of incense (Prinknash Basillica, if anyone knows what that smells like) and freshly ironed linen. Gareth smelled before his breakdown of whichever male fragrance was the most popular. Alex smelled of the tweed jacket he’d bought second-hand and which was impregnated with the scent of pipe tobacco; a non-smoker himself, I always felt he carried that rather comforting whiff of good baccy. Oh and old books, too. Always a good smell on a man, for me. When Ginny borrowed his jumper it smelled of cedarwood (presumably from cedarwood balls it would be stored with to deter moths) All of them carried in my mind a scent, a complex mixture of things that told me so much about who they all were.

It’s also a good technique for introducing things about characters without being obvious about it. Bad breath for example (yes, I know) is sometimes a product of someone not eating properly; ketones can be smelled on the breath. The smell of garlic tells you a lot, too, and if it all comes down to poor dental hygiene, then there’s a whole load of information there too. Certain medical conditions can make smells: a diabetic who is not managing their condition can have breath that smells of over ripe fruit. If someone smells strongly of soap, and in the middle of the day, it might indicate some OCD tendencies.

There’s a whole wealth of powerful non-visual imagery to be used and enjoyed so why stick to what things look like, why not go further and explore the sounds, the scents, the textures and the subtle feelings and tastes. For me this would turn a book into more than a mere tale to while away the idle hours but a sensuous treat of many layers of experience, and mental pleasure. 

The Scent of Christmas ~ an aromatic meditation

The Scent of Christmas ~ an aromatic meditation


The sense of smell is closely connected to the area of the brain that processes emotional memories; sometimes memories are very deeply buried and certain scents can awaken those memories. I am also aware that not all buried memories are good ones, which is why for this meditation I am asking you to think deeply about which aroma you best associate with Christmas time.

Spices are a popular smell at this time of year; for some the powerful scent of cloves, and cinnamon and ginger sum up their aromatic memories of Christmas. For others the crisp clean smell of pine or fir cones and needles is instant Christmas. Others love the scent of baking goods, or roasting turkey. For some chocolate is the best scent of the season. Traditionally the resins of frankincense and myrrh are used as incense and their part in the Christmas story is very important.

Take a little while to think about what scents you most associate with Christmas happiness. If it is a scent you can put on an oil burner as essential oil or hold in your hand like cinnamon or cloves, then do that. If it is something less easy to reproduce, then try your best to hold the memory of that fragrance in your mind.

When you are ready and you have let your mind settle and become quiet, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.

You find yourself in a dark room, which seems to be quite small at first. There is only the light of one candle in a glass lantern on the floor near your feet, shedding a soft golden light around you. The walls of the room are high and the room is long and narrow but most of it is lost in shadows. The air is cool but not cold. Go to the candle and hold the lantern up.

You will see that the walls are lined with row upon row of drawers, each with a neat little label on. There are hundreds of drawers and there is even a rolling stepladder. It’s a little like an old fashioned apothecary’s shop. At one end of the room there is a door which is the way you will return to your ordinary awareness, but near the door there is a low table. On the table there is a small crystal bottle, shaped like a tear drop with a flat bottom. It has something engraved upon it; look closer and you will see it has your name on it. If you hold it up to the candle light, you’ll see that it contains a liquid. The bottle is sealed with a stopper than glitters like a diamond in the flickering light. If you remove the stopper you will discover that the liquid emits the fragrance that you chose as being most closely and best associated with Christmas.

Take the bottle and the lantern stand in the middle of the room and look around. Each of the drawers contains other fragrances that are associated with Christmas. Some of these are ones that you might like to explore.

There’s one marked toffee popcorn. Another marked spiced cider. Another says chocolate. Look around you at all the drawers.

Oranges. Cloves. Cinnamon. Wood-smoke. Fruitcake. The smell of new snow. Granny’s perfume. Cranberries. Fir-cones. Pine needles. Gingerbread. New books. Old Spice. Mulled wine. Roast potatoes. Sherry trifle. Egg-nog. Bubble bath and bath salts. Chestnuts. Candles. Plasticine.

The walls are filled with them, hundreds of them. Some are old, their labels in faded copperplate and contain some surprising things. These are fragrances from older human memories. They’re all good things, but things we don’t have any more as part of our Christmas, like Plum Pudding and a winter drink called Lamb’s Wool.

If you wish to do so, explore the drawers. Each one contains a neatly stoppered bottle like yours, and inside it is the essence of the fragrance. Take your time. If a fragrance appeals to you and brings back good memories, add a drop to your bottle. This is not like blending a perfume but rather a blending of memories. You may find that first the name and then the fragrance may awaken some lost and treasured memories of Christmas past.

If you find a fragrance does not appeal or you dislike it, return it to its drawer and move on.

Give yourself time to explore as many of the drawers as you find interesting. There is no limit to what you can add to your bottle. None of the smells will clash or fight.

When you feel you have collected all your fragrances, go to the door at the end and put your lantern on the table. Hold your bottle up to the light and watch the liquid inside sparkle and glitter. This is your unique Christmas perfume, filled with warm memories. Every ingredient is special and precious. If you smell one, it will bring back those warm feelings and if you smell them all, it will bring a wealth of wonderful memories and emotions.

Before you open the door, take a breath of the scent contained in your bottle. Each note is unique and special and the whole fragrance simply says: Merry Christmas.

Put the bottle back on the table and open the door. Your mind is peaceful and happy and you are ready to return to your daily life. Step through and open your eyes.

(Remember to take time after meditation to allow your mind to adjust to normal; this can be helped by eating or drinking something to help you ground the experience and signal to your mind to return tor normal. If it helps, make notes of what you experienced so you can remember more late)

Monday Meditation ~ Jasmine, for sensuality and relaxation

Jasmine Meditation

You are standing in front of an archway set in a long high wall of mellow old bricks. The archway frames a gate of heavy but plain wood, standing a little ajar, inviting you to investigate. It is twilight and the sky is starting to darken and as the sun slowly sets the sky changes  colour steadily. Shades of rose pink, apricot and gold at the horizon deepen and then turn seamlessly to indigo. Birds are singing their evening songs and the air is full of the remnants of the day’s heat.

Push the gate open and step through.

You find yourself in a courtyard surrounded by high walls and filled with an atmosphere of peace and privacy. This is not overlooked by
anything and you feel safe and secure here. The courtyard is laid out
as a formal garden, in a somewhat Arabic style. At the centre is a
rectangular pool, lined with tiles of cobalt and midnight blue
decorated with geometric patterns in vivid colours that resemble
flowers. A simple fountain plays in the middle of the pool and the
falling water shimmers in the fading light, glowing brightly as the
last rays of the setting sun catch the droplets and make them light
up like molten gold.

The air is still warm from a day of sunshine but standing near the
fountain brings a pleasing coolness and freshness. The sound of the
water is gentle and musical and is a perfect counterpoint to the

The courtyard is filled with ornamental tubs planted densely with shrubs of varying sorts- bays rub shoulders with olive trees, and the
glossy leaves of citruses contrast with the silver-grey furry leaves
of lavenders. The walls are painted white and close to each wall is a
neat flowerbed each with a climbing plant trained up a trellis.
Tendrils of greenery reach down and brush your head as you walk
slowly round the little garden. Here and there a small candle burns
in a jar, flickering and dancing in the still air.

As you move you notice that the sky has passed through its sequence of colours and is now changing to deep midnight blue. A few stars are
now appearing and you see that the flowers on the climbers are tiny
white stars too, opening as the night begins and surrounding you with
their scent. The flowers are mostly pure clean white, slightly waxy
in appearance, their unopened buds pinkish, but some are a deep
crimson colour too. Whatever the colour the perfume that emerges is
sweet and heady and intoxicating. It comes in waves of intensity,
almost too powerful to enjoy, but fades away just at the point where
it might be unpleasant. The scent fills you with a sense of joy and a
longing you find hard to quantify.

At the far end of the garden directly opposite the gate where you came in is a white painted table and matching chairs, the ironwork complex and oriental in design. They are positioned so you can experience the full glory of this garden with its sights and sounds but most especially the scents.

Go and sit down.

In the middle of the table is a white porcelain teapot and two small
cups. A wisp of steam emerges from the teapot and if you lift the lid
you will see that it contains jasmine tea. If you wish, pour out two
cupfuls. Inhale the mingled fragrance of the tea and the jasmine.
Take a sip. Enjoy the taste as well as the fragrance.

If you wish, you may summon anyone you would like to share this moment with, sitting in this tranquil evening garden, the air filled with
the aroma of jasmine and the music of birds and falling water from
the fountain. Think who you would like to be here with you and as the idea forms in your mind, see the gate swinging open and watch them coming to join you. I will leave you in peace now to enjoy your time here.

The moon is rising, a sliver of silver in the starry sky and the air is
feeling cooler. Your visitor has left and the teapot is empty and so
are your cups. You feel peaceful and happy after your time here, and
a sense of joy still tingles in your blood. As you get to your feet
to leave, look round the courtyard one last time. It will be here
again exactly as you wish it to be next time you come. When you step
through the gate into your room again, notice that the scent of
jasmine, faint but resilient, clings to your hair and clothes.
Whenever you smell this fragrance again, you will recall the feelings
of peace and joy you felt in the garden.

Breathe deeply and fully several times before opening your eyes again. You are back.  

         Written as part of the Meditating with Aromatics project

Meditating With Aromatics ~ A Unique Interactive Project That Grows

Meditating with Aromatics ~ a unique interactive project that grows

Over the last year I have published a number of meditations that use fragrance as a starting point and the intention has been to write an entire book of them. After much thought I decided that I would start by making the meditations available during the process of writing the book and publishing it in stages.

There’s a few good reasons for this. The first is that it gives me a greater incentive to write them. The second is subtler. Making a book available during its creation rather than when it is a finished
product would normally be the very last thing I’d ever do but this is

It’s different because I want the readers to be involved in the creation. How often have you read a book and wished to ask the writer to do something different? Ask for instructions to be clearer or more detailed? Or make a personal request? This time you can.

Meditating with Aromatics is a work in progress that you can help shape as it is written. You can request that I write a meditation for a fragrant substance that has special power for you. You can suggest scents I may not have considered. You can try them out and let me know what would work better for you.

I have made the booklet free to download from Lulu, but as they have no stats counter for free downloads, all I ask is that if you do
download it, you let me know that you have done so, and that if you pass the link to others, they let me know if they have. That way I have a good idea of the scale of my readers and their reach. I’d also be delighted if people bought the paper copy. I am actually very proud of how it looks and feels. Each time I update it, a new
revision will be created until the final product is completed but
it’s not going to break the bank at this stage to buy a copy. I am
smugly delighted with my cover design showing a beautiful English
garden in full summer glory.

So buy or download, pass it on to anyone who meditates, and let me know what YOU want. There aren’t many books that are truly written for the reader’s benefit, so take advantage of this and get involved. I’d also be immensely grateful if you would repost, Facebook, blog, tweet and retweet and mention whenever you feel it’s appropriate because reaching the people who might benefit from this project is going to be as interactive as the writing of the book itself. Thank you all in advance.

Meditating with aromatics

The following is a table of contents for the book I have slowly been working on. I’d be interested in any suggestions for things that you’d like included, any special scents you feel I have missed out, or that have significance for you.

This is one of my winter season projects and I need a bit of a kick in the pants to get going.

Provisional List of Contents

Introduction: About this book

Who it is aimed at and why has it been written. How to use the book


Chapter One: Introduction to meditation

History, cultures, benefits, spirituality etc

Chapter Two: Introduction to aromatics

What are aromatics, history of the use of aromatics through time, science of aromatherapy, limbic system etc, benefits of using aroma in daily life etc

Methods of use (incense, vaporisation, smelling strips etc)

Chapter Three: Basics of meditation:

Posture, setting, timing, breathing, music etc

How to use the guided meditations

Preparations, relaxation, grounding, recording of experiences

 Chapter Four: Everyday Aromatics

Using ordinary and familiar scents to deepen meditation

May include:

Orange, chocolate, coffee, bread, mint, lavender, vanilla, rosemary, apple, honey, aniseed, strawberries, pine cones, freesia, hyacinth, honeysuckle 

Chapter Five: Less Ordinary aromatics

Exploring less familiar but readily available scents

May include:

All spice, patchouli, white sage, rose, lemon balm, eucalyptus, seaweed, cloves, cinnamon, cedar wood and sandalwood

 Chapter Six: Exotics

Using exotic substances (but all available through mail order or from specialist shops)

May include:

Frankincense, benzoin, amber, myrrh, storax, labdanum, spikenard, sandarac, dragon’s blood, elemi, jasmine, neroli, opoponax, colophony  

Chapter Seven: Seasonal Scents

Using seasonally available scented substances to enhance meditation through the year

May include:

Snow and ice for January, snowdrops or hyacinth for February, narcissi or daffodils for March, lilac or violets for April, may blossom for May, roses or elder for June, elder or linden for July, strawberries or honeysuckle for August, hay or pencils and paper (back to school!) for September, apples or pumpkin for October, bonfire or toffee apples for November and clove-orange, mulled wine spices or pine for December

Chapter Eight: Scents for sleep meditations

Specially selected soporific scents and words for meditations to aid sleep and dreaming

May include:

Lavender, hops, chamomile, clary sage


Chapter Nine: Where to go from here

Suggestions for own explorations

Feedback reports from “guinea pigs”

I aim to have a small selection of friends write a little about their experiences using the meditations

Chapter Ten: Sources

Bibliography, suggested reading, useful sources for materials, helpful websites

Afterword: About the author

Short bio and thanks

Sandalwood meditation(Monday meditation)

 ..from the Aromatic meditations book in preparation.. 

Chapter Five


Meditation One 



Sandalwood is obtained as you might guess from the wood of an exotic tree. Most sandalwood plantations are in India, though some colonies have been planted in Australia. The wood has been used for statues, beads and incense for thousands of years and the essential oil is used extensively in both aromatherapy and in Ayurvedic medicine. It has a sweet and woody aroma that is very persistent; like frankincense it is used to slow and deepen the breathing to aid meditation. It is available as essential oil but can be expensive and it can be hard to obtain high quality oil. It is also available quite readily in the form of incense sticks (joss sticks) but the same caution applies here. Many joss sticks are named Sandalwood that have very little or no sandalwood present in them and while they may smell pleasant, they will have few of the beneficial effects offered by sticks made using high quality ingredients. The wood is sometimes available as shavings or chips and may be smouldered on charcoal to release the scent. If you are lucky enough to possess beads made from sandalwood, they release the scent when warmed by the body. The daughter of a good friend brought me some beads back from India recently and I love wearing them in hot weather as they continuously emit glorious but subtle wafts of fragrance as my body heat warms them.

For this meditation I recommend using a stick of sandalwood incense. If you have problems with smoke, light the stick in the room you intend to use for your meditation and once the stick has burned for ten or so minutes, put it out and leave the room for a further ten minutes to allow the smoke but not the aroma to dissipate. Then return to your room and shut the door. Make yourself comfortable and begin your preparations for meditation. When you are ready, relax and breathe deeply of the fragrance in the air.


 You are standing in a narrow street, surrounded by old buildings. There doesn’t seem to be anyone around right now and the street is very quiet and empty. The road is paved with cobblestones made shiny with centuries of feet polishing them. In front of you is a half-timbered shop with a low door and two wide windows on either side of the door. The door is slightly open and you can smell a lovely fragrance of sandalwood; indeed you can see a fine thread of smoke curling through the opening. This is very inviting and you step forward and push the door open and peer inside. Just inside the door a stick of incense is burning, filling the air with scented smoke. The shop appears to be deserted so step inside and look around you.

The shop is a fabulous emporium of arts, crafts and gifts from all around the world. For a moment, you stand entranced, unable to take it all in. There are so many things that attract the eye. Glass cases are filled with imaginative displays of jewellery, all lovingly created and set out to their best advantage. Hopi and Navajo silver lie alongside Celtic brooches set with amber. Statues are dotted around on shelves, carved from wood and bone or moulded from clay or resins. Take your time to look around and see what is there.

There’s a finely carved bookcase filled with rows of books. Some are empty journals, meant for you to write down your thoughts, though the majority are filled with the wisdom of a dozen or more cultures and philosophies. Take a moment to look through the titles and see if there is anything there that appeals to you. You may return later to the books if you choose.

Deeper into the shop, you see boxes of all different sizes and shapes, made from all different materials. Polished and worked silver and rough wooden boxes sit side by side, their lids a little open to invite you to see what they contain. Each box holds a different treasure; go and see for yourself what is in them.

You have the shop entirely to yourself today; you may look at anything you wish to. When you touch them, the locked glass display cabinets open for you. You may take out and handle whatever you like. You are trusted here.

When you have finished exploring the main body of the shop, walk further back and you will see there is a heavy crimson velvet curtain at the back. Pinned to it is a sign that says, “Welcome!” If you choose to, you may go through this curtain and see what is through there waiting to welcome you. If you prefer not to, then please go on exploring the wonders of the main shop or return to the books to browse further. I will return in a little while. 


It’s time to go now so step out of the shop and into the street again. There are people bustling around, so leave the door ajar so that the scent can invite someone else in. In your hand there is a parcel; this is the gift from the shop to you. Take a moment or two to see what you have been given and then allow yourself to return to the room where you began your meditation.