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. 

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

Orange Meditation

This is a sample of a book I have been messing about with writing. What do you think and should I carry on and write the whole thing?

Chapter Four


Meditation One






To a modern person there is nothing terribly exciting about an orange but historically, for everyone but the very rich or the royal, the orange was a highly prized commodity and every part of it was used. Discarded peel was not thrown away but was dried to add to pot pourri or was candied to add to cakes, or was ground up and used in medicines. The vitamin rich fruit was until quite recently extremely expensive and hard to come by; those lucky children who found one at the foot of their Christmas stocking would have been more excited and pleased about it than any modern child can now imagine.

The sweet scent of an orange being peeled can lighten and freshen the atmosphere of a room and is especially helpful during the winter when its flesh and its fragrance can help ward off colds and also the blues.

For this meditation you will need either an orange (or Satsuma or other small citrus fruit) or you may use essential oil of orange placed either on an oil burner near where you are to sit, or a single drop on a strip of blotting paper.

Using the techniques described in chapter 3, begin to relax and enter a receptive state. When you feel comfortable, using a fingernail or a paring knife, scrape along the very top surface of the orange skin releasing the volatile oil. Hold the orange close to your face so that the aroma of the wounded skin can reach your nostrils without having to touch your skin. Breathe in the scent, slowly, allowing yourself to breathe normally, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Allow the fragrance to fill you.

Now is the time to begin, still breathing steadily and softly allowing the scent of the orange to enter your nose and then your mind.



You are standing amid a grove of mature orange trees, their trunks thick and strong. Through the canopy of branches you can see a brilliant blue sky, without a hint of a cloud anywhere, and the sun shines fiercely down, baking the ground to brick hardness. It is very still and distantly, beyond the trees you can see the shimmer of a deeper blue, telling you that you are not very far from the sea. Crickets sing but the birds have all sought shelter from the heat of the sun.

Walk deeper into the grove. The thick leathery leaves provide some protection from the intense sunshine, but when you look closer at some of the lower branches you can see that the leaves are dry and coated with a fine white dust. When you look at your feet as you slowly walk along, you can see little puffs of pale dust rising each time you set your feet down.

Look up at the trees. They are covered in both flowers and fruit and the scent of the flowers in particular is intoxicating, but the flowers are beginning to look slightly dry too, and the fruits are not as big or as juicy looking as you might imagine. Under the trees a little grass grows but it is looking tired and dusty too. You’d like to sit down but the grass looks uninviting. Walk a little further.

As you go deeper into the grove, the air grows heavier with both heat and fragrance, but the shade is very welcome and as you walk you see a bench built around the trunk of one of the oldest trees. The bench curves beautifully to encircle the orange tree; the wood is polished to a soft sheen by countless years of use. This is where the workers sit to take their ease and enjoy refreshment during the day. There is no one here now so approach the bench.

On a small earthenware plate lies a pearl handled knife and an orange that one of the workers cut in half to eat and then left to seek the coolness of the farmhouse a short distance away. Sit down near the plate; the worker is fast asleep and will not be returning soon.

The bench is surprisingly comfortable, low and broad in the seat and the supporting back is angled so you can lean back a little and peer into the branches of the tree and see bright glimpses of the blue of the sky above. The scent of the opened orange rises to greet you and is incredibly refreshing and relaxing all at the same time. It cuts through the heavy scent of the flowers and dust.

Make yourself comfortable on the bench. I will leave you here for a while to enjoy the rest and the shade and the fragrance.



You are brought back to awareness by a change in the air. The light has changed too and as you look at the ground, a single immense drop of rain falls onto the ground and sends up a tiny cloud of dust. A second drop and then a third falls. Finally, the dry spell is being broken by the much-needed rain.

Stand up and begin walking back the way you entered the grove. Even through the thick canopy of leaves, the rain still strikes you, but it is warm rain and very pleasant after the oppressive heat and unrelenting sun. Pretty soon you are wet through. It’s a nice feeling, like a warm shower.

As you leave the grove, stop a moment and turn back and look. Each leaf has been washed clean of the white dust of high summer, and all the fruits seem to be swelling and growing before your eyes, their skins clean and vibrant with the new rain. The flowers seem to perk up, their scent changed by the falling rain into something lighter, fresher and sweeter. The grass below the trees is also looking better, though the dust is turning to soft mud like a milky wash of clay.

Turning back, there is a faint rainbow in the sky, shining, and a rumble of distant thunder encourages you to seek shelter. The drumming of the rain on hard earth continues as you return now to your room and to full consciousness. Breathe deeply a few times and open you eyes. You are back.

 Vivienne Tuffnell 2009