Fog settled over the village and I thought the houses looked like they were huddling together in the cold.
One house stood apart from the others, a tilting mess with off-colored smoke pouring out of the chimney. A sign with the word Alchem- etched in fading white letters hung over the front door.
The house seemed to shudder as I approached. Before I could knock, the door slammed open, and a horse-sized plume of smoke belched from inside. The alchemist stumbled out of the house, coughing and clapping his beard between both hands to put out the last of the flames.
“Ah, you must be my three o’clock.” The alchemist hacked something from his throat, apologized, and stuck an ashy hand out to greet me, “P.S. Hoffman, correct?”
“Thank you for meeting me on such short notice.”
“Not to worry, not to worry. I know just the thing to sort out your problem. Now, were you the one with the fissures? No, that was someone else, you were…” He scratched at the blackened tips of his beard, frowning.
I cupped a hand around my mouth, whispering, “I’m here about the -”
“OH YES. YOU’RE THE WRITER WITH THE BORING STORIES!” The alchemist shouted, stamping his foot triumphantly. The house shuddered again.
“Don’t be shy now, come in, I have just the thing for you.”
He pulled on my sleeve, and dragged me into the house. The floors and walls were littered with old tomes, and strange instruments, and exotic animals, stuffed into bottles or mounted on the walls.
He led me to the stairs, clomping down each step as he spoke, “Now, you see, most writers only know how to write two or three of the seven senses.”
Seven senses? I wondered, but he spoke too quickly for me to ask questions. I heard something in the cellar rattling and hissing, like a pot about to boil over.
“I blame the picture-shows. Writers these days are obsessed with how things sound, or look. But readers need to know how something smells, or feels, or tastes.”
“What do you mean?”
In the cellar, high windows let the sun in at intervals, illuminating hundreds of half-filled bottles and flasks and tubes. He pulled a bottle off of a shelf, popped off the cork, and handed it to me.
“What can you tell me about this beaker, just from looking at it?”
I scratched my head, still confused.
“Just from looking at it, all you can say is it’s empty. But when you touch it,” he pushed it to me, forcing me to grab it with both hands, “What do you feel?”
“It’s scratched all along the bottom. And it’s warm. Really warm.”
“So you know it’s old, or well-used, and there might be something in it, something you can’t see. If you smell it, careful, not too much, what does it smell like?”
Warily, I sniffed, “It smells sweet.”
He flapped his hands at me to continue.
“Like… berries. Strawberries.” I sniffed again, and wrinkled my nose, “Eugh, now it smells like rotten strawberries. Oh, that is awful.”
He cackled, and took the bottle back from my hand, “That’s a little concoction I’ve been working on. It’s a gas that, when mixed with wine, makes the imbiber find people more attractive.”
“Like a love potion?”
He shrugged, “Not so much love, no. Although young people often confuse it with love.”
“Why did you make me smell it?”
“Have you ever heard the phrase ‘show, don’t tell’? Showing isn’t just about what you can see. It’s about giving your reader a sense of the world. You don’t want to tell your reader what the flowers look like – you want your reader to smell the flowers. You want them to know that they rustle in the breeze, that they’re softer than silk, that they taste like dirt.”
He scooped something out of a drawer, a dry powder with red seeds in it, “Open your hand.”
He dumped it onto my palm.
“It tingles! It’s like tiny bubbles are popping on my skin.”
I brought it up to my nose, and he stopped me, “Don’t. One sniff of that would kill you.”
“WHY DID YOU GIVE IT TO ME THEN?”
“To prove a point. Now, anytime you write about that bubbling feeling, it will remind your reader of this poison. You can use the sense of smell, or touch, or taste, not only to flesh out your story’s setting, but also to color it.”
“How do you mean?” I asked as he brushed the powder off of my hand into the drawer.
“When something smells rancid, you know that the character isn’t pleased with his surroundings. A sense of smell can add tone, or significance to any setting, and even actions. You can even tell a character is in love by how fondly they remember someone’s scent.”
He dunked a hand into a jar filled with murky water. Suspicious chunks swirled in the dirt-colored soup. He pulled out a slimy, fleshy lump, dotted with four black eyes.
“Remember, you can’t convey a sense of smell with pictures or music, only with writing. That is one of the strengths of words. Here, smell this,” he offered the lump to me. His eyes were wide, and he fought to hide his grin, like a child with a secret.
I sniffed it. My esophagus squeezed, as if it was trying to push a ball out of my throat. The lump smelled like old man, old shoes, and old meat all at the same time. I retched.
The alchemist wouldn’t stop laughing.
Take a deep breath. What does your writing place smell like? The next time you enter a room, think about what it smells like. Could your writing smell stronger?
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