Using scent to tell a story — scent reviews and inspired prompts for fiction and non-fiction writers.
What’s This? I use perfume oil to inspire character, setting, mood, and so on as I write. To share that love with other writers and scent enthusiasts, I post reviews for perfume oils that include fiction/non-fiction writing prompts inspired by the scent. You don’t need to buy the oils to play along, but I do my best to post about oils that are currently available, in case the mood should take you.
Move On Please, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab
Mud-spattered wagon wheels, crushed grasses, thick tufts of moss, and thorny branches creeping over a wild, overgrown and gnarled ash hedge.
Strong soil, to start. But then there’s a fresh smell that is almost-sweet, in the way that sometimes mint is almost-sweet. Beneath that, there’s a close smell, almost a smell of still air. A woodsy smell that is also distinctly wooden—so, not the smell of nature growing, or sawdust, but really something more like a dense wagon-wheel. Peculiarly, I get this impression when I’m sitting. When I walk, I get the sweet, brisk smell of the crushed grass (that reads as almost-mint) much more. Overall, it’s much more foreboding a smell than I imagined. Less airy. A little foreboding. There’s just that peek of grass, sometimes, that gives a glimmer of hope for my nose to chase after.
Non-fiction: Is there anything you’re running from right now? What are you afraid will happen? Write that scenario out.
Fiction: Write a scene with a lot of forward momentum—one where the protagonist cannot bear to stop and reflect, and must simply move through the moment: chasing a hope, or fleeing a fear, or maybe both.
The Haunted Mill, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab
A quiver of boot leather, a forbidding shadow of patchouli, poppy tar, and oud against a backdrop of worn oak panels.
Scent Review: I have long avoided anything with oud(h) out of fear, as some call it an indolic scent. But I couldn’t resist this very atmospheric-sounding scent—Gothic, but with a connection to nature. I’m working on a novel now that needs all the grassy-moist Gothic vibes I can get my hands on (that’s why I bought Move On, Please and Upslope Fog as well), so I had to try, and I’m definitely glad I did.
The leather, of course, makes this less of an outside scent than those other two. The patchouli and poppy really are just a shadow cast over this—not pushy about themselves, just dark. And the oud, whatever it adds here (I’m not knowledgeable enough to pick it out), is not at all unpleasant. This puts me in mind less of the referenced haunted mill itself and more the aftermath of an experience there: the leather of binding straps in a Victorian asylum, with the other notes adding a sense of panic, as the experience of this otherworldly encounter is relived in one’s mind… I get the wood floor, just a grounding smell, and that dark vibe. But it’s not void-dark, like some BPAL with patchouli can be. It’s scary in a more mundane way; everything around you looks normal in this room, but it doesn’t feel normal to you.
Non-fiction: What experience, or conversation, or thought, do you keep coming back to lately? Could be good or bad. What’s got you stuck on it? Write until you feel un-stuck.
Non-fiction: What “normal” or mundane thing unnerves you? Why?
Fiction: Let one character completely let go their anger or fear or worry (or whatever). Have another character try to restrain them (doesn’t have to be physical). Think about the genuine feeling behind the explosion for the one, and the motivation of the restrainer. How does the restrainer have to see things differently, in order to so discount this other person’s perspective? There is a misunderstanding at the root of every conflict. Look for that misunderstanding as you write both characters in good faith, and move—as the author–in the space the misunderstanding creates, to turn the scene.
Fiction: Imbue some innocuous thing with malicious intent. What does it want? And who has the bad luck to get in its way?
Upslope Fog, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab
Moist clouds rolling lazily up and down low hills of wild grasses, sagebrush, and wildflowers, curling gently around gnarled oaks, majestic pines, and craggy stones.
On wet, I get what I think is the sagebrush very strongly. I am reminded of burning sage at home to clear the air. It’s sharper than I expected it to be, starting out—more in-your-face herbaceous. The fog in this scent is almost like a smoke, but not heavy or dirty. Sacred.
As Upslope Fog begins to settle on the skin, I get more of the other things in this atmosphere: the woods, the stone, and—up close to my nose—a very faint, sweet flower. This scent reminds me a lot of Theoi Nomioi, which is an oil BPAL made to support the National Park Service. The difference, to me, is that Theoi Nomioi had a bit of wood-cabin and doused-fire smells stuck in with the stones and trees, the sagebrush and woods/wild grasses in Upslope Fog reads almost like a musk or incense sometimes. It’s very slight as the scent is starting to fade, but it suggests… magic, like Dee suggests magic. (Dee is my very first ever BPAL love, and someday I will go on and on about it in this series.)
Non-fiction: Clear a space. On the page, walk into a room, or a spot outside, that you haven’t been to in a while. What does it look like, smell like? Reflect on who you were the last time you were here, and who you have become since. Is there anything here that you forgot about and want to take with you? Is there anything you’ve been carrying around that you want to leave here when you go?
Fiction: Clear a space. Write about a room or spot outside where something important has occurred. Show us what happened through a character cleaning up the mess. What destruction has been done? What mood is the character in as they fix or right things? How are they related to what has happened here? How can we tell, without hearing their thoughts?
Every Day is Halloween, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab
Skin-warmed sandalwood and toasted pumpkin settle into a gentle blend suitable for all 365 days of Halloween.
Scent Review: VERY autumnal, without being like a craft store or a Yankee Candle. I think because we’re dealing with sandalwood underneath the pumpkin. Sandalwood always has this welcome scratchiness to it that smooths out as it dries, and it takes the toasted pumpkin right out of the “it’s a holiday!” context. Makes it a little less… flippant? A little less jolly, a little less connected to plastic candy buckets or loving pies. Yet, though it’s a more everyday kind of smell, it’s still comforting and kind—just more like a blanket or robe that’s there for you after every hard day, rather than a special, frivolous treat. (Basically: mission accomplished on this oil.) The more it dries, the more deeply the pumpkin just melts into the sandalwood. It doesn’t entirely go away, just settles deeper down, relaxed. Me, too.
Non-fiction: What little things brighten up your everyday? Pick one to write about. How does it work its magic on you? Why does it help so much?
- Write about a welcome scratchiness.
- Take a holiday staple (anything, from any holiday) out of the jolly, frivolous holiday context.