My essay in Publishers Weekly about Scent in Literature

I have an essay in Publishers Weekly this week about how writers might go about learning how to incorporate scent details in their writing.

As you can imagine, stinky writing is a topic I feel really strongly about. I’m writing my own memoir of a super sniffer right now and I’m abundantly aware of how many ways you can go wrong with scent cues across all genres.

There are many books about scent on the market, but some of my favorites are simply the writers that use scent as a marker of psychological transformation.

I hope that you’ll read “How to Write about Scent” and share, maybe find it useful in your own projects. At the very least, you’ll never read another scent passage without having it jump off the page at you!

Follow me on Twitter @emilygrosvenor. 

The Scent in Literature Project will make your writing stink


A couple of years ago I started collecting examples of great scent writing — not writing ABOUT scent, per se, but writing that incorporates scent in a way that works well within the context.

Scent writing is like perfume. It needs to not hit you over the head with itself.

I finally decided that I had enough of just having these examples on my own page as a list and figured that organizing them according to genre on their own page meant the most sense. So I acquired and got this spiffy logo made for the project.

If you go to the site you will see it is in its infancy but now also has  a section where you can “practice” scent writing. I’ve linked to some of my favorite prompts by fellow scent aficionado, Brian Goetzenleuchter, head of the Olfactory Memoir Project.

My request to you:

If you come across some great passages incorporating scent, please send them to me! I will credit you on the site. It can be as simple as snapping a picture of the book you’re reading and sending it to emilygrosvenor [@] Thank you!


OLO: Heather Sielaff’s snapshots in a bottle


PerfumeEvery scent obsessive has a gateway scent, the one that started it all for them. For me, it was OLO’s Dafne — a scent that found me in the dead of winter, much like the daphne bloom itself — and reminded me that life will return soon.

So it was a special surprise for me to discover last winter that Heather Sielaff, the nose behind OLO, had opened a studio and shop on Belmont, one of my favorite streets in Portland.

Visiting a place like this is a pilgrimage of sorts because the decision itself is a value statement. You are saying: I want to give myself half an hour or even a few hours engaging with my sense of smell and imagination in a place free of distraction. I want to stand in the space with the person who created these scents and open myself up to experiencing this person’s way of ordering the world artistically.

It’s a shame there is no corresponding olfactory word for “artist’s vision” that doesn’t rely on seeing.

OLO’s shop, Milk Milk Lemonade, is artfully laid out to feel like a curated space while appreciating the pleasures of a historic building. There I was able to meet Heather for the first time (we had chatted by phone a few years ago), and smell her growing line of artisan perfumes. Sielaff is an artist through and through, giving considerable attention to each choice in the creation and marketing of her scents. She has no interest in holding classes on how to blend and really, I sense, doesn’t like interacting. I say that because it is refreshing, in an age of forced connection, to meet someone who insists on interacting through the creation. She has a nice story about the time she asked a gaffer to create a perfume bottle shaped like a breast, but which was much to expensive to bring to creation commercially.


These are some of the standout scents I took home with me that day.

Lightning Paw:

This is a happy blend of floral and citrus that nevertheless feels new and fun, like a polka-dot dress on a bright, sunny day. Bergamot and jasmine almost shake off their connection to their natural origins with the addition of a lightly pungent and sassy patchouli. It dries down sweet and mellow with a vanilla note, but overall the effect is to conjure the same feelings as the Innocence Mission song: Bright As Yellow.

Erastus: Tobacco, Whiskey, Wood

Erastus is a Portland scent if there ever was one. Think: drinking whiskey in a library with ironic taxidermy. My problem with this scent is that the images it conjures feel so well established. The whiskey and tobacco scents are excellent, leather-elbowed colleagues. You can almost sense them shaking each others’ hands in an old library. But like all of her scents, it feels authentic, drawn from reality but at the same time curated for effect. For me, the dark nostalgia of this one would feel compelling on a partner but not for personal use.


So here’s something that concerns me about perfumes. If you seek them out, you experience the name first, which is bound to affect how you experience the scent. Imagine the different between picking up a bottle on a counter or just smelling something amazing off someone’s neck? With Wyeth, I was drawn in by the name — I’m a PA girl at heart and Andrew Wyeth’s stark landscapes that somehow allow us to see our world at the same time as experiencing his reality are tattooed in my brain. But this has nothing to do with that. The pine resin is somewhat strong in this but never feels anything less than the aroma generated when walking through a dried Oregon forest. If you want a true geographic scent this is it, though if you tried to pinpoint its point of collection on a map you’d have to find a campsite, in the Oregon coastal foothills, the fire burned down, and you’re walking a path nearby, morning mist departing. That’s right, it’s the Matt Love of perfumes!


Pepper and flower notes seem to go so well together, soft and sharp meeting to make a full shape, much as a young lover might fall from someone from the other side of the tracks and realize they fit like puzzle pieces. Here it is instantly intriguing, a reminder of what I am drawn to about independent perfumes in the first place. It confounds expectations, gives you a little razzle dazzle at the beginning before leading you by the hand to a place that is more comforting. There, as the scent develops, it wraps you in something more familiar — floral, warm cinnamon and geranium.

Have you tried these or have another favorite? Please share in the comments! Follow Emily on Twitter @emilygrosvenor


What the Perfumed Plume awards have to tell us about scent


PerfumeI won a fragrance writing award! Well, kind of. Actually, this blog won an honorable mention in the first-ever Perfumed Plume fragrance journalism awards.

The blog post called out as a “top entry” in the awards’ inaugural year was “You’re Doing It All Wrong: 8 Signs You Need to Rethink Perfume.” I wrote this one with the sole purpose of getting non-perfumey people interested in perfume and I am thankful for the honor.

I thought it might be fun to look at some of the winners and what they add to the world of fragrance writing this year.

Scent Stories in Mainstream Media, Digital
“That Unattainable Object of Desire: Avon Deneuve by Catherine Deneuve – the Anti-Avon Lady Perfume”
Written by Mark Behnke for Colognoisseur


The greatness of this story, a look at Catherine Deneuve’s eponymous floral chypre perfume, comes from the counterintiuitive angle — that even an Avon perfume, one with a nightmarish marketing plan and terrible launch — can become a cultural obsession if the scent is right.

Takeaway: Perfume is not just the marketing.

Visualization of Scent Stories, Magazines/Newspapers/Digital
“Perfume as Opera: Madama Butterfly, Carmen and Turandot
written by Jasia Julia Nielson for Michelyn Camen, CaFleureBon


This sweet story gets at home much perfume has in common with narrative by looking at a scent inspired by Madama Butterfly.

Takeaway: Perfume people experience scent as narrative, and every bottle is a story unto itself.

Scent Stories in Mainstream Media, Magazines – Print & Digital
“Escape Artists,” written by April Long for Elle Magazine


This is one of those stories that prompt journalists like me to say: Darn it! I wish I wrote that. It’s a profile of perfumers that are taking their inspiration from travel, including one of my all-time favorites, Juniper Ridge.

Takeaway: The world of DIY scrappy perfumers has hit the mainstream.

Science of Scent Stories in Mainstream Media – Magazines/Newspapers/Digital
“Flower Power: Scent, Identity and Culture in the Middle East,
written by Dana El Masri for Michelyn Camen, CaFleureBon


I found this one a little difficult to read, but appreciate it for the way it unfolds scent’s place in non-Western culture.

Takeaway: Scent’s mystery lies in how it can be both global and personal, exotic and familiar.

Scent Stories in Mainstream Media, Newspapers – Print & Digital
“Power Perfumes Return to the Scene,” written by Rachel Syme for The New York Times


I adored this trend story about how making a big impression with perfume is coming back into vogue among millenials.

Takeaway: Everything old is new again. Except for the shoulder pads.

Fragrance Book Award: “Fragrant – The Secret Life of Scent,”
written by Mandy Aftel


Kudos to Mandy Aftel, my mentor and one of the best creative folk I know. Her book Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent, took home the Perfumed Plume book award. I love Mandy’s appreciation for the materials she works with and this book is an homage to the journey from the natural world to the perfumer’s studio.

Takeaway: If you want dinner party fodder for the rest of your life, read the section on Ambergris and then whip out the Fragrant companion kit to give everyone a sniff.

Want more smelly writing? I’m collecting great scent writing over at the Scent in Literature Project, where you can add your own!