Lilies and Leather: Using Scent to Conjure Desire

Photo Credit: Warburg (own work)

Photo Credit: Warburg (own work)

In my erotica workshops at Grub Street, Boston (I’m teaching one next week, by the way!), I often give the writers a single, foil-wrapped chocolate. The idea is for them to tantalize themselves by delaying satisfaction, while they free-write about their sensations and feelings. The task lets them write directly from desire in a way that’s enticing, but also safe. When I ask them to consider the scent of their chocolate without taking it into their mouths, their written descriptions drip with longing. How helpful scent can be when conjuring desire! So why, in sensual scenes, is it often neglected?

I suppose scent plays a less obvious role in our lives than vision, touch, taste or hearing…though when a scent (or a stench) arises, its effect can be intense and surprisingly specific – a whiff of the cologne an old flame once wore can excite us before we’ve even worked out why. We can also bond via smell, like animals, inhaling one another’s skin and hair. Certain aromas make us long to taste as well – and eating is carnal, baby. But whichever way you look at it, scent is intimate and vital, bringing our readers far closer to a sensual scene.

Those who’ve taken either my flash fiction or erotica classes will know I’m a big fan of Steve Almond’s chapbook, This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey. My favorite piece in the collection is Dumbrowski’s Advice – a story that draws beautifully on the power of scent. In the excerpt below, the protagonist yearns for a girl who works in a diner:

“You admired her accent, she was local, a local girl, she knew where the rail tracks ran, swam naked in the stone quarry, held secrets in the hollow of her neck. You memorized her aromas – pie crust and parmesan, that lemony deodorant – you from somewhere else, a shipping clerk in charge of labels, auditioning for adulthood in thrift shop ties.” FromDumbrowski’s Advice, by Steve Almond

Breathlessly beautiful, right?

Of course, we don’t always have to be moved by our desires. Sometimes we’re downright afraid of them. And in such scenarios, scent can heighten the tension. In Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber (a dark take on the Blue Beard tale) the protagonist is wary of the mysterious man she’s marrying for his riches…and though she doesn’t state it directly, we get the impression that she both fears and craves him. In the following excerpt, she and her new husband are traveling to his castle where they will have sex for the very first time. They take the train:

“Only the communicating door kept me from my husband and it stood open. If I rose up on my elbow, I could see the dark, leonine shape of his head and my nostrils caught a whiff of the opulent male scent of leather and spices that always accompanied him and sometimes during his courtship, had been the only hint he gave me that he had come into my mother’s sitting-room, for, though he was a big man, he moved softly as if all his shoes had soles of velvet, as if his footfall turned the carpet into snow.” From The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter

What better way of implying a predatory nature? Carter was a master of the sensual scene.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with a wicked little seduction from Nikki Magennis‘s erotic fairy tale, The Red Shoes (Redux), which makes great use of very specific flavors and scents:

“When he kissed her, it was like drinking very fine brandy – smooth and strong and dark gold. Lily smelled the perfume on his neck – civet and patchouli, something dense and elusive – as he deftly unbuttoned and pushed her jeans to her knees. Any shame she might have felt evaporated like smoke…” From The Red Shoes (Redux), by Nikki Magennis

And with that, I disappear in a puff of patchouli.

This post first appeared on the Grub Street Daily, where Lana published it under her less intriguing name…

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4 thoughts on “Lilies and Leather: Using Scent to Conjure Desire

  1. I really enjoyed reading this blog post. You used 3 very distinct examples to illustrate your point to perfection. My favourite quote in this post is the 2nd one, from Bloody Chamber. It’s very powerful and really evokes sensuality, desire and fear in equal measures.

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