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  • Writer's pictureCaroline Leech

The Scent of the Muse - how smells can help you write

A glass aroma diffuser with bamboos sticks, and a small lit oil lamp.

As I walked George this morning, I was listening to an interview with author Joanne Harris (of her nineteen books, CHOCOLAT and PEACHES FOR MONSIEUR LE CURÉ are my favorites) on the wonderful Books of the Year Podcast, hosted by Simon Mayo and Matt Williams, which is one of my never-miss-an-episode podcasts. They were discussing the sort of psych triggers they all use to help them concentrate on their writing, and Joanne mentioned using scent. She said, “I knew that certain scents could help you concentrate, so what if I used a scent that matched the book I was writing? I’ve now been doing this for 20 years. The one I used for BROKEN LIGHT from was a scent by Kurkdjian called Lumiere Noire, and I only ever wore it when I was writing that book.”

Like Joanne, I’ve been using scent to help me write for years too. For a long time, it was the scent of coffee (even though I don’t drink the stuff) because almost all my writing was done in a Starbucks or Barnes & Noble café. More recently, writing at home (and this is doing any writing, even it’s business writing or just emails), I give myself a spray of Clinique’s fragrance HAPPY. I have a little vial of it stuck to my desk with blu-tack so I don’t lose it, and I even treated myself to a big bottle of it last summer in the Duty Free when we were travelling to the UK so I can refill the little bottle regularly. It really is astonishing how quickly its scent helps me focus on what I’m supposed to be doing – and, because I associate it with positive productivity and creativity, I’ve found it also helps lift my mood when I’m not writing, but just feeling low in mood or energy. And as for why I chose that particular perfume, I use HAPPY more because of its association to the moment when I first smelled it than because of its name. Yes, HAPPY makes me happy, but a scent by any other name would smell as happy, I'm sure. What about you? If using a scent as a trigger/boost/portal to writing is something you’ve never tried, then perhaps you might like to. It certainly works for me, and more importantly it works for someone of the literary stature of Joanne Harris, so it might well work for you too. Remember though, like any habit you are trying to form, don't expect the magic to happen immediately. But if you try the same scent every time you sit down to work this week and next, it might well already have become your new magic trick for focus and creativity. It doesn’t have to be a perfume, of course. As Joanne went on to tell Simon and Matt, “You could use a room scent, an essential oil, or anything really. The thing about scent is that it triggers feelings, and is a quick and easy way of helping you access the thing that helps you imagine things. It's a portable thing, so I don’t have to go through a lot of rituals [in order to concentrate on writing]." So, here are a few options for you to try…

A Perfumed Push: If you don’t already have a favorite perfume, why not tour your nearest department store and pick up as many testers/samples as you can. Then do a test at home until you find one that feel right for your mood/the time or day, or like Joanne, the project you’re working on. Once you find it, and the tester runs out, why not treat yourself to a small bottle of it. It’s probably then tax deductible as a crucial author expense!

Several white candles, all lit

Scented Serenity: Certain scents, like lavender or chamomile, have soothing properties that can calm your mind, reducing stress and anxiety. A relaxed writer is a productive writer, so, light a scented candle, or add an essential oil to an infuser, and let the calm focus wash over you. Before you start writing, also close your eyes and do some deep breathing so you let the scent begin to work and your mind can cast off everything you don’t need to think about until after the writing is done for the day.

Citrus Zest: Citrus aromas, particularly lemons, oranges, tangerines and grapefruits possess invigorating scents that can jolt your brain into action. That zesty fragrance carries a triple whammy of boosting energy levels, enhancing focus, and banishing lethargy, and might be perfect if you’re writing an action sequence, or perhaps something a little on the raunchy side. And remember, if you don’t have a citrus oil or candle to hand, just peel an orange and let it sit on your desk for a while (and since scents are a way of getting you into The Zone, once you’re there, you can then eat the orange – the vitamin C will do you good too).

Mocha Magic: As I said, the smell of coffee was an elixir for me for my first few years writing. The rich smell of coffee even now wakes up my senses and sparks my creativity, even if I don’t drink it. So next time you pass a Starbucks or Costa Coffee, drop in and buy yourself an expresso shot, BUT don’t drink it. Instead, sit it on your desk so you can get a hit off the aroma. If you keep in your fridge between writing sessions, it should last for several days, and whenever you need a boost, just microwave it again to release that heavenly aroma. Obviously, you’re allowed to drink it if you really want to, but my way is a lot cheaper!

So, whether it's fruity or flowery, pungent or subtle, have a go at finding a scent to tickle your creativity or sooth your distraction. Making it part of your writing habit might just open up your imagination in a way you could never have expected.


Do you already use scent as a trigger/boost/portal to concentration and inspiration? I’d love to hear what scent means the most to you as a writer, and when you find it works best. Or do you change scent depending on the project, like Joanne Harris? Tell me what you do in the comments below and maybe other writers can get a boost from your experience too.

  • Books of the Year Podcast is presented by Simon Mayo and Matt Williams, and is just wonderful - they're fun but fascinating too as they talk amazing authors from all over the world.

  • Joanne Harris’s lates novel, BROKEN LIGHT is out now, published last month by Orion in the UK and Pegasus Crime in the US.

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