We know all about the fog of war, but what about its smells?
In newsrooms where I've visited I usually offer a bounty for anyone who can locate a story with sensory details that require the nose. I've never had any takers.
But Anthony Shadid, the Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, must know their value. My nose for olfactory news sniffed out a pungent line in his story from Beirut where the war between Israel and "the radical Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah," sparked by the capture of two Israeli soldiers. He quotes a Lebanese victim of an Israeli air strike:
"They don't want to strike civilians? Then why are they doing it?" asked Mohammed Fathi, a 37-year-old resident of south Beirut. He stood outside Harkous Chicken, the restaurant where he works as a chef. The smell of peppers mixed with the reek of cordite, and workers swept shattered glass off the street near a bridge destroyed in a pre-dawn airstrike. The facades of nearby buildings were sheared off, and cars with broken windows sat parked along a street strewn with debris."
Not a pleasant combination--peppers and the smokeless gunpowder--but coupled with visuallly vivid details, one that that helped Shadid put readers on the scene.
In general, newswriters rarely take advantage of our olfactory sense, arguably our most evocative, even though it takes up a minuscule amount of space in our brains. For instance, I can't catch of whiff of patchouli without being drawn back to 1974 when I was in Quebec, learning how to speak French in preparation for a Peace Corps assignment in French West Africa.
And why else did real estate agents advise sellers to have cookies baking when prospective buyers arrived, but to evoke pleasant childhood memories? (They've since found out that a couple of drops of vanilla on a burning lightbulb will trigger the same memories.)
For more on the subject, see my column, "Writing with Your Nose," featuring the olfactory writing of novelist Richard Price (Clockers, Freedomland), various ways to use smells in your writing and a brief explanation of how smells work.
Here's a tip on how to put your nose to the keyboard: Next time you're reporting a story, add to what it looks, sounds and feels like a detail that conveys what it smells like, too.