The Prime Writers and…the Senses

As we head into autumn,  the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, the Prime Writers are turning their attention, fingers, tongues and noses to the senses – the lush, the fruitful, the bitter and the sweet.

Today,  we join Isabel Costello, author of Paris Mon Amour, in pursuit of the senses…enjoy.

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As with so many aspects of my education, my sensory journey began for real in France.  I was about ten years old when my family visited the Fragonard perfumery in the hilltop town of Grasse, where I was fascinated by the process as well as intoxicated by the gorgeous smells.  Even at that tender age I realised it would be too great a sacrifice to live without coffee, alcohol, tobacco and spicy food, as a professional ‘nose’ must.  But looking back, that day was the start of something.

Twenty years later, like many pregnant women I experienced a heightened sense of smell when expecting my first child.  The strange thing is that it never went away.  As my commitment to a job promoting London as a financial centre waned, I decided to make a virtue and possibly a new career of my obsession with fragrance. During my Diploma in Holistic Aromatherapy at the Tisserand Institute, I studied the therapeutic properties of essential oils, clinical science, anatomy and Swedish massage, the main route of administration.  But my favourite part was always blending: there was something magical about experimenting with combinations of aromatic oils and carriers to come up with my own creations.  Having left my job and had my younger son by this point, I spent a lot of time and energy developing a range of bath and skincare products.  They gained a loyal following locally but as I was about to go into commercial production, recession struck. The chances of a return on my modest investment capital seemed remote and I couldn’t afford the risk.

Instead I took up writing (I know, that reliable path to riches and success!) and discovered that ‘nothing is ever wasted’. For me, using the senses is one of the greatest pleasures of bringing the page to life.  Creative writing tutors often give the advice to venture beyond sight and sound and rightly so, but there’s more to the sensory approach than scattering random references to next door’s barbecue or the nurse’s cold hands.  They have to add or mean something and usually that works best when they’re embedded in the character’s perception.

My debut novel Paris Mon Amour didn’t present me with any dilemmas on this front – anyone would expect a love story set in the world’s most sexy and romantic city to have a sensual quality.  This comes naturally to many French authors and whilst passion and desire are universal themes, I was undoubtedly inspired and influenced by thirty years of devouring their writing. There was nothing too original about the premise – older woman, younger man – but that never worried me: my theory is that if you explore your character in sufficient depth, getting right into their head and under their skin, the story simply couldn’t be about anyone else.  I wanted it to be frank and intense, dark as well as romantic.

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Smell is a powerful faculty in its own right, as well as a portal to other less documented senses and to memory and emotion.  The close link between smell and taste is well-known – think how your mouth waters when you smell something delicious or the way food loses its flavour when you have a bad cold.  Likewise, most of us will be familiar with the disorienting effect of a certain smell, which might not even be identifiable, as it transports us to a significant place or time, or conjures the presence of someone.  (I once followed a stranger the entire length of a street because his cigar smoke momentarily brought my father back to life.)  In the brain, the olfactory bulb is part of the limbic system, along with the amygdala which processes emotion and the hippocampus where associative learning – the stuff of memories – is stored.

Despite having a 40-year-old narrator, Paris Mon Amour is an awakening: sexual, emotional, sensory.  Smell and taste are paramount – until the events of the story, French food was Alexandra’s greatest temptation.  All kinds of stimuli trigger all kinds of responses, especially in times of stress or high emotion:  a chocolate fountain, church bells, a favourite rosé; the ocean, greasy meat in a kebab shop, her mother’s cigarettes.  The lilies on the cover are symbolic in the book, as is their scent.  The smell of her lover when they meet unexpectedly in the company of others drives Alexandra wild, recalling their encounter and ‘layers to sex she never knew existed’.

Speaking of which, touch and physical sensation also play an important role, not just in the moment but in the anticipation, the aftermath, even by their absence.  For me, writing sex holds a similar satisfaction to balancing the different notes in perfumery.  It’s a delicate task, but I try to draw on every aspect of what the characters are experiencing – physical, emotional, the tension in the air – to create scenes that are intimate and relatable.

As I anticipated, the most rewarding thing about being published is being read.  Given the subject of Paris Mon Amour it’s not surprising that responses to the novel are very individual and diverse, but it’s always pleasing to hear it described as ‘sensual’. Perhaps it’s time to start concocting the next one…

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Isabel Costello is a novelist and short story writer who lives in London.  Her debut Paris Mon Amour is available in digital in the UK, US and Canada (Canelo) and worldwide in audiobook (Audible).   She also hosts the Literary Sofa blog where many Prime Writers have appeared in the line-up of guest authors.

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3 thoughts on “The Prime Writers and…the Senses

  1. What an excellent post.

    I’m rather envious of your professional training in all things aromatic as I view smell as the most difficult sense to evoke in writing – the vocabulary comes less readily – and often writers will lump a smell in as an afterthought (‘better spice up the scene with some description of the senses whatever it is’). But, as you say, when it works intuitively it can be incredibly effective.

    Bearing in mind your point about pregnancy, do you think female readers and writers are more attuned to smell than men?

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    • Hi Mike
      Thanks for your appreciation! It wasn’t until I came to write this piece that I realised just what a big part smell plays in my novel.

      To answer your question, a study published in 2014 (led by Prof. Roberto Lent from the Institute of Biomedical Sciences at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and the National Institute of Translational Neuroscience, Ministry of Science and Technology in Brazil) showed biological evidence that women have a significantly greater number of cells in the olfactory bulb compared to men, explaining our (generally) stronger sense of smell. No doubt there are evolutionary reasons for this!

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      • Interesting. I guess you can’t appreciate something in as much depth if you’re not equipped as fully. I’m not much good on perfumes (something I need to improve on as a writer) but I’m not bad at food and drink. I’ve been assessed good enough at wine tasting to do judging in competitions (and that’s really all about aroma) and I can sniff out a freshly sliced capsicum from a long way away!

        Liked by 1 person

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