July 22, 2011

The Smell of Vinegar (Guest Post by Joseph Lunievicz)

Sometimes it’s one sensory element that brings a time period to life. For me the sense of smell is especially important in the building of a world for a reader. With so many details available to establish time and place in a historical novel it’s hard to figure out which ones to leave in, and which ones to leave out. Too many details quickly overburden the narrative with unnecessary detail. Too few leave you wondering where and when the characters exist - with the default being the present.

Have you read Moby Dick, by Herman Melville? Did you like the long sections of narrative where he describes whales and whale life? Okay, I’ll be honest - I did. But just because I did doesn’t mean most readers will. I took a quick survey of my friends who did slog through the book, and they, to the reader, said they skipped the lessons on whale life and whaling. That’s a few hundred pages of narrative skipped over in a book that’s famous as a literary novel and infamous as a novel that doesn’t get read from cover to cover.
My novel, Open Wounds, takes place in New York City during the 1930’s and 1940’s, so finding the balance of just the right amount of detail was a task I set for myself in my narrative. Although I didn’t write about whales my novel does involve the worlds of stage combat and competitive fencing - subjects that if I wasn’t careful with could easily overwhelm readers with to much information about the differences between a saber, a foil, and an épée. My challenge was to place these worlds in the time of the 1930s/40s and in the place of New York City.

Open Wounds is the story of Cid Wymann, a scrappy kid fighting to survive a harsh upbringing in Queens, New York. Practically a prisoner in his own home, his only escape is sneaking to Times Square to see Errol Flynn movies full of swordplay and duels. He’s determined to become a great fencer, but after his family disintegrates, Cid spends five years at an orphanage until his injured war-veteran cousin “Lefty” arrives from England to claim him. Lefty teaches Cid about acting and stage combat, especially fencing, and introduces Cid to Nikolai Varvarinski, a brilliant drunken Russian fencing master who trains Cid. By 16, Cid learns to channel his aggression through the harsh discipline of the blade, eventually taking on enemies old and new as he perfects his skills.

The conflict culminates in a fencing competition at the Hotel Pierre, a venue that was commonly used for tournaments by a sport that was played by the social elite. As a writer I had to figure out a way to differentiate between the fencing scene of today with all its electronic equipment, flashing lights, and mesh jackets from a time when none of that existed, when touches (or scores) were called by human eye. I knew, though that if I spent too much time describing the sport’s rules and the mechanics of tournament play, I’d get bogged down in the details and lose my reader.

Open WoundsI had read the book By the Sword, by Richard Cohen, and it was a great reference work on the history of competitive fencing and dueling but I wanted something more specific, something sensory. I decided to interview a fencing master, named Joe Brodeth, who at the time was both the fencing coach at St. John’s University and an instructor at a fencing salle called Metropolis Fencing that I happened to fence at. I had taken lessons from Joe before in Italian épée and foil - because he’s one of the few teachers of the technique left and it is my style of fencing. He was then near 80 years old and still teaching and fencing himself and loved to tell stories about fencing, both about competition and about the development of the sport. I asked him if he’d let me interview him about fencing in the 1940s so that I could write the scene about the épée tournament, and he agreed.

Joe had come over to the United States from Cuba and competed in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Everything he told me over the forty-five minutes we talked was interesting and helpful to my knowledge of the sport and the time period, but three pieces of information he gave me were especially useful to the scene I needed to write.

The first was that in épée competition they used a three pronged tip that they wound dental floss around and dipped in red ink so that if they scored a touch it would grab the fabric of the jacket and allow the blade to bend to visually register a touch. It would also leave a red mark on the opponent’s white fencing jacket so that a true touch could be verified.

The second was that a black grease pencil was used to place an X on the red mark of the jacket after the touch so that you could tell a new touch from an old one.

The third was, for me, the most powerful detail because it had to do with the sense of smell and smell, I’ve found, to be a vivid reminder of past events or times. Vinegar was used to clean off the red and black marks from fencing jackets between bouts. “The place smelled of vinegar,” Joe said, “it got inside your head, that smell.” The way he said this, the smile on his face, and the far-away look in his eyes told me all I needed to know.

I had my sensory detail. This made it 1943 for me. So I incorporated it into the scene. “Up at the second-floor banquet hall, I was struck as we entered by the smells of tobacco smoke, musty drapes, and vinegar—the cleanser fencers used to wipe touch-marks off their jackets.”
Later on in the scene after the first bout I recall the detail again. “The smell of vinegar washed over me as the defeated and the victorious around me used it to remove the red marks they had accumulated from their clothes.”
And after Cid has touches scored against him that last of the elements is brought in. “I turned back toward the director and found him not a foot from me with an outstretched hand and black grease pencil. He placed an X on my chest and returned to his position between us. Three more touches were called against me, three more X’s placed on white canvas.”

If it’s sensory - if it’s specific to the character or action - if it adds texture that points to time or place - then you have a detail that builds your world and transports your reader. Too many details and the eyes glaze over. Too few and your world is incomplete. Just the right amount and you have details that the reader will remember for years to come.


  1. Interesting post. I was especially taken with the author's last paragraph and agree that sensory details really bring a lot to a story and to the characterization, but too much makes me glaze over and start skimming.


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