At first scent: exposing the secrets of chemical attraction

Couple nearly kissing
© Geber86/istockphoto

Romance readers are familiar with chemical attraction – that unmistakable yet intangible sensation when your body recognizes your soul mate.

For horror and suspense writers, the most important chemical reaction is different: the scent of fear and hint of danger the hero detects that lets him react just in time to save his own life.

These may sound like cliches, but they’re based on real-life reactions our bodies have to pheromones.

Earlier this week I went to a lecture by Karl Grammar of the University of Vienna, one of the few scientists in the world studying human pheromones. He gave us an insight into how humans react to the scent of pheromones, and I thought some of it might be useful, or at least interesting, to my fellow writers.

Let me preface this by saying that I didn’t take notes on the scientific nitty-gritty, so some of what follows here may be educational while other parts will just sound strange. Take what you will and store it away – surely it’ll come in handy for a pub quiz one day.

What are pheromones?

Dr Grammar began by saying that in almost all animal species life is controlled by highly volatile substances made by the glands. These are pheromones. We breathe them in, and our olfactory system takes these scents (which we don’t even know we’re smelling) straight to the brain.

In other words, people give off these super subtle messages which our nose takes to our brain for interpretation.

What do pheromones help us do?

Pheromones help us do things like recognize our relatives, select our mates, and be aware when someone scary or aggressive is nearby.

We have hundreds – possibly thousands – of different pheromones. They’re transmitted through our skin; since we each have a unique genetic epidermal composition, our pheromones “smell” different. This makes it easier for us to identify our kin, but it also means romance novels are right: we can identify that one person who’s special to us, even if we can’t see them.

Weird pheromone facts

© osmar01/

Humans have some of the same pheromones as other animals. For example, one of the pheromones men have is the same as a boar’s. Dr Grammar explained that when a female boar smells a male boar’s pheromones, she assumes the copulation position. “It doesn’t work like this for humans,” he said.

Women share a pheromone in common with wasps. Yep, women smell sorta like wasps, men smell like pigs, and no one knows why.

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More hot men are concerned about your breasts

I don’t usually drool and post pictures/videos of ripped men…unless I can find a way to relate it to writing.

Remember last week I shared that video by Rethink Breast Cancer? The one featuring hot guys showing you how to check yourself for lumps and also served as a great lesson on providing a unique twist on the same old content?


Sorry – I mentally wandered for a second there. Well, yesterday stars from the British TV show Loose Women (basically The View) had the incredible opportunity to visit London rugby team Harlequins…and wander around the locker room where the players were nekkid.

For copyright reasons, I’ll be a good girl and won’t post the pictures here. But you can see them here. Don’t worry – the men have strategically placed balls.

Rugby balls, that is.

Good thing rugby balls are long.

I couldn’t figure out whether the photo shoot was related to Harlequins’ support for the charity Breast Cancer Care. They’ll be supporting the charity on 29 October at their Ladies’ Day match. My husband’s a season-ticket holder for their cross-town rival, and that’s our last day in London, so I won’t be going. I hope everyone who does will donate, though.

Whether the photo shoot is for a good cause or is purely gratuitous, it’s still great for me – I’m in the process of rewriting my contemporary romance featuring a London rugby player. These pics have inspired all sorts of ideas…which you’ll get to read if this novel is published.

How many ways are there to describe abs like this?

Does it matter what an author looks like?

Have you ever scheduled a professional photography session, then woken up five minutes beforehand, not taking time to wash, brush your hair or gather enough energy to smile?

Neither have I—at least, not since a hot guy I liked looked at my college ID photo and said, “Ugh! Looks like you just woke up from a crack sleep.”

Authors take a lot of care over the photo that will be printed in the back of their books and all around the internet as they promote their work. Debut authors today even get their blog, Facebook and Twitter followers involved in selecting the best photo.

Why? Because, to a certain extent, it matters what we look like. We all want to present ourselves in a way that makes readers feel connected with us, and humans connect when they can read signals in each other’s faces—like a friendly smile. And thank God we do that, because looking around the animal kingdom, it seems that the alternative is sniffing each other’s rear-bits, and I dread to think how publishers would replicate that in the back of a book.

The problem is that we’ve all got insecurities, right? Please tell me I’m not alone in this. Several weeks ago I asked a professional photographer friend at work if he’d take some pictures of me for my blog. Most of the photos I have of myself are taken on holiday, where I look happy but sweaty or tired. Ever since Mat agreed to take my picture, I’ve been putting off the date. My hair’s too shaggy. My brows are too bushy. My chin’s too…well, let’s be kind and say “undefined”.

Those are mostly things I can control. But what about characteristics that we can’t control—like our age—which can lead to others judging us?

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How realistic is the contemporary virgin?

First off, welcome to my new followers! *waves* Just so you know, I’m a romance writer, so sometimes I blog aboout things relevant to all writers and sometimes I focus posts on the romance genre. Please feel free to comment and share even if you’re not a romance reader.

For those old followers (I prefer to think of you as “seasoned”, not old) who don’t know, my last post was Freshly Pressed yesterday, so it was on‘s homepage.  My blog picked up quite a few new followers, and I look forward to getting to know you all better.

Now for today’s post, which is cross-posted at The Season.

When I started reading romance *mumble mumble* years (okay, decades) ago, it was nearly impossible to find a heroine who’d had sex before meeting the hero. While this is completely understandable and realistic in historical romance, it’s always seemed curious to me that contemporary adult women were virgins.

Most of them weren’t just virgins but were about as inexperienced as I was at 14. (That is, not experienced at all).

As a teenager, I enjoyed reading about women who were a decade older but just as inexperienced as me. Considering I went to a religious high school, I knew sex would remain a vicarious experience for many years, and I’d probably end up like those heroines. Watching their long wait pay off with a hot man made me happy not to experiment with fumbling teenage boys.

I was also surrounded by messages from other forms of media telling me it wasn’t normal for teenagers to be virgins. TV, music, films—they all made me feel my friends and I were strange, while romance novels encouraged me that good things come to those who wait.

A couple of decades later, readers tend to complain when an adult heroine is a virgin. It seems unrealistic. Or perhaps it’s offensive to subject heroines to centuries-old double standards that real-life women are finally shattering.

But how realistic are contemporary adult virgins?

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Erections, as written by women

As varied as the romance genre is, there are a couple things most romance novels have in common.

1. They are mostly written and read by women.

2. There is usually some description of arousal, both female and male.

Reading over and over how women describe the sensations men experience has made me wonder whether readers accept some cliches because we think they’re sexy, or whether we just don’t know any better. After all, I’ll never have an erection.

There’s one erection myth perpetuated in romance novels that really annoys me as a reader.

Let me preface this by saying that the romance genre is not about recreating real life exactly as it is. Although I love my novels to be realistic, real life isn’t always sexy and romance novels should be – at least, the ones I want to read will be. So I’m not asking for romance writers to be faithful to reality when writing about arousal – just to think beyond cliches and find a more interesting way to describe our heroes.

So what’s the erection myth that bugs me like no other?

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