It’s been decades since I smoked, but I haven’t quite given up the habit. Having no desire to inhale burning vegetation these days, I still enjoy a vicarious smoke using the lungs of my fictional characters. In fact, smoking is a remarkably useful literary tool.
I identify four ways to exploit tobacco in fiction, but there are undoubtedly more.
But let me first offer a caveat: If you’ve never smoked, the remainder of this post might not hit that sweet spot: The hit you didn’t get from the first slim, black Balkan Sobranie outside a club in Soho; the hit you missed from the first gorgeous, toasted lungful of a Gitane outside Gare du Nord; the hit you could never experience from a mean-spirited little Players No. 6 after a meat pie and a pint in the Lawnmowers Arms somewhere west of Croydon.
Whoops, I slipped into nicotine reverie. Anyway, here are the four ways I use tobacco without actually smoking the stuff:
Historical setting: When I was a student at London University in the seventies, there were still ashtrays in tutorial rooms. Smoking wasn’t taboo. It wasn’t stigmatised. It was perfectly OK to inflict second-hand fumes on your tutor, or sit at the back of a plane filling the armrest ashtray with dog ends. But nowadays, only bad people smoke, and the best way to cast a negative shadow over a character is to have them light up. But good characters can reminisce about the Good Old Smoking Days. The shortest sex scene I ever wrote, set in 2011, goes, ‘Thea sat up, flushed and tousled, and pulled the covers around her. I lay back and mentally smoked a Gauloise’.
Social gradation: If you’re working in seventies England, as I am with my current work in progress, smoking is a wonderful index for where your characters fit into society: Working class characters smoke roll-ups and cheap fags (the Players No.6 is the epitome of poverty smoking, especially with a packet of ten rather than twenty). Better class smokers are more of your Benson and Hedges types, and homosexual men puff effetely on menthols. Elderly men in tweeds suck on pipes, and posh old geezers smoke cigars. Lesbians haven’t been invented yet.
Filling in a pensive pause: Want to fill a pause while your characters need to have a think? Let them have a smoke. You can tell that smokers are thinkers when you watch those wretched outcasts having a gasper outside the office block and pretending that they are pondering a takeover bid for CitiBank. The key to blowing a tobacco-induced thought bubble is to exploit the physical and psychological details of smoking: Tapping the packet, finding the lighter, the first delicious puff, the sixth puff when you realise how much you hate being addicted, loathing the stinking ashtray. But what a boon for the writer, when a bit of internal monologue can be slipped into the moments of mental vacuum.
Male bonding: What did two blokes do in the Good Old Smoking Days when, left alone, they could find no words? They had a fag, and busied themselves with tapping the packet, finding the lighter, inhaling manfully, etc. Saves on dialogue!
Time for a Scotch, I think.
I write quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption. Have a look here.