It seemed like an innocent question.
I’d been working on two short stories for contest submissions. The first story was close to 7,000 words long, packed with details, and I’d been working on it for weeks. The second story I constructed out of leftover research. The first story was elegant. The second story was Frankenstein’s monster.
What do I mean by leftover research? Simple. These were the characters I started to write about in the first story, but I rejected them. Their personalities didn’t work. Their setting didn’t fit the story I wanted to tell. The time frame didn’t mesh with the plot. But then it came time to write the shorter story and they were all I had. So tap-tap-tap, they got a story.
When I read it aloud, it wasn’t quite as bad as I thought it was. My faithful readers laughed with me, not at me. They helped me find the good. I scribbled all over the pages and saw just how to improve. I was about to get back to work, when one of them asked, “What kind of sandwich?”
“The sandwich. In that setting, what are they eating?”
I thought I’d finish my revisions that night, but that question stopped me.
My reader brushed it off. “It’s not important. I was just wondering.”
But it was important—because I didn’t know. Usually, even if I don’t include details in the story, I know them. Ask me what my characters are doing or saying when they’re not on the page and I know. Ask me what fiber their clothes are made from and I know. Ask me if they wear perfume or like garlic or prefer yams to sweet potatoes—and I know! But this sandwich? It really threw me off.
That sandwich became the key for revising the entire story, because it pointed me toward sensory details. Not only did I lack the ability to taste this world, but I also wasn’t smelling or hearing or touching the world either. Everything I saw looked like it came from an old photograph. It wasn’t real.
I researched different things then: lunch menus and flowering trees and boots and hats. What would my main character read, if she read at all? How would she spend the bulk of her days? What made her different than everyone else in that same setting?
By the time I was done, I had a new story with real characters. Their voices linger with me still, whispering new possibilities for future adventures. For now, however, I’m content.
Oh—and the sandwich? It was boiled egg. And she carried it in a shiny metal pail. And the lilacs bloomed in that space just beyond the barn. She wasn’t paying attention to the fragrance though because she had her eye on two young men—the ones who seemed a little too well-dressed and a little too interested in her father’s ranch. Now mind you, none of those details made it into the story. They aren’t even details from my main character’s point of view. But they cracked that narrative wide open.
Next time you’re stuck, you might try asking yourself: “What kind of sandwich?”