Jan 31, 2012

What kind of sandwich?



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?"

"What?"

"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?"

35 comments:

  1. Enjoyed this, and it got me thinking!

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  2. I love your stories and they always make me think. Thank you.

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  3. When I read the title of this "What kind of Sandwich" struck me as one of those all important writing rule/questions like Who/what/where-Why/when/what then? or "Show don't sell" Wait. that wasn't right. I figured it was a rule I had missed somewhere along the line, absent from class that day.

    It reminded me of a William Gibson passage where he spends half a page showing us how an old Japanese diner cook makes perfect bacon down to pressing it flat while it cooks with a heavy iron plate.

    Maybe "What kind of sandwich?" wasn't one of those Official Writing Rules before . It should have been. It's going to be one of mine from now on.

    Thanks for this Johanna, I'll remember that phrase for a long, long time. Oh, and great photo. ;-)

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  4. Thanks for taking the time to tell me, Laura. Much appreciated.

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  5. This is a great question to remember when I want to dig deep. Thanks so much, Johanna. Personally, mine is roast turkey (not deli sliced, the kind from Thanksgiving) with American cheese on whole wheat bread with just a little bit of butter, not margarine. No mayo or any other condiment or lettuce.

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  6. Nice Johanna!! I love how you always give things a new spin. I still have your 'pay attention' tacked to the panel of my computer armoire and plan to put this title directly above it. I am hoping for guidance though . . . I worry about the history and nuances of each character as well and struggle with what to include and what to exclude in a particular story. When you reference the type of sandwich and the smell of lilacs, I found myself asking 'why didn't this end up in her story?'. How do you decide? I suppose it's really an issue of how much back story to include. What guides you?

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  7. Thanks, John. I'll be asking myself that question too, whether or not there's an actual sandwich. :)

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  8. Mmm. And the sandwich can reveal so much. Yours from Thanksgiving would bring to mind a different time than my straight-from-the-garden tomato sandwich, with just the right amount of mayo.

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  9. It depends on the plot and theme. Readers rarely appreciate long descriptions, so all the details have to earn their keep. Maybe the boots aren't important, but knowing they hurt the character's feet and she doesn't let on--that might be significant. The smell of lilacs might not be important, but if she looks at cherry blossoms and calculates harvest income rather than appreciating beauty, that might be. The details become significant as they are filtered through the character's eyes and reveal character or plot development.

    I rarely get this right in a first draft. It's easier to see in hindsight.

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  10. I really wanted to use the picture here:

    http://freepages.family.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~mcconnelhomesteads/album_riverside_July4.html

    but I didn't have time to write and ask permission.

    I opted for a photo in the public domain instead. It's not an Idaho photo, but the time frame is right and I love all those lunch pails. It was taken at a copper mine in Michigan. More information about this photo is available here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:TamarackMiners_CopperCountryMI_sepia.jpg

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  11. Johanna - The Riverside 4th of July photo is one of my favorites too & I was thrilled when Merv let me use it on the website. I'm sure he would have been pleased to let you use it.

    Sharon

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  12. Great question Johanna!! I just had these same thoughts mulling around in my head this morning. Now I know the question I need to ask!

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  13. Johanna, this is a great analogy. I'm learning that every detail doesn't need to be in the story to be important but I need to know all the details anyway. Thanks for a great way to remember.

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  14. That's what I get for finishing up my blog post late at night. :)

    I'd been staring at that photo for two days. I should have known I'd end up writing this post.

    I also found that the picnic photo is a fairly rare capture. I thought I'd quickly find something similar in the public domain collections, but I didn't. I found a lot from the 1930s and 40s, but nothing else this early in Idaho. The clarity of the photo and the details are so striking. It's really a treasure.

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  15. For those of you studying food for your writing, "The Food Timeline" is another helpful resource: http://www.foodtimeline.org/food1.html

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  16. It's good to know I'm not alone with these thoughts! :)

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  17. Yes. The more we know our characters, the better we can write them, but we also end up with lots of extraneous information to sift.

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  18. Love the way you got around to your research, Johanna. Yes, and if the characters are in a deli or a diner, are they eating at home and are they Italian or Irish? Does the main character eat like a truck driver and look like a sparrow? Love adding loud, happy meals, rambling prose about walking or watching the world go by. In each book, the setting is the second most important character, and what they do or eat ... even what they put between slices of bread ... carries an impact. Thanks :)

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  19. This made me hungry -- thanks for a great post on the details.

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  20. As I read your post, I started thinking about what kinds of foods my hero liked and I could picture him in my mind's eye more than I ever had thus far. Thanks for the great thought provoking words-once again!

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  21. Ha. :) Here, have a sandwich.

    Thanks for commenting, Megan!

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  22. That makes me really happy, Mary. :)

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  23. Great advice, as usual, Johanna. I'm sure I'll remember that sandwich for a long time to come. Thanks!

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  24. I'm sure I mentioned this somewhere but Paul Bowles talks in his autobiography about how Jane Bowles one day came and asked him how a cantilever bridge worked. She kept answering ever more detailed questions until he finally (irritably, I gather) asked why she wanted to know. It was because some of her characters were going to walk across it. For Paul Bowles, it was enough to say 'There was a bridge.' But Jane Bowles - well, she would have wanted to know what kind of sandwich too.

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  25. Thanks for this, Gabriel. That's a great anecdote.

    It sounds obsessive, but I really get it. How the bridge works may not be important but, if we don't know how it works, how can we evaluate?

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  26. Egads, just when I thought my characters and plot couldn't get any more complicated! This is so true, however, and thanks for reminding me. Thanks to our readers who ask these questions, too. And finally, thank you for telling us about it and reminding us that characters have to be real.

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  27. I think this is GREAT! It's always the little, minute details of the story which hold the most flavor. They tell you whether or not you really know what's going on. Sometimes we write stories in the same way as essays, we're writing ABOUT something but not THROUGH the eyes of a character or from the INSIDE of an experience. It's a profound question: What kind of sandwich?

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  28. Readers who are not writers often ask me the best questions. They're wonderful!

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  29. Yes! That's it exactly. If we're inside the experience, we know the details.

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  30. A fascinating post. You've really got me thinking about researching character. Thanks. I popped by from Mariam's blog.

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  31. I am going to try this in my writing today:) Great idea! I can see where details like this can add so much to a story.

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  32. So good to see you here. That Mariam is wonderful. :)

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  33. Excellent! Please let me know how it goes. :)

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