Using a Sensory Detail to Invent a Narrative
It’s a summer Sunday here in central Ohio—temp in the low eighties, humid and mostly still, just the slightest stir of air from time to time. Such Sundays always remind me of similar days from my adolescence in tiny Sumner, Illinois—days when people could be lazy if they chose, days that could truly be days of rest. There weren’t many places to go anyway. For the most part, the stores were closed. Only Piper’s Sundries and Billy Jones’s drug store stayed open so folks could pick up their Sunday newspapers and whatever items they might need. A small neighborhood market stayed open for anyone needing a grocery item for their Sunday dinners. The other grocery stores were closed as were the hardware stores and the gas stations and the cafe. It was a pretty darned quiet time in our town of a thousand people, a time that asked us to slow down, not unlike the request the pandemic is making of us now.
Quiet though those days may have been, they were still filled with sound—an oscillating fan ruffling the edges of a magazine’s pages, the rustle of the Sunday newspaper as my mother read it, the creak of a porch swing, the bang of a screen door coming shut, the low murmur of a St. Louis Cardinals’ baseball game on the radio. Sounds can be particularly nostalgic, but so can smells and tastes and textures and sights. The senses take us back into the past. For writers they can also propel a story into being.
It doesn’t take much to start a story. We can take sensory details from our memories and use them to invent a narrative. That oscillating fan, for instance. What if it belongs to a woman named Emma Springerton? By the way, Emma and Springerton are two towns in my southeastern Illinois. Town names, maybe two you pluck from an Interstate exit sign, can begin to suggest a character. But back to Emma Springerton. Let’s say she works six days a week as a laundress at the local nursing home. She’s a woman in her sixties, but she has to keep working because her husband Calvin has trouble holding down a job. Sundays are her days to put her feet up and to escape the heat of the laundry room and the detergent that causes rashes on her hands. It’s her day to enjoy, but on this day (obviously we’re either in a time before most people had air conditioning, or we’re in the present and the Springertons don’t have enough money to afford even a window unit) her oscillating fan stops working, and the house is stifling, and she just can’t stand it, so she asks Calvin to take her for a ride down the shade lined roads of the local state park just so she can feel the breeze on her face—doesn’t she deserve at least that?—and Calvin, though he’s content to nap to the sound of the baseball game, finally agrees when Emma says to him, “You’ve never cared a snap about my comfort.” Oops, there we are, beginning to touch the resentment Emma carries with her, and Calvin’s sensitive nature because, of course, he’s always loved her and wishes he could give her all the things she’s wanted. Only now, he’s hurt beyond words because she’s pointed out how he’s failed her, so the two of them start out on their drive with a lot of unspoken hurt in that car between them.
Let the story begin. What happens on that drive that’s out of the ordinary? What complications do Emma and Calvin encounter? What truths does the narrative bring to them?
I’d like to point out here that I didn’t know any of the details about Emma and Calvin until I began to write about them. The sound of the oscillating fan comes from my own memory, but everything else is imagination. We can use sensory details to touch some resonant part of ourselves—something unresolved perhaps—so we’ll be invested in the people’s lives we’re creating in a narrative. The rest is a matter of letting the sensory detail kick the narrative into motion. A fan stops, a wife makes a request, a husband balks, the wife claims he’s never cared about her comfort, she carries her resentment and he carries his hurt into the car. What’s out there waiting for them?
Thanks for this example of how sensory details can lead a writer into a story. I’m going to share the link with another aspiring writer I know.
Thanks, Ellen. I hope the post proves useful for you and your friend. Keep doing the good work!
Love this. It’s how I write, too. The smells, mostly, though.
Isn’t it interesting how each person seems to favor one sense over the others?
My sister recently mentioned The Mutual UFO Network so I got a copy and read the first story. Absolutely stunning — it has such a marvelously delicate touch! From the pea shoots to his mother’s soft voice to Yum Yum’s fuzzy head. Beautiful. Even the “peeping” has a subtlety. Can’t wait to read more.
I’ve got a question arising from your blog topic if it’s not an imposition.
Hi, Andrew. Thanks so much for the kind words about “The Mutual UFO Network.” I’m happy to have your question. I’ll do my best to answer it.