As anyone who has read Dave’s blog posts knows, the ordinary can be made extraordinary with the right touch. I treasure his descriptions of nights finding things one would prefer not to discover with bare feet and other such joys of life – and I have made my own share of these nocturnal findings, what with two cats who have the usual feline stomach and hairball issues at times.
Then there are the other quirks of normal life that can become something special when told the right way. I’m tempted to refer to the saga of my 3 day drive from Houston to my little piece of not-quite-rural Pennsylvania, the one I did with a broken ankle. Suffice to say I learned a lot about what I could and could not tolerate in those 3 days. Freaked out the staff at the Emergency Room, too – there’s nothing quite like arriving at triage to be told “You’ve broken that.” and scheduled for X-rays to find out what and how badly you’ve broken that (I really was ridiculously lucky with that break. Snapped the ankle bone clear through but didn’t displace it despite walking and driving for 3 days, so I didn’t need surgery).
My recent run-in with an allergic reaction swelling up the back of my throat and making breathing challenging got me a whole lot more “interesting” in the world of ordinary. I doubt I’ll ever forget the feel of the back of my throat thickening and closing like that. Nor will I forget the freak out I only just managed to keep from turning into full-blown panic attack when the ER folks started with the full set of diagnostic scans. It’s one thing to know on an intellectual level that they want to make sure the allergic reaction isn’t screwing with your heart, but I guarantee the emotional kick of that particular precaution is a big one.
I’ve mostly had a pretty boring life, but I’ve still had enough experiences to use as story fodder or just to spice up a description here and there. The way a broken bone hurts isn’t the same as the way a cut hurts – something you don’t realize until you’ve suffered both. Which… well, we writers do tend to put our characters through the wringer, don’t we? When you can add the little details like the way when I stood on the foot with the broken ankle it was weak and didn’t hurt too much if I had it completely straight, but if there was the slightest angle I got a bolt of sickly white pain all the way up my leg, you can use them to make your readers wince as if they’re feeling an echo of what you felt.
I shan’t be evil and go into details about things like the time when I was a kid that the family got back from a vacation to discover that the cat had fleas, and in our absence the fleas had thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to make baby fleas and we had a kind of black carpet hovering of the actual carpet. Flea bombs smell nasty, too.
Of course, on the flip side there’s times like warm summer days where I’d ride my bicycle down the street to the saltbush that was about the only thing approaching trees that grew on the cliff where we were living at the time. I knew the trails through there like the back of my hand, and I’d found a place where I could sit at the top of the cliff and watch the ocean. I’d spend hours there, just watching the sea. It doesn’t take much to smell the mix of sea salt and rotting seaweed that’s so much of the ocean smell, and to feel warm, coarse reddish sand under my hands.
All these little ordinary experiences can be put to work to bring readers into your characters lives. The textures and scents are possibly the most evocative, with taste coming in somewhere after that (although I’ve found that mixing taste and smell works quite well in description, most likely because the two mingle a lot anyway). Sight and sound seem to be more the bread and butter of description, at least as far as I can tell. I’d find it hard to describe something like Australian saltbush, but I could tell you that it smells like woody ocean air with an underlying tartness – and I remember that smell so clearly that all I need is to think about my time exploring near my home and I can smell it again.
Which, of course, lasts until the next time one of the cats decides that the litter box in the bathroom is much easier to visit than the one downstairs in the basements, and the waft begins.