Some stories tell themselves. The events and characters are so dramatic that the story is exciting, passionate, or gripping no matter who tells it. But good writers shine in the mundane. They spend time in the ordinary day – getting up and having a cup of coffee, dressing for the day, taking a walk, doing the dishes. In fact, for me as a reader, dwelling with someone else in their routines draws me in, makes me feel like I am right there in the day along with the narrator. Few writers are able to do this.
I’m reading a novel called The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. The author, David Wroblewski, is one of the few.
One of my favourite passages describes how the boy, Edgar, has learned how to navigate the stairs of their old farmhouse. Perhaps I love this passage because I, too, lived in an old farmhouse with a squeaky staircase. Here’s an excerpt:
Edgar and Almondine stood atop the bedroom stairs, boy and dog surveying twelve descending treads, their surfaces crested by smooth-sanded knots and shot with cracks wide enough to stand a nickel in and varnished so thickly by Schultz that all but the well-worn centers shone with a maroon gloss. Treacherous for people in stockinged feet and unnereving to the four-legged. What most impressed Edgar was not their appearance but their gift for vocalization – everything from groans to nail-squeals and many novelties besides, depending on the day of the week or the humidity or what book you happened to be carrying.
Wroblewski spends one more page, maybe five paragraphs, from this point to describe each step and its idiosyncrasy. So much richer than just the blunt, stark, “He walked carefully down the creaky stairs.” You might think that such detail would slow down the story, make you fall asleep or at least abandon the book for something more fast-paced. But it doesn’t. In fact, as I read, I feel the suspense grow because I don’t know why he is going downstairs. I don’t know why he needs to avoid the squeaks and groans. And as he toes and side-steps, so do I along with him.