How Important Is the Mundane?

mundane to do listHave you ever read a story set in a different time and/or place from where you live and wondered what day-to-day things are like for the characters?  Perhaps it’s set deep in the future, or perhaps it’s set hundreds of years ago and you find yourself confused about some of the details in the story because they just don’t match what you have experienced in your life.  I’ve been thinking about this more recently as my kids have been reading moldy-oldies for school and have had to do research just to be able to read these stories.

It is easy to make assumptions about what our readers will understand or know about the universe in a story. Some genres, like fantasy, tend to map out the universe pretty thoroughly because the assumption is that the reader does not live in a world ruled by magic or dragons. Other genres tend to make the assumption that we all just know and understand the universe because it’s, well, our universe.

But what about if I’m writing a story today which might be read 50 or 100 years from now?  Let’s say I’m writing about a mild-mannered computer programmer and his heroic adventures in coding software. Set in the late 20th century or the early part of the 21st century, there are certain aspects of computers that we, today, take for granted: keyboards, mice, disk drives, WiFi connections, USB ports, Microsoft Windows, etc.  But in the future, how many of these things will exist outside of museums?  My guess is that virtually none of our current technology will be around even 10 or 15 years from now, let alone 50 or 100.  So, in my exciting adventure in programming, it might be interesting for me to start my story right at the beginning of Our Hero’s day, describing his custom-built alarm clock which he designed to automatically start the coffee pot (via available wireless and/or Bluetooth connection) when he presses the snooze button. It might be interesting to think about his end-of-the-day routine, where he walks the dog while brushing his teeth, then uses a robotic cat litter cleaner to take care of the cats, then uses his phone to program the car to start up the car and turn on the heater at 7:57am the next day to ensure it is warm when he goes out to head to work.  And of course, each of the exciting and heroic events of his day will be detailed in the story – clearly, his never-ending battle against poor design and Blue Screens of Death will be totally epic.

But what about the more mundane details of life as a 21st century programmer? Does it matter if Our Hero drinks 3 pots of coffee each day? Does it matter if he writes code for Microsoft Windows or DOS?  Or that he specifically writes C++ code? In the future, when computer problems will be solved just by closing your eyes, using the Direct Neural Interface implanted into your retina at birth and thinking about the fix while facing in the general direction of the closest Overlording Processing Unit, there will be no understanding of what it means to sit down at a keyboard with a debugger and type code until your eyes go cockeyed and your fingers hurt.  Even today, when I read stories about programmers just 40 years ago who used punch cards to program, I don’t fully understand it. Maybe it doesn’t matter how the computer problem is resolved. But maybe it would allow for a greater understanding of the difficult lives 21st century programmers face if it were detailed in the book.

More generally, I sometimes have a hard time balancing the “important” day-to-day events with the “normal”, run-of-the-mill day-to-day events.  I mean, we all live in the world, we all have certain things we do most days:  we eat, we use the restroom, we shower/shave/groom/etc. How much of the routine stuff belongs in a story and how much is just too much filler?  I remember one story I wrote years ago. It had a word count limit of like 1200 words or so.  I wrote it and it had about 3000 when I got to “The End”.  (This is not uncommon for me to over-write and then pare it down).  As I went through to edit, I found I had written about a thousand words about the soup this character was eating. There was nothing particularly interesting or important about the soup or the way he ate it… it was just soup.  But for some reason, at the time I was writing the story, it was critically important that the soup be in there (I ended up cutting this in the final draft, but it made it through several revisions). Clearly, this was too much… unless it’s being read in a world or at a time when soup simply isn’t something people understand.  When I watch Star Trek, I often wonder about stupid stuff like “what does the bathroom look like”. Obviously, precious screen time is never going to be spent on bathroom or hygiene plot points, but far into the future, when we can travel to the stars in a matter of moments, will we still “use the bathroom”?  Or will it be something completely different (as an aside, there was at least one episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where a character referenced the need to “go to Waste Extraction”, which, of course, lends various ideas that personal hygiene might be a little bit different in that particular future).

There is a certain school of thought that we don’t need to include any of the mundane things in our writing – we all know what a bathroom is and what is done in it, right?  We all know how to eat a bowl of soup.  And I  am certainly not saying we should be including step-by-step guides to an average character’s average day.  But if our works are going to be read in a different era – an era which is very different from today – I wonder if perhaps we should be including at least some details about the mundane stuff just so that readers in the future might have a way to connect to the work.  For example, I can imagine a future in which we no longer use sharp slivers of metal to remove unwanted facial hair. Perhaps it’s been replaced with a supersonic pulse that causes the unwanted hair to just fall out or disappear.  If a reader in this future reads my story and sees that my character is frantically looking for a styptic pencil… will the reader have enough contextual knowledge to know that the character has cut himself shaving and is looking for a way to quickly stop the bleeding?

I don’t presume to think that anything I write today will be on someone’s must-read list 50 or 100 years from now. That said, I certainly hope that one day I will write something that might be enjoyable for someone that far in the future. And if by some chance that is to happen, I will want my work to be approachable to those readers. Getting the balance right with regards to these details is something I think would be important, but I don’t think there is any one good formula for it. I’m curious to hear what you think: how much mundane detail is important, and how much is too much?

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7 thoughts on “How Important Is the Mundane?

  1. Haha–I read every item on your Do It image!

  2. Five coffees in two hours? Rob, I hope you’re going to add two glasses of water for each of those coffees otherwise yer gonna turn to dust my friend 🙂
    “go to Waste Extraction” now that sounds decidedly uncomfortable.

    • I do intermix water or peppermint tea or something like that. But yes, coffee is my go-to drink. As for “waste extraction”… it does sound like it could be an adventure. I’m reminded too of a scene in the movie “Demolition Man”, where Sylvester Stalone “doesn’t know about the Three Seashells”… and is looking for toilet paper. I *still* wonder what, exactly, the Three Seashells would be…

  3. Enough detail captures your reader’s attention and teaches them something new. Too much bores your reader and they put your book aside.

  4. I liked reading about your soup-learning. The advantage of overwriting is having the luxury to edit down.

  5. Aw, this was a really nice post. Taking a few minutes and
    actual effort to produce a top notch article… but what can I say…
    I procrastinate a lot and don’t manage to get anything done.

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