Details: Not the Most, Just the Best

Details when WritingLately I’ve been thinking a lot about using details in writing. One reason is that I am deep into revising a lumpy first draft, making it into something clear and sparkling. At least that is my goal! This is the time to get rid of what is not necessary and polish up what is. It’s not news that the key is using only a few details but making them the best ones. I heard that in my very first writing class, though I didn’t understand it then.

Also, I’ve recently read a few books that are deeply in the “cozy” mystery vein, where the interesting, often quaint setting is essential to the story. What I found was that too often, there are too many details. The authors are world building, almost as much as any fantasy writer, but every single detail of the world that is built is not equally important. The exact location of one setting in relation to another, the exact layout of a building, the exact geography is not important. Unless, of course, it is. If it plays a role in the plot or has an important impact on the protagonist, then it does needs to be there. The authors’ goals, like mine, are to create a vividly depicted world and then tell the story of our protagonists adventures there. I understand that perfectly. It is the details of everyday life that create mood and atmosphere, but we don’t need every detail to do it.

This was brought home to me when I then read a short story collection called Honeydew by Edith Pearlman. She is an author new to me, though one with a well-established reputation. And does she deserve it! Each story seemed perfectly chiseled, the language is so precise. Here are just a few examples: describing the creation of a modest neighborhood, the houses were “birthed together like litters.” Of a house surrounded by a wood: “It seemed the two apple trees in front had pushed themselves forward without permission.” The death of a soldier: “Each of his former parts was severed from the others; and his whole – his former whole – was severed from [his wife].” After the sudden death of a father, in the coat closet: “two raincoats hung like culprits- hers and her mother’s.”

I don’t know how she does it, the combination of precise words and careful choice of details, but I am inspired to figure it out.

The great Lawrence Block wrote a column years ago called “Don’t Take the D Train.” (Find it in the collection, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit.) He said: when it comes to transitions, getting your character from one place to another, if nothing happens, leave out the details. He admits those details are tempting because they are easier to write, – who doesn’t fall into that temptation in the first draft? – but careful trimming is necessary.

Personally, I’m a writer and a reader who likes some scene setting. I want to know where I am and who the characters are and how their life works or doesn’t. What details will do that best for the new book? Ahh. That is the big question.

Excuse me while I go memorize “Don’t Take the D Train.”