Getting Specific With Details

by James Scott Bell

Happy Independence Day to you all! Today I shall be grilling a couple of bone-in ribeyes while sipping a cool 805, a California blonde ale (I mean, what Los Angeles noir writer can resist a blonde ale?)

Notice: In the above paragraph I did not merely write steak and beer.

Specificity of detail is the subject of today’s post. It is a bit of a riff off Brother Gilstrap’s recent disquisition on research, and Garry’s post wherein Ian Fleming extolled specific details that “comfort and reassure the reader on his journey into fantastic adventure.” I want to focus on the little details that crop up all the time as we write. How much time should we take tracking them down? Are they really all that necessary?

If you care about creating the deepest reader experience you can, then I say yes.

I saw the guy run across the street and get in his car.

is not as good as

I saw the guy run across the street and get in his Corvette.

The latter pulls us deeper into the fictive dream. The former merely moves us along.

And yet, one can get too fancy:

I saw the guy run across the street and get in his 2021 Sebring Orange Corvette Stingray, with its 6.2L V8 DI engine and 8-speed dual clutch transmission.

I started thinking about this recently when I read a review of the thriller Coyote Fork by James Wilson, especially this paragraph:

The novel’s dynamics and the broad outlines of the plot are not especially unusual for the thriller genre. Where Wilson does go off-piste is with the resolution. Refreshingly there are no fisticuffs or explosions, no implausible escapes from submerged cars or cellars slowly filling with nerve toxins, and none of those slightly over-detailed descriptions of firearms – you know the sort of thing, “he recognized the gun immediately, it was a WarCorp Deathsprayer PB600, one of only fifteen ever made, with a fine silver finish and a customized barrel mounted by a laser sight….”

Interesting thought, that, especially for those of us writing thrillers with weaponry involved. But it applies to all detail work in this way: We want to be authentic without over-larding the prose. We don’t want Papa Bear or Mama Bear writing—we want it to be just right.

How do we achieve that level?

  1. Determine the amount of detail you need

A simple guideline: If you’re only going to mention something once, and it has no other significance to the story, choose one specific detail, and that’s it. Thus:

The doorman opened the door becomes The green-uniformed doorman opened the door.

The guy in the kiosk was stuffing his face with a snack. >>> The guy in the kiosk was stuffing his face with Funyuns.

Already the writing is more vivid.

If the item mentioned is going to reappear or have some importance, you can consider adding to the description. Let’s take our Corvette example:

The guy ran to his Corvette. I’d have to be on my toes—by way of the gas pedal—to keep up with him. Those babies have a V8 engine and eight speeds. At least the hot orange color would make it easy to follow.

Notice I did not use “Sebring Orange” here. That’s because it’s a specialty paint unique to Corvettes, and most people wouldn’t know that. Which brings up the second consideration:

  1. Make sure the specific detail is something the viewpoint character would know

Terry recently wrote about this very thing. You’ve got to consider the knowledge, education and background of the viewpoint character.

For example, a dance instructor who has a gun pulled on her probably wouldn’t think this way:

I backed up against the wall. The guy reached under his coat and came out with a Glock-17 9 mm Luger pistol.

On the other hand, a character like Brother G’s Jonathan Grave has specialized knowledge. The trick is to slip it in naturally, as in this clip from Hostage Zero:

Venice clicked the remote control in her hand, and the image on the screen changed to a much younger version of the plain vanilla face, but this time accompanied by a complete set of fingerprints. “This is his Army induction photo from twenty years ago,” she explained. “His service record is unremarkable. In and out in six years with an honorable discharge as an E–5.”

Jonathan recognized E–5 as the Army’s rate of sergeant. To achieve a third chevron in six years was admirable, but nothing special.

Of course, never allow author intrusion into the narrative.

Sam didn’t know a thing about knives, but was glad to have this one on hand. It was a Buck 110, made in the good old U.S.A. Released in 1963, it set the standard for lock-back folding knives. And with its Paul Bos heat treatment it had an edge retention second to none.

  1. When in doubt, use the character’s impression of the thing

If you need specificity in a detail, but it’s something the character wouldn’t know a lot about, use a subjective impression instead.

Sam pressed the silver button. The blade unlocked. Easy now. Pull the thing open all the way. Yeah, he could work with this. Like that ape in 2001 who found out a bone can be a weapon.

  1. Fast research

If I’m “in the zone” as I write a scene, I’ll put in a placeholder (e.g. ***) for a detail to be put in later, and keep on writing.

Otherwise, I find out what I need as fast as I can, then get back to work.

One way to do this is with Google images. I once needed the word for the glass outcropping over the entrance of a hotel. I assumed it was just a glass awning, but wanted to be sure. So I Googled hotel glass awning and clicked on Images and there they were, whole bunches of them. Only they are called canopies.

Boom, done, back to work.

  1. How much research on small details is necessary?

There’s a fabulously successful author who has said, “Research for me is a very strange process, because I don’t do any…I depend on what I’ve already read, what I’ve already found out, maybe years before.”

This means that sometimes his lead character is going the wrong direction on road in Georgia. But then, how many readers are going to know that? And of those who do know, how many of them will be so bothered they won’t buy another book by said author?

It’s an ROI calculation.

My own bottom line is this: I’m willing to spend a little extra time to get every detail right. I’m sure I sometimes miss, but it’s not for lack of trying.

How about you? Are you a “detail person”? Do you need to get the little things right?

64 thoughts on “Getting Specific With Details

  1. Thanks for raising an interesting question. It’s a tough one at times. I believe that you don’t necessarily have to take a deep dive into technical matters or descriptions — you risk losing the thread of the narrative, however temporarily — but if you’re going to mention something it should be correct, such as the direction of that highway in Georgia. A reader may not stop reading you because of it, but you might also be deluged with emails by folks pointing out your error. I read a book several years ago set in Louisiana where the author kept referring to this or that “county.” It drove me nuts. I did email him and gently reminded him that in Louisiana a county is a “parish.” Perish forbid!

    Have a Happy Fourth, Jim! Enjoy the grilling.

    • Joe, you are so right about local details for a place one is not that familiar with. Like knowing the difference between a county and a parish, or how local residents refer to the roads, Highway? Interstate? Or just a number, like the 5.

      If I am going to write out of my comfort zone, Los Angeles, I always try to find a local to read those sections of the book and critique them.

      Happy 4th, sir.

  2. Good post. The fabulously successful author you quoted wrote a book in which the characters were traveling across Iowa at night. It describes a completely black landscape, no lights anywhere. Iowa has mile roads, a grid of square mile sections with farm places and their super bright yard lights spread along them, as well as a lot of small towns relatively close together. There are very few places in Iowa where one could travel at night and see no lights, most especially along Interstate 80, which is the route those characters took. When I read it, I thought it was obvious said author had not been to Iowa. It made me wonder how much of his other books used made-up details.

    At the other end, I have a book set in the summer of 1978. I researched the weather in the area for each day that summer, looked up popular music, movies, corn and soybean prices, and even if crop insurance was available then. (It wasn’t.) After reading your post, I realize I could probably have written without any of this research. Who’s going to remember or think about any of these things? Way too much detail, I now realize.

    So, thank you for this post. Incredibly helpful and freeing. Happy 4th to you and all!

    • It is indeed a balancing act, Becky. It is usually obvious when an author is trying to stuff his book with more research than necessary, probably to justify all the time that was spent.

      But lazy, nonspecific writing is also pretty easy to spot.

      You just have to find your zone and believe in it.

    • Getting it wrong is worse than not putting the detail down in the first place. My favorite fact disaster-waiting-to-happen are people who think a small Southern town would be a great place to have a cozy series set when all they’ve seen is STEEL MAGNOLIAS and the DUKES OF HAZZARD, and they stopped over at the Atlanta airport once.

    • Yep. I’ve been in Des Moines since 1993, moved here from Long Beach, and my bicoastal friends never tire of telling me how they’ve experienced all there is to see and do in the midwest because they drove across, really fast, on I-80 with the windows rolled up.+

  3. Thanks for the mention, JSB, and a Happy 4th to you. We’re grilling Ahi tuna steaks. Wild caught, but I saw no need to mention that detail.
    I once meticulously researched which constellations would be visible to my characters standing on the porch of a restaurant at a specific time of the night and on a specific date. (I think I ended up cutting that scene.) But what I didn’t research, because I had no clue I didn’t know it, was that the vehicle I gave my heroine to drive didn’t come with a manual transmission.
    My first publishers were sticklers for “no brand names; we might get sued” and I had to call the companies and get permission to use Knob Creek and Denny’s in my books.

    • Thanks for that, Terry. I tend to be like you when it comes to those little details.

      As far as mentioning brand names, your publisher had undue twists in their knickers.

  4. I hate research but I love accuracy.

    Sometimes you can make things up and it turns out to be right. In my Civil War novel I wanted my heroine (debutante turned blockade runner) to be there at the Battle of Mobile Bay. Her sloop was The Alicia. I didn’t fuss about details- my partner for that project was a military researcher. I knew he’d fix whatever. I just wrote the movie in my head.

    Turns out as reported by a soldier on watch at Fort Morgan, The Alice slipped in right when my heroine did. My partner demanded to know how I knew that, since he found it in an obscure report. I told him I didn’t “know” – I just knew.

    Drove him crazy.

    • Ha, Cynthia! I used to do a magic trick where I had a person shuffle the cards and then I would announce what the top card was. When I turned it over it wouldn’t be the card I said, of course, but I would say, “And on the way up it changed to the four of hearts!”

      I once did this in my college dorm room, surrounded by a bunch of people. Only this was the one time I got the card absolutely right. Blew everyone away.

      However, I wouldn’t build a career on this one trick!

  5. Thanks for a very helpful post, Jim. I have to admit that I have a bit of OCD, and can’t stand to leave things hanging. I usually will look for things right away. You’re right, it takes me out of the flow, but if I don’t look, my OCD keeps reminding me that I better do that soon. So, I take the path of least resistance.

    Great points on how much detail in different situations. And the one area that amazes me is detail of description of a character. I like the telling detail, but I’ve had many beta readers (usually girls) who want a whole page of character description, and they will lecture me on its necessity. The boys want the adventure fast and furious.

    Have a great day (Fourth of July) with your family!

    • Hi Steve. You’re so right in the different perspectives on character description. A lot of it depends on the genre. In my thrillers, which are in the hard-boiled tradition, I go for the lean and mean and, as you say, the telling detail.

      OTOH, I once sold a historical series idea with a female protagonist. The publisher thought it would be a good idea to team me up with one of their best selling women’s historical fiction writers. She provided deeper, fuller descriptions, especially with things like fashion. So I began collecting all sorts of books dealing with clothing and items from that period, going into newspaper archives and looking at advertisements, etc. The books were popular among an audience wider than my own, thanks to Tracie Peterson.

      • Serendipity. Just this week I was wondering how you happened to team up with Peterson in those books. I had reviewed the openings of City of Angels along with a bunch of other novels, after an editorial review suggested I jumped too soon into the action without first establishing the reader’s connection to the MC. The reviewer was pushing for a whole Raiders of the Lost Arc mini-episode to establish that connection.

  6. James, As Mies van der Rohe said: “God is in the details.” He was speaking of architecture but applies also to fiction. And, as in architecture, you need the right details, not too few, not too many, employed at the right time and in the right place. All of which comes down to the author’s own particular taste and style.

    Just as an architect doesn’t erect a building using whatever’s on sale that week at Home Depot, an author doesn’t write a book using whatever words and phrases happen to come to mind. Like buildings, books are creatively designed. Ones poorly designed will fall apart—as in Florida.

    Your post is an excellent guide to the art and craft of details. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Ruth. I love your Home Depot analogy. Sales are sometimes great, but if you always go for the cheapest rather than the best, it inevitably will require a lot of repair.

  7. This is a very helpful common sense approach on handling the details. As a person who obsesses TOO MUCH on the details, this is the cold water in the face that I need. Learning the details is great fun, but it can definitely constipate the writing if you’re not careful.

    • It’s truly a balancing act, BK, which is why what we do is art as well as craft. We have practice and find our own way across the tight rope!

  8. It’s always an honor to be mentioned in a JSB post.

    Another opportunity arises from being specific: You get to further characterize the observer.

    There’s: I saw the guy cross the street and climb into a late model Corvette. I didn’t know he was that insecure in his manhood.

    Or: I saw the guy cross the street and ease into the dream car of my youth, a flawless, shimmering red Corvette. Now I hated him even more.

    Again, tiny details that make the scene resonate more than it would otherwise.

    • Great point, John. Often it’s the character’s own impression of a thing or person that deepens the reading experience, because, as you say, it gives us a glimpse into the inner life of the observer.

  9. I try to get the details right, but like you, I’m sure I don’t always succeed. I go light with description unless the detail is important. Or I want the reader to think it’s an important detail but it’s a misdirect. 😉 That said, yes, I agree 100%. Name the object rather than using the generic term if the POV character would know what it is.

    Happy 4th to you and the missus!

    • One of the nice things about self publishing is, should you get an email about a goof, you can correct it instantly.

      Happy 4th back atcha, Sue!

  10. Jim, thanks for the great examples with the green uniform on the doorman and Funyuns–just enough to enhance the word picture in the reader’s mind but not enough to distract from the forward momentum of the story.

    Description on the fly, where the character is in action while simultaneously observing details (like the hot orange color would make the ‘Vette easier to follow) is my favorite way to work in details w/o slowing the story.

    I tend to write lean so I depend on my critique group to tell me when more detail is needed. If there are several possible details that could work, I try to choose the strongest one that gives the reader the most vivid mental picture.

    Happy Independence Day!

    • Right there with you, Debbie. Brings to mind Mark Twain’s famous axiom that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

  11. Happy 4th from the great white north.

    When it comes to my writing; and after reading many of your books on writing I am a mix. I used to be someone who would put in more details, but I’m trying to restrain myself. I’m trying hard to consider reading enjoyment when it comes to useless information they don’t need.

    I’ve also been thinking about Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series and how it relates to the above. I used to love and hate her attention to details, and how that would run on for paragraphs or pages. But somehow her approach worked. She gave a lot of information to the reader that was useless, but I for one used to love it.

    (Actually the first three novel worked well but I found the Plains of Passage too difficult to get into and stopped my journey there.)

    I would never ever be able to write like her, just don’t have that ambition. But those books have a lesson about plot vs. details and how some items might come in handy to explain the story.

    Just have to remember it’s a tricking balance. Information can be a pot hole instead of speed bump. Holding back when it matters is important before losing that reader.

    • Ben, a lot of things come into play here, including genre and author expectations. Another example is Tom Clancy. And James Michener. A wide swath of their readers love thick details. One of the reasons they buy subsequent books is to get those same things.

      My bottom line is the Rule of the Weaver. Weave these details in seamlessly WITHIN the action.

      • Totally get what your saying about genre, author and expectations. But when the author piles on the details book after book yikes. I guess when the author ignores their own format, details become a problem.

  12. Great post, Jim. Yet more learnin’ for me.

    For me, it depends on the context. As a reader, I enjoy details. But I have to admit that your “Sebring” comment was spot on. I wouldn’t know a Sebring from a hippo, so it would have tripped me up. However, having said that, I’m one of those oddball readers who enjoys looking up stuff I don’t know, and it doesn’t bother me to do it while reading. Love the Kindle thingy where you can long press on a word and get the meaning.

    In the author context, I count a lot on my husband for how much detail to add. He hates details! I love ’em…truly a match made in heaven.

    In one scene of a current WIP, my MC, a retired marine vet, checks his weapon before going outside to chop wood-they live in a wilderness area, so he’s always armed. I checked with my husband on my description of his weapon, and his comment was, “why not just call it a .44 magnum and be done with it?”

    He was right, because most of my readers wouldn’t care about the length of the barrel, how many rounds it holds, or whether there’s one click or two clicks in the trigger pull. I care, because I’m a shooter, and my MC cares, but my readers won’t. I took his advice and pared it down.

    Thanks for the details about details, Jim, and I hope everyone at TKZ has an awesome 4th!

    • Deb, I have at times left things in with the hope that readers will look things up. The trick is to make those details work without the reader having to go do that. I actually find it kind of a fun challenge.

  13. I love details, but sometimes they drag me down a rabbit hole. Like yesterday. I spent maybe an hour trying to find out what the silver housing of a laptop is made of. Lots of big words. Is polymer good enough? Is a composite with thermoplastics too much? Then I refined my search to Mac Books. The answer: aluminum. Yes! That’s silver. So now my protagonist is into Apple products—even though he looks like a PC guy.

    • I’ve been down many a rabbit hole myself, Nancy. One thing about them is that they are fun, but also can easily become an excuse to not write. We need to be like the White Rabbit, and remind ourselves We are late! We are late!

  14. Happy Fourth, Jim! Enjoy your grilled ribeye and your 805 ale. I’ll be having a grilled sausage in a bun, perhaps with a root beer.

    When it comes to details, I’m more a minimalist, and tend to find detail heavy description bogs down the narrative for me as a reader, goes against my own grain as a writer. Mainly I like to insert a telling detail or two when I can, very judiciously. The challenge for me is both my own minimalist inclination and coming up with the right, specific word or term.

    So, like Debbie above, I write lean. Revision, beta readers and editorial feedback all help me hone those telling details.

    • I’m with you, Dale, as a default setting. Since I write in a hard-boiled style, that lean and hungry look is usually desirable.

      Also desirable is grilled sausage in a bun. Enjoy!

  15. Oh yeah. I love me dem details. Like you, Jim, I’ll put in a placeholder, or if I’m curious myself or really need to self-orient to complete the scene, I’ll do the same kind of quick trip to Google Maps or Images. Here’s a frag from my current WIP where I knew the Palisades Park location in Santa Monica, CA (I used to live there), but couldn’t remember the details. So a quick check produced this:

    “So what’s this all about?” Dieter asked as he joined me at the concrete rail. Joggers huffed by and a few sunbathers took in the last of the sun’s rays on the nearby grass.

    Total time spent: about a minute or so.

    Happy 4th!

    • Ah, Harald, that is my ideal time zone: one minute! Then back to work.

      What did we do before the internet?

      I recall Dean Koontz telling about a novel he wrote set in Japan. He’d never been, and spent hours and hours studying travel guides, maps, etc. He got fan letters from people who’d been there assuming he must have been there, too!

      • Writer friend of mine took a trip to the UK, got all the requisite details about trains, tubes, and the like , put them in a book, and someone who lived there wrote to tell her she got them wrong. You’ll never win.

  16. Binge-reading Robert B. Parker, and he has Spenser aiming the car southward for a town, and in the next sentence it’s to the north. I forgave him of course because, hey, he’s Parker. Besides, he’s not around anymore to email a gripe.

    Writing a historical thriller catches me up all too frequently. Like you, rather than chase the white rabbit for Packard Limousines, I stick a marker (xxx) there and keep going. But the problem is that the old stuff is so interesting! I mean, you could tip a cabbie with a couple of quarters–hey, remember those things? Coin of the realm, now gone the way of radios and nickel candy.

    Thanks, Jim, as always, for a timely reminder about what’s critical and what’s not. Have a safe Fourth and enjoy those Blondes–the beers too!

    • Dan, I’ve written several short stories set in 40s and 50s L.A. I always dive into old newspapers–via the great online research capability of the L.A. library system–and can find myself spending way too long there. But I absolutely LOVE getting these deets right. I’ve had characters go to a local movie house…I always look up the movie ads of the time and pick the exact theater where the movie was playing.

      Blonde beer is my fave. I’m not into IPAs!

  17. I just checked my writing blog to see how many articles I’ve written on description, and it’s ten, and I barely scrape the surface on the subject.

    The amount and way to use details also tend to be genre specific. Just the cold hard facts, ma’am, may work in a detective novel, but that would be a p*ss poor way to write a romance which must be sensual, as in all the senses. But using the senses is a smart way to engage and immerse the reader into any type of book because brain science says so.

    In the interest of full food disclosure, I’m grilling a boneless ribeye, then I’ll put some boneless chicken breast on the grill to finish off the charcoal and have meals for the next few days.

    • Right you are, Marilynn. Know your genre!

      Ribeye…the best! We also love tri-tip here in SoCal…but it’s funny, that cut of meat is not known in other parts of the country. There’s a detail for you!

      • OK — tri-tip story. Being a native of LA, it was a standard BBQ cut of meat. Moved to Florida. Nope. So, I’m standing over in produce at Publix, and I hear a woman asking the butcher for a tri-tip. I knew that voice. Barbara Billingsley. I mean, how can you NOT go over and explain that she’s not going to find that cut in Orlando. She’s Beaver’s mom. I related the story to my brother, who knew exactly what cut the tri-tip was, and wrote to tell Ms. Billingsley how to get the butcher to cut her a tri-tip. And yes, she wrote back. Snail mail, back in those days.

  18. Thanks for another of many, many great craft posts, Jim! Your astute, bang-on weekly advice always sparks so many additional gems from the TKZ “wizehive”.

    I love what Marilynn Byerly just said: “The amount and way to use details also tend to be genre specific. Just the cold hard facts, ma’am, may work in a detective novel, but that would be a p*ss poor way to write a romance which must be sensual, as in all the senses. But using the senses is a smart way to engage and immerse the reader into any type of book because brain science says so.”
    Enjoy your steaks and blond ale!

  19. My youngest son worked for more than a decade as a Hollywood film editor. He and his peers delighted in finding inconsistencies in the footage they were processing. A character would pass through a doorway and miraculously his eye patch or arm sling would switch from the left to the right side. Only on very few occasions did those lapses result in the scene being re-shot, as others said, an ROI calculation.

    With frequent discussions of such things when we visited, I came to look for examples also. A recent TV character walked to a doorway with a hand full of papers and the cameras switch to a view from the other room. As he entered, both hands were fee, no papers. It wasn’t intended as a magician’s trick.

    I was warned when I started learning the craft of fiction writing, such an endeavor would forever change the way I read a book or watch a film. Understandably, even the great John D MacDonald had a few lapses. How else other than sparse research could he have kept 13 manuscripts concurrently in active search for publishing? I was rereading his The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper for style points and found a reference to a rough ride he described as being like “steer riding.” Growing up in rural Oklahoma, rodeos were an important part of my entertainment. I recognized “steer riding” as a children’s event for the age 11 and under kids, just one notch above “calf riding” for the 8 and under kids. I believe J. D. was looking for full fledged “bull riding” which would be for the aged 19 and over crowd, a very rough sport that could land one in the hospital.

    Seeing such lapses even in novels from respected authors on this site doesn’t deter me from enjoying their works. Just points out they aren’t perfect and reminds me I don’t have to be either. They are very good and I need to rise to their standards, but perfection it is not.

    An interesting psychological point, as a guy, if you take a photograph of a very pretty female and place a mirror in a way to reflect half of her face to present an artificial image of perfect symmetry, the image is somewhat jarring and less attractive. (Image editing software can easily do this.) Apparently our minds are more comfortable with something approaching perfection rather than absolute perfection. I suppose the same thing would work for women looking at pictures of men.

    • Thanks for this, Lars. Very interesting about the symmetry thing. Sounds right to me.

      As for those continuity lapses, the one I constantly see in old movies and TV shows is when somebody is smoking. He’s got the butt in his mouth in the two shot, but not in the close up, etc. Or the ciggie is half smoked in one shot, but full length in the other.

  20. I try to get things right, Jim, and hope I succeed. I know errors pull readers out of stories. And I’ve tussled with copyeditors who want to take the apostrophe out of Jack Daniel’s. Have a happy Fourth.

    • That’s funny, Elaine. Now that you mention it, I never noticed the apostrophe, either. Doing one of those quick searches on the net, I find that the originator’s name was Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel. Cool!

  21. I hate research, so I never get caught down rabbit holes. I try to learn just what I need and get out. That said, when I’m writing, I always ask myself this question: will getting this detail right change the direction/tone/purpose of this scene? Most of the time the answer is no, so I leave it for a later draft. I also ask myself this question when parsing through the advice I get back from my critique group. Can I fix this later or is it a now thing?

    • That’s a great question to keep asking, AZ. Now or later? The most important thing is to keep in flow, and that’s one way to do it. Thanks.

  22. Agreed. Pacing is important, too. When two Beretta Model 70 pistols with factory silencers appear in my story, they’re in the hands of would-be assassins, so they’re introduced as small black automatics with long black silencers. Later, when Our Heroes get a closer look at one of them, its blood-drenched condition takes center stage. It takes more than a hundred pages for Our Heroes find time to receive instruction in their use, including the tidbits that a Beretta’s safety is just an ornament and should never be used, and that you need to reload after firing an entire magazine of .32 ACP into your assailant before wondering if you’ve killed them enough yet, because you probably haven’t.

    And that’s the other thing: sounding like a sales pitch for a luxury good makes characters sound like suckers or salesmen, which is fine if that’s what they are, but people who drool less and grouse more come across as more centered.

  23. Happy 4th to all. Burgers and fries.

    Very thought-provoking detail in your post, Jim. I like the examples.

    When I think of unnecessary description, I always think of Herman Melville’s endless chapters classifying whales in Moby Dick. It was a little too much for me. I just sailed past it.

    I’m trying to learn how to walk that detail tightrope. In my WIP, I have to describe the way a clock works because it plays an important role in the climax. However, the mechanism is complicated and I wasn’t sure how to handle it. I decided to have one of the main characters explain it to a child. That way I could just hit enough detail without losing the reader. (I hope.)

    • Ah, Kay, Moby-Dick! One of my favorite novels…except for the whale parts! I guess he put them in partly to educate, which he felt he wanted to do for his audience. At the time that was more acceptable. I wish more people would give Moby-Dick a read and go ahead and skip those parts. What Melville was doing, in fiction terms, was quite extraordinary.

      • The Hubster has an old copy of Moby Dick on the coffee table, which he picks up from time to time. Of course, as a marine mammal scientist, he’s probably reading the whale parts and skipping the story.

  24. I agree about Moby Dick. All the great themes of life are in its pages. The first time I read it, I was a kid and I thought it was about a whale. When I matured enough to understand something about life, I re-read it and came to an appreciation of Melville’s great contribution. Except for the part about the different types of whales.

  25. Iowa chops and hot dogs yesterday, barbecued chicken today or tomorrow.

    I believe that if you get an important detail wrong and you get caught out you lose credibility with the reader. I recollect a fiction piece I read once about nazi Germany and a Wehrmacht officer was driving a Duesenberg. Any motorhead would have caught that.

    • Ouch!

      Of equal ouch was the thriller, published by a major, that kept in the author’s detail about SWAT team wearing Mylar vests. I kept picturing the vests emblazoned with HAPPY BIRTHDAY.

  26. Excellent post. It’s always in the detail.
    However, an old pro-writer friend from the 70s and 80s (he passed away in ’96) told me that he would deliberately plant one or two errors of fact in his books in the hope of provoking smart-eyed readers to write him and point up the error. He would select a few of the error spotters and, depending on their tone, write them to thank them for taking the trouble to point up the error, praise their skills of observation, promise them that if the book went into reprint he would correct the error and acknowledge them, and, to top off his blandishments, he would send the error spotter either a signed copy of said book with the pointed up error corrected by hand, with a personal thank you note, or send them a signed copy of another book as thanks for pointing up the issue. “Always works,” he said. “Do that and you’ll have a reader for life, who will tell all their friends what a great guy you are, not a disgruntled reader of just one volume.”

    • In every problem lies an opportunity. One just needs to dig deep to find it.

Comments are closed.