As a writer I make it my business to pay attention to details. I’ve always done it. Even as a little kid I would notice things the adults around me would miss. I also have a crazy scary memory for minutia. Like the time a friend of my mom’s, Lynn mentioned that she worked with a certain Gail who had a crooked nose. Weeks later at the bowling alley, Carol and Kim, two women who bowled with my mom, were once again oblivious to my presence. I was so much a regular to the Tuesday and Thursday bowling leagues that they forgot I was listening.
They were gossiping about how Gail was such a whore and how she probably did things with men, for money. Kim commented that anyone who worked in “that kind of place” was probably a whore as well. I had no idea what “that kind of place” was. Those kinds of details are not important to the story yet. I’ve learned that. Those details will present themselves with time. Even at eleven I knew they were being catty, but I filed the information away and went back to reading A Wrinkle in Time.
Four months later, I was sitting at my grandparents house flipping through the paper after my grandpa had finished reading it. Deep into the entertainment section I saw series of head shots of young women. They were strippers and advertising a specific club. The first picture was a young woman with a crooked nose named Gail and my mother’s friend Lynn was the next picture over.
I looked up at my grandma and asked, “So, is Lynn a whore as well as a stripper?”
Grandma walked over, took the paper away from me and said I’d have to discuss it with my mother. I didn’t even know Gail. I’d never met her. But the way Carol and Kim had described her and Lynn’s picture next to hers, I was able to put things together.
Events like this have occurred all throughout my life. It’s amazing to me how many connections you can make if you just pay attention to what’s going on around you. Writers are voyeurs. It is our business to collect things and string them together into stories that entertain, enlighten and possibly, earn a bit of coin.
Don’t think as a writer you need to give the reader every detail of a scene, an argument, or a moment of passion. What the reader needs is a few specific details, the overall feel of the scene, and enough runway to get off the ground. They can fill in a significant amount from their own imagination. It’s a balancing act. How many pieces of furniture do I need to describe to give you the idea the characters are sitting in a diner? How many specific sensory inputs ground you in the tacky booth with the overflowing ashtray and half empty coffee cups? Do you need to see the one lonely slice of lemon meringue pie in the class container on the counter? How about the way the waitress has a stain on her uniform, or perhaps the pungent aroma that greets you as you first walk in the door — that grease and despair, old cigarette smoke and overcooked bacon.
You could describe every barstool and every patron, but how long do you really have before you lose the audience? The last thing you ever want is for the reader to look away from the page. Rolling their eyes at the overload of details is one cause for folks walking away from a story. Flipping ahead to see if anything interesting happens is another fatal point.
So you need to come up with those important details that are critical for the story to connect. A young woman named Gail with a crooked nose who is a stripper and possibly a whore. Then later, when you see a picture of a Gail who is a stripper and she also has a crooked nose, your audience will start to put two and two together. Seed clues along the way, little details and points of interest that will make your reader’s story brain start to click. They are looking for road signs that will point them to a satisfying connection and a plausible conclusion.
It’s a tough skill to hone. I know I struggle with it all the time. Fortunately writing allows you to go back and weave in details as they unfurl in your writing brain. Unlike the real world, where you may not have the luxury to go back and look for all the right clues; in fiction you not only have the ultimate control over space and time, you also have the ability to rewrite history so it fits the story’s needs.
We are builders, we artists. We create something from nothing. It is a gift and a curse that will haunt us for our entire lives. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t listen to half a conversation in the elevator at work and I fill in the blanks. I saw two squirrels chasing each other round and round a tree one morning and I store that scene away for another time. Someday I’ll have a story where the characters are walking through the woods and they’ll happen upon the strangest scene with two squirrels.
But you must keep your head up, your ears open and your mind engaged. That’s the life of a writer. We observe and report. Just because the next story you see from me deals with aliens or elves don’t be surprised to find some mundane details that enrich the story and make it believable enough for you to follow along.
If you do the job well enough, you can turn something simple into something magical. It’s all in how you put the puzzle pieces together.