How to Improve the Details in Your Novel.

Old photo I took of mushrooms growing in the forest. Timely? I think not.

Old photo I took of mushrooms growing in the forest. Timely? I think not.

I have a guilty pleasure. I love to sit in the park, in the mall, whatever, with a coffee, and watch people go about their business. I started doing this a whole long time ago, around when I was ten or eleven–mostly because my mom, bless her heart, fights a mental illness that often gave me mixed signals.

My other guilty pleasure? Training myself to study details so I might incorporate the proper amount of focus to my novel. I don’t just refer to the main character, or secondary characters, or whatever: even if your MC doesn’t know how to skin a deer, or whatever, you should, especially if you’ve got a buck hanging by its ankles in the backyard of your MC’s friend’s house. Now, while that buck might seem like a ton of extra work you don’t have time for (or even interest in), it fleshes your secondary characters out. Period. And that kind of insight, or information, is reading gold for people like me, who want characters that exist.

Quick flow-through: I watch HGTV all the time for the do-it-yourself, house-hunting, remodeling, whatever aspects of the channel. I’ve hardly done a thing on a house since I was born, but that’s not the point. A recent question Magnolia raised to me was, “Why do you watch that stuff? You don’t ever do any of it, you rent an apartment, and you’re so busy on everything else most of the time, it seems pointless.” For someone who fills her time with hard work, elbow grease, and some cultivated culinary skills, I understand exactly where she’s coming from: observing something you don’t actively put to use in your life is a wasted effort to her.

She isn’t a writer. I respect her perspective. She is, once more, the reason I’m writing this blog: why did I focus on all that demo/rebuild/configuration information?

Partially, because I want to live in a house some day. Not going to lie, I want to know what I’m working with when I start looking for a home. BUT MOSTLY, it is an alternative form of People Watching I call Process Watching.

I hope this is becoming vibrantly clear to any reader why it’s important for a writer to understand how a house is built. Or how to plant a garden. Or how to skin a deer. Or how to, I don’t know, balance a checkbook on a retail job’s income. Because while a lot of people live in the rural world, farming or construction, only a few are lawyers (relatively speaking), and only a few are doctors, or crime scene investigating FBI agents, or baseball players. Most people are average joes. And unlike lawyers, or doctors, or football stars who bring their own particular skills to the table, architects, drywall experts, and real estate agents also bring their own skills. They’re also much more readily available, and probably live on your street.

I’m talking details, people. The more you know something nearby, the more you branch your knowledge into other lives, the more you can tell a story worth remembering.

I get caught up when I write–I tend to get stuck on mundane details I don’t have at my fingertips, like naming or characterization or political intrigue. Things that show up while my muse talks. Example: Nautilus (the book) had a quick scene change, where the whole nine person crew of a ship loses its rights as a merchant vessel, and is then absorbed by another, more militant, vessel. This second vessel had a crew of thirteen, along with whatever extra assets were required for such a crew. I needed names, backstory, ability, and to go along with that, DETAIL proving these people aren’t just labeled and inadequate, but full of ability and passion (or dispassion) for what they do. I spent a year fretting over a trial, and then a week fretting over the results of said trial. It’s SO slow going sometimes.

This goes particularly heavy against the NoWri-ers: why does this friendly competition even exist? Because people get stuck doing the same stuff I’m talking about. Do you know why someone who never wrote a word in their life, at fifty, sits down and writes a novel in a month (or self-help, or how-to)? The details are already ironed out! Everything TO know about the subject IS known on that subject. And he turns off the filter and revs the engine and goes.

I’m not saying to try and know everything there is to know: that’s impossible. Your brain is only capable of holding so much. I’m saying to delve a little deeper than the average homeowner, or cook, or architect, or hunter, and figure out the details of a thing. I could easily write about hunting and fishing: my grandfather owns a farm and I’ve cleaned all sorts of game. I don’t need to research because I got it already. It’s now an asset.

I think this falls under “preventative maintenance” for a writer (along with reading, conventions, socializing, eating right, being active/outside, and have a firm grip on business).

The more you look at TV programs as research, the less you will be caught up when the novel (or life!) throws a curveball. This goes true for any TV, although you should also take it with a grain of salt. CSI isn’t exactly how the whole crime scene investigation works. Same for Big Bang Theory nerds vs real life (although their snark tends to be well researched).

Details are the difference between a good book and a great one. Be smart with how they’re applied–mayhaps the only thing we learn from the deer cleaning session is there’s a corpse hanging from a tree beside a stainless steel ladder, and that’s enough to put the short, dainty lady above the “average” notch, and reveal another side to her.

Be good, people. Love ya.

Chris

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3 thoughts on “How to Improve the Details in Your Novel.

  1. Agreed – but only to a point. Over-characterisation is a common fault among many wannabe writers and not a few classic authors too! While it is important for us to know more details about our characters than we’ll ever use, it is really important we don’t try to use it!

    I’ve read way too much tat where the plot flow is interrupted again and again with endless back-story or details we simply don’t need to know for the story to move on. It kills the mood and marks the writer out as an amateur. So I agree with you that knowing our characters in-depth helps us make them real – but with caution!

    • You make a fine point! I agree that the greatest novels are a delicate balance between description and flow.

      But I must extend a question for you: would you rather read a book with too few details but otherwise a delicious read, or a book with too many details and a similar outcome? I prefer detail. Jules Verne, Herman Melville, Faulkner are three that come to mind.

      “At sea a fellow comes out. Salt water is like wine, in that respect.” (Yeah. I’m reading Moby Dick. Hah)

      • I think I prefer less detail actually. Melville is a good example, for me, of a writer who spends too long milking the metaphor and making the details more important than they actually are. Conrad is another one (I’m reading Lord Jim at the moment and finding it difficult to appreciate).

        Don’t get me wrong – I love the classics including the ones who get excited over a single detail – but I think the reason many say a book is better than the film version is because we like books to send us into a world of our own imagination. Films don’t allow that and nor do pages and pages of detail.

        You’re right to say it’s a case of balance but this also means that certain kinds of books will appeal to some and not to others as a result – which is, of course, just as it should be!

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