Details should be more than a writer’s friend; details should be our lover. Get intimate, close up. Slow down. Examine him/her with intense and specific attentiveness.
Details make the place in our writing real. Whether it’s travel, memoir, stories or a novel we write, it’s the details we choose that can make our piece live on the page.
Look at the details of place in this excerpt from the Master of Detail, Monsieur Proust.
To live in, Combray was a trifle depressing, like its streets, whose houses, built of the blackened stone of the country, fronted with outside steps, capped with gables which projected long shadows downwards, were so dark that as soon as the sun began to go down one had to draw back the curtains in the sitting-room windows; streets with the solemn names of saints, not a few of whom figured in the history of the early lords of Combray, such as the Rue Saint-Hilaire, the Rue Saint-Jacques, in which my aunt’s house stood, the Rue Sainte-Hildegarde, which ran past her railings, and the Rue du Saint-Esprit, on to which the little garden gate opened…
Proust paints a picture with words. We can see this dour village in country France. The action of drawing back the curtains as soon as the sun starts to set gives us a sense of how gloomy it is to live here. By naming the specific streets Proust gives the town a solid presence, an authenticity.
Last summer she had stripped the room bare of all her posters, all the images of movie stars, celebrities and pop stars; she chucked out Robbie Williams and Gwen Stefani, Missy Elliot and Johnny Depp. The only picture she couldn’t bring herself to part with, was one she had ripped out of a TV Week, a small black and white photo of Benjamin McKenzie from The OC. It reminded her of Richie and she kept it Blu-Tacked at one edge of her bedroom mirror…There were only two posters on the walls now. One was of a clear blue desert sky shot through with razor wire, protesting the inhumane detention of refugees in Australia. She had snaffled it at an anti-racism rally the year before. The other poster was a stark image of an Arab child with a petrol pump murderously aimed at his head. In Arabic and in English the stark red lettering read NO TO BUSH’S WAR FOR OIL.
From the details Tsiolkas provides about the girl’s bedroom we learn a lot about her. We get a strong sense of this character, her concerns and passions, and the recent change she has undergone, without even meeting her. Tsiolkas names the objects specifically: we know each celebrity and what they stand for; it’s not just any magazine but TV Week; the tv programme is The OC; it’s an Arab child. These details do two things. They help us draw conclusion about what sort of person would have these things around them, would live in this place, and they provide a picture for us to see.
And how evocative are these few well-chosen details Anthony Doerr uses to describe his characters in All the Light We Cannot See:
Levitte the perfumer is flabby and plump, basted in his own self-importance.
Sargeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel is forty-one years old, not so old that he cannot be promoted. He has moist red lips; pale, almost translucent cheeks like fillets of sole; and an instinct for correctness that rarely fails him.
Not only do we get a sense of what the characters look like but we also learn about an important aspect of their personality. “Basted in his own self-importance…”? Skin as translucent of fish fillets? Unpleasant men, both of them.
These examples show me just how important observation is as a means of collecting precise details to draw on. We need to see this wonderful world we inhabit and the world of our characters in microscopic detail if we hope to bring it to life on the page.
This week in my daily writing practice I’m going to slow down and get close and personal with the details around me. I challenge myself to go somewhere different everyday to observe and write what I see, smell, hear, taste and touch. Part of what I wrote today:
It is pouring this afternoon. I sit at the dining room table writing. Beside my journal is a cold cafe latte half-drunk and an empty Lindt wrapper. A cold breeze flits across my bent neck. The doors and windows are locked. I put down my pen and get up to turn on the overhead light. The shadow of the palm fronds thrashes desperately at my window as if trying to get in. Or to warn me of something.
Why don’t you take on this weekly challenge, too?