Following a Link

Searching for the telling detail is a practice that writers too often neglect. We all know that a truly enjoyable novel is filled to the brim with interesting tidbits. We marvel at how much the author knows, especially since many of the nuggets seem tossed off. Oh, by the way, did you know about . . . ? So when I encounter a manuscript almost devoid of details, I find it less fulfilling.

The reasons for the lack of details are not hard to fathom. An author may be writing at a white-hot speed, feeling the adrenaline that comes with a strong connection to the Muse that day. That type of writing focuses mainly on plot, and hopefully the characters are contributing flavors as well. The details are items to be filled in later.

Another reason is the sheer volume of details in these top-notch books. An author can be understandably daunted by how many they have to hunt for. You mean, I have to come up with something good every step of the way? What do you think I am, an encyclopedia?

To a large extent, the number of details you provide is a function of time. That is meant in the business sense of time equals money. The ability to tap resources has been augmented tremendously by the rise of the Internet, which has opened vistas in every conceivable direction. Search engines have improved AI capacity to provide useful leads to whatever is typed in the search window. So you don’t have any excuses for not tracking a subject down to a fruitful depth.

However, such a search, for merely one topic, can take a half hour or an hour or more. I have gotten lost in interesting research and looked up to find half of Saturday morning is gone. For one tidbit about pyramids, say. Who has the time for that?

The answer does depend on how committed you are, of course, and what time horizons you have set for finishing the book. Yet you have more time in your day than you might think. I, for instance, like to read about sports while eating breakfast—but when writing, I will open a library book with my handy-dandy weight bar lying across the right pages. Another prime opportunity is the evening, when so many of us are ensconced on a couch watching banal TV shows. You are depleted of energy from a busy day, for sure, but how much energy is required to click on links? You make the time—because hunting down details is just another facet of your love of writing.

Exercise: How far do you have to plumb before a detail becomes unique? I would advise you bring a character to mind as soon as you are struck by curiosity about a topic. Try to imagine how the character would handle the curious piece or the thoughts entertained about it. That bite-sized aspect of the topic is probably the right level.

“When you're curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.”
—Walt Disney

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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