Skimming for Riches

A good novel is stuffed full with details. Hundreds of narrative sentences contain a pinpoint observation or physical reference point for the characters occupying the setting. A casual reader may well wonder: how could the author come up with so much great minutia? While it is true that good writers are observers, you can avail yourself of a more practical method: actively minded research.

You can choose the topic you want to illuminate and then go hunting. Let’s say you want to write about life in Chicago during the Depression. Any number of history books and websites contain photos and drawings that you can peruse. You can flip through them, looking for a detail that catches your eye. In particular, you want details that cement that place and time. You won’t find anyone today carrying a sandwich board, for example. A Hooverville by the railroad tracks can pin the reader to the 1930s.

Such details can be amassed in several ways. The first one is jotting down items on a list. You see a detail, it looks evocative, and you write it down. Later on you may have to sift through dozens of pages, looking for it, but even that random process can be invigorating. As you read through the list, new ideas can be sparked in your mind, leading to more details.

A second variety consists of details you select for specific characters. You might be curious, for example, about what details of clothing separated a destitute woman from one unaffected by the Depression's economic fallout. As you file through photos or written accounts, you can target your specific concerns and then jot them down under a list for each character.

Another fruitful source comes from watching movies. Forget about the story lines; you want to pay attention to the scenery, the costumes. As long as you watch them on a streaming device, you can freeze frames when a telling detail leaps out at you. Your involvement in poor Nell’s pathos may be restricted, but you can write down that great image of the laundry being hung across the living room window. 

Throughout the process, you are not a passive note taker. By putting images and ideas into your own words, they are also crafting how you want to use the material. One writer might focus on the tattered hem of a dress, in the example above, while another contrasts a man’s pants with his child’s socks. In your accumulating embarrassment of riches, you can apply any interpretation you like.

Exercise: The process undergoes a second infusion of creativity once you place the detail in the manuscript. At that point you not only know which character is affected by the detail, but what they are doing in that specific scene. How the item is judged changes accordingly, and you may find that the end result is quite unlike what you originally wrote down.

“The truth is in the details.” —Stephen King

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.