Due to a scheduling glitch, we’re posting one of our favorite columns written by historical author Sherry Thomas.
Some people say the devil is in the details. I say the divine is in the details, especially when it comes to a story. It’s funny because in real life I don’t notice a whole lot of details, but in books details jump out at me. And I carry them with me years later. So here are a few things I want to say about details:
1) Details are wonderful for world-building. I’ve forgotten most of the plot of the first Harry Potter book, but I will always remember that the great hall at Hogwarts was lit by thousands of candles floating in the air. And no matter how you feel about it, the sparkling vampire is memorable. It distinguishes Stephenie Meyers’ vampires from all those who’ve come before.
If you write historicals, like me, you are also required to world-build, to recreate a vanished time. There is nothing like a good detail to take your readers back a century or few.
“It’s only vin Mariani,” she said. “They call it the French tonic, sometimes.”
He knew the wine. He’d told Collins he wanted to create a brand of it for American distribution. Its main ingredient was not alcohol, but syrup of—“Coca.” The word was his, the voice unrecognizable. Hoarse, as though he’d been screaming.
“Yes. And the powder you inhaled—also from coca.” Her lips quirked into a strange smile that made her appear much older. “Mr. Monroe, you will be so full of coca by the time you leave, you won’t even feel a bullet.”
Holy smoke. She is giving him a diluted form of cocaine. And he talks about selling it! (It would have been good business too. The word coca in Coca-Cola was truth in advertising: Until it became frowned upon to consume cocaine, cocaine was present in minute amounts in Coca-Cola.)
We are taught from kindergarten to say no to drugs, but many of today’s forbidden substances were legitimate medicine 130 years ago. By using this detail, right away Meredith takes us to a different era.
2) Details are also wonderful for character-building. Going back again to the Harry Potter books. Let’s take one of its most beloved characters, Hagrid. We can spend gigabytes talking about Hagrid, but you know what I always remember from the books?
Hagrid’s domestic activities. He knits, he darns socks, and he cooks really terrible food—rock cakes that will chip your teeth and a beef stew in which Hermione finds a talon.
Kids devouring HP books might just cackle at these little descriptions. But what J. K. Rowling has vividly portrayed is the life of a middle-aged bachelor of limited means. He does these things because he has no one else to do them for him—no wife, no house elf. Hagrid never complains, but his is at times a lonely lot.
3) Details are wonderful for character description.
From Laura Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart:
She felt herself strangely daunted by him, overpowered by his greater size, the black line of his legs, the heavy square links of the belt that hung at his hips. He wore it as if it had no weight at all, though each joint, ornate and thick, studded with the silvery sable of marcasite crystals, would have balanced a cobblestone on the measuring scale.
This passage comes late in the book. The hero has been established as a thoroughly wonderful knight. But until this point, I haven’t really thought of him as sexy. The belt, however, clinches it for me. Can you imagine the magnificent physique it takes to wear such a tremendous belt? I can and someone please pour a bucket of cold water on me.
4) Details are wonderful for regular description.
From The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood, here is the heroine imagining leaving her asshole of a husband to live by herself and wait for her lover to come back from the war:
She’ll sew curtains for the windows, yellow curtains, the color of canaries or the yolks of eggs. Cheerful curtains, like sunshine. Never mind that she doesn’t know how to sew. She’ll starch the curtains and hang them up. She’ll get down on her knees with a whisk and clean out the mouse droppings and dead flies under the kitchen sink. She’ll repaint a set of canisters she’ll find in a junk store, and stencil on them: Tea, Coffee, Sugar, Flour. She will hum to herself while doing this. She’ll buy a new towel, a whole set of new towels. Also sheets, these are important, and pillowcases. She’ll brush her hair a lot.
Everything here is detail after detail after detail. You can feel how much and with what intensity the heroine has imagined this scenario.
5) The iteration of details become important motifs in your book.
In my recent RITA-winning historical romance, His at Night, the heroine lives under her malevolent uncle’s thumb. Her only escape is a book of travelogue. Whenever she is anxious, frightened, or wakes up from a nightmare, she reads about Capri and dreams of freedom.
Later on in the book, when the hero suffers from his own nightmares, she tells him about her beautiful Capri. And when the hero screws things up, to woo her back again, he finds a copy of the travelogue, memorizes the section on Capri, and recites it to her.
Reviewers often single out this last scene for praise.
It doesn’t need to be Capri—I chose Capri since I’d happened upon a 19th century travel guide to Southern Italy when I was researching another book. She could have been reading about the Wild West or even horticulture. The important thing is the layering, the repetition. Setup and payoff, in film parlance.
6) The questions:
a) How many details constitute the correct quantity of details?
The answer does not lie in the numbers, but in the results. What you want is to banish generic-ness and hone specificity in your writing. That’s what the details are for. When you have achieved specificity, you have the right quantity of details.
b) How do I know my details aren’t just more words?
Tough question. You’ll have to be the judge. But this simple rule of thumb can help you. Ask yourself, are your details doing double—or even better, triple—duty? In the example above from Meredith Duran’s book, the quick three paragraphs involving coca not only give you a flavor just how different the 1880s are from the 2010s, they also move the plot along and demonstrate the heroine’s cool-under-pressure character.
RU Readers, what about you? Do you key in on the details of a story? What types of things jump out at you as a reader?
Tracey Devlyn joins us on Friday, October 18th.
Bio: Sherry Thomas burst onto the scene with PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS, a Publisher Weekly Best Book of 2008. Her sophomore book, DELICIOUS, is a Library Journal Best Romance of 2008. Her next two books, NOT QUITE A HUSBAND and HIS AT NIGHT, are back-to-back winners of Romance Writers of America’s prestigious RITA® Award for Best Historical Romance in 2010 and 2011. Lisa Kleypas calls her “the most powerfully original historical romance author working today.”
Her story is all the more interesting given that English is Sherry’s second language—she has come a long way from the days when she made her laborious way through Rosemary Roger’s SWEET SAVAGE LOVE with an English-Chinese dictionary. She enjoys digging down to the emotional core of stories. And when she is not writing, she thinks about the zen and zaniness of her profession, plays computer games with her sons, and reads as many fabulous books as she can find.
For more details, please visit Sherry’s website at http://sherrythomas.com
- The Beauty is in the Details, by Sherry Thomas
- The Importance of Setting with Meredith Bond
- Weekly Lecture Schedule for April 23-27, 2012 – Jessica Scott, Sherry Thomas, Jack Russell & Tracey Devlyn!
- Loucinda McGary presents: The Basic Ingredients – The 4 elements you need in addition to the HEA to write good romance.
- Creating a Relatable Heroine with Author Tawny Weber