The Devil is in the Detail

by Sheila Connolly

One of my earliest memories is of my father instructing me on how to remove Japanese beetles from rose bushes and kill them (in a glass jar of soapy water). I had the right qualifications: I was the same height as the rose bushes, so I was eye-to-eye with the beetles. I was three.

A couple of years later, he showed me how to putty a loose pane on the cellar window. (This is a skill I have put to good use in later years.)

My sister was born when I was four, and I have no recollection of her—not my parents bringing her home, or installing her in her new room, not my precious first sight of my only sibling. In fact, my memories of her don’t kick in until she was about one and started walking. (You might guess that I wasn’t happy about having a sibling, but I don’t now how I could have erased all memories of her.)

My sister was three here. The photographer came to our home to take the pictures. That I remember!

Why do our brains save some memories and not others? In hindsight, it appears that for most of my life my mind has been making decisions about what to keep and what to toss, without consulting me.

Recently I had scheduled medical check-up, and I had a long wait in the exam room. Of course I had a book with me, but I decided to try an experiment. Most of us who write or read mysteries might wonder how good a witness we’d make, expecially if we’ve seen a violent crime or accident, so I decided I would pretend I was going to be interviewed by the police and I had to provide as many details of the room as possible. So I started looking at the room I was in and paying attention to small things.

So far I have managed to remember: Of the room’s four walls, three were painted white, and the fourth was painted a darkish teal blue. There were three boxes of latex exam gloves, in sized S, M, and L. But the small size gloves were a different color. (Think this will solve any crimes?)

I have a strong memory for visual details, which is certainly useful to a writer. Writing that down reminded me of another memory, from when I was five and starting kindergarten. Since I was new to the school, a teacher tested me to see where I should be placed. One of the tests involved looking at a picture of a house and trees on a windy day. The teacher asked, “what’s wrong with this picture?” I looked at it and told her quickly that the smoke from the chimney was blowing in one direction, and the trees were bending in the opposite direction. I have no idea why I remember that particular event. (Maybe I should have guessed then and there that I’d be a mystery writer.)

As writers we need to use details to make our characters and their settings come alive to readers by tapping into our shared memories. We need not only descriptions of what is seen, but also of sound and smell and temperature. And actions too: writers need to recall, consciously or subconsciously, people’s expressions, the gestures they make under different conditions, how they move. All these details may not seem important in themselves, but put them all together and you create a fictional character and setting that readers can identify with.

But it’s also a balancing act: how much detail do you need to include, as a writer? Do you need to know that Cordelia put on a sweater? A pink sweater? Or her favorite sweater, the one that had once been a vivid magenta but which had faded to a kind of Pepto-Bismol pink, but she had kept it for years because she loved its matching pink socks with sheep on them? A writer has to make choices like that on almost every page. Leave out the details and you end up with a flat story; put in too many and readers lose sight of the story.

What details do you think are important in describing a character or a place? And how how much is too much when you’re reading?

16 thoughts on “The Devil is in the Detail

  1. What a great post, Sheila. When you said that about the photographer, it jogged a detail loose in my own memory – of getting a family portrait of use four kids done at home! Amazing. It’s so true about how too much detail can derail the reader. I think it’s a mistake beginning writers make that I’m sure I made in my first couple of books. That’s one reason why writing a short story with a word count limit – whether it’s 5000, 3000, or 600 words – is such a good lesson. Every single word has to count, and if that pink sweater isn’t important to letting the reader know something critical about the character or the story, out it goes.

  2. Edith, I agree about the short stories–you have to weigh each word. It’s harder to write them than most people think.

    One pitfall in writing is collecting too much research and trying to shoehorn it all into your story or book. You have to find the specific details that add to the story and reluctantly file the rest.

  3. Ah, descriptive details–the bane of my existence! I probably shouldn’t even be a writer because they don’t come naturally to me. My initial drafts are nearly all dialogue and I write notes to myself to “add sensory details” when I revise. Then, of course, I put in too many or tell my readers what every single person in the room is wearing, including the brand of perfume, and have to cut! Love your experiment. I ended up doing something similar (sort of) when I needed to describe a real government office building in another state. A friend went there and took dozens of photos for me to study . . . and got some very suspicious looks in the process!

  4. Balancing the right amount of description is tough. For characters, I like a little, but I don’t want a full portrait painted for me. And a small detail or object can be so telling–is that pink sweater cashmere or rayon, hand knitted or vintage?
    If one of your characters used that flat iron you posted on FB recently, I might think she longed for a less techy life, but also that she must have excellent upper body strength!

  5. I have a note stuck to my (desktop) computer listing the five senses, to remind me to include details once in a while. I’ll admit .. a lot of them are added in the second or third drafts, and many have direct relevance to the plot or character . If they don’t — they get tossed. Deciding which details are important which are not is an Interesting challenge Thanks for posting!

    • So true! I tend to set the plot down through dialogue, but then have to go back and add things like “she tapped her fingers impatiently on the table” or “he took a long swallow of his cold coffee”. Sometimes a poor character sits down and then suddenly s/he is across the room.

      My benchmark is always the act of stepping into a medieval cathedral in mid-summer. It’s cool and a bit damp. It’s huge. It’s dark, but the stained glass windows glow. It smells faintly of incense and mildew. Sounds echo (and if there’s a choral practice, the sound is almost a physical blow). It’s a full sensory experience.

  6. It’s about the telling detail, right? I struggle with this one, too.

    One lesson new writers often have to learn is that if you describe something in a lot of precise detail, say the protagonist’s apartment, it is actually harder for the reader to imagine because they struggle to add detail after detail to their mental picture. If you give a feel of the place, and a few details, expected and unexpected ones, it is easier for readers to picture the scene.

  7. Details are telling. Unless the sweater tells us something about the character, I don’t need to know that much detail. But a favorite sweater that has been washed so much it’s faded yet they still wear it? That tells me a lot about someone. But a sweater they bought a year ago and are putting on today because it matches their shirt? Probably don’t need those details.

    The biggest thing to me is if I am drowning in detail, I’m learning too much. It’s a balancing act for sure. But since I am so bad about making up those details, I’m a reader, not a writer. 🙂

    • You’re absolutely right, Mark. The faded old sweater tells us something about Cordelia’s character. Just putting on “a” sweater tells us only that the weather is cold or Cordelia is cold. The act shouldn’t be a fashion analysis (unless the sweater was given to Cordelia by a renowned fashion designer, which hints at a different lifestyle.)

      Now, if poor Cordelia was fleeing from agents of a foreign government, she wouldn’t be thinking about the sheep on her socks (unless it’s a code to her handlers).

  8. I have to be careful not to get over enthused about the places I love in Massachusetts. I recently deleted a scene of Sarah walking from the government center in Boston to the North End. Barb Goffman took one look and said is this a travelogue or a mystery. Sigh. Delete, delete, delete.

    • Funny! As you must know, when you’re writing about a small town, eventually you use every small item–at least with a series you can spread out the bits and pieces. But it sounds like Barb was suggesting that you leave room for people to build a picture in their head as they read.

      Having said that, I did once wander around the feed store in “Granford” I used in one of the Orchard Mysteries, because I wanted to know who could have seen the murder take place and from what vantage points. Yes, there really is a feed store, and some parts can’t be observed.

  9. Very much a balancing act.
    Your exercise in the doctor’s office reminds me that they have a little sign on the scale with three words: dog, apple, house. Patients are asked to look at them and later, in conversation, they ask you what the three words were. Now I get the point of it, but the three words are immaterial to the whole picture so why would I really “choose in my head” to remember those words over the questions I have over my meds or the lab results I read online. Yes I remember them but stumble for a moment because the topic was abruptly switched.
    Which is exactly why so much detail is distracting. It is like an abrupt change in topic and wrecks the flow sometimes!

  10. I think there needs to enough detail to convey the setting, mood, or even add to the character’s personality. It really is a balancing act not to loose the reader.
    Love your books!

  11. If you don’t describe your characters in too much detail, it makes them easier to cast in the movie or TV show about them.

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