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?