Thursday, June 10, 2010


For about a week now, I've found myself noticing details, the unimportant trivia that surround me. I'm not sure if that's because I'm almost to that point in my work in progress where I need to go back through my first draft to fill in the details, make certain I haven't left dangling storylines or changed a character's name, fill in settings, etc. I'm one of those writers without a set way of putting a story together. Sometimes I re-read, re-write, go back to fill in details as I go. This time I simply plunged ahead with plot and characters without filling in much background trivia.

How important is the everyday trivia that surrounds the characters in a story? It varies from writer to writer, but most readers like enough background trivia to make the setting real. It's good to know place, season of the year, geographical particulars, laws that set limits on particular actions, and have an idea of the world surrounding the story. It's also important to get these small details right. Not long ago I read a novel that had irises blooming in the fall; it happens the iris is a spring flower. On the other hand, I just finished reading Leaning into the Curves by Nancy Anderson and Carroll Hofeling Morris and was highly impressed with their attention to details concerning the motorcycle world and a bike tour that takes the characters from Sandy, Utah, up through Southern Idaho, into Oregon, and down the California coast before beginning a return trip through Nevada. The background and setting for this adventure make the story real without dominating the story line. The writers also do an excellent job of bringing out the life changing dynamics that occur when a husband retires and a stay-at-home wife finds her territory flying out of her control. I think readers want background and settings that bring the senses into play, but they don't pick up a novel because they're looking for a travelogue or a lesson on botany.

A successful writer needs to be observant and not only in the way that most writers are people watchers. People watching is how we study emotions, physical idiosyncrasies, reactions, etc. We also need to know how wind feels, which plants grow and their peculiarities in the area where our story is set, we need to know organizations that impact an area, how taxies and mass transit operate, the names of the various parts of a saddle, what wildlife is native to the locale, the sounds and smells of the region, historical events that coincide with our chosen time period, and we need to simply be aware of the small things and events that surround the human experience.

A few days ago we stopped at a light on Redwood Road. As I gazed out the window, I saw a fat brown mouse scurry through the grass beside the road and I was struck by the fact that I've never seen a mouse walk; they always seem to be in a hurry.

I waited for an elevator beside a young woman, who was well-rounded, though not really overweight. The pockets of her jeans were well below the curve of her behind, making her tush look huge. The sight caught my attention and I began noticing other women with low placed pockets. Same thing. No matter whether the woman was fat or thin, low pockets doubled her rear view image.

A few nights ago a fast, fierce storm struck our valley. Flashes of lightning ran sideways like the printout from an electo-cardiogram. Hail bounced like pop corn from our new deck table. Water gushed in imitation of a wild mountain stream down the gutters, then it was over, leaving only a distant grumble of thunder.

Today I held my breath as a man stepped down from a platform wearing a pair of pants that were at least eight inches too long. The rough selvedge edge, he walked on made it plain the pants had never been hemmed. As he stumbled along, I wanted to tell him clear packaging tape would serve to hold a hem until he could get the pants hemmed up properly, but I said nothing.

My ten-year-old granddaughter loves my flowers; especially the Snap dragons because they open and close their mouths when she pinches the right spot. She has found that hollyhocks can be made into old-fashioned dolls with ruffled petticoats. She examines all my flowers, but she only picks the ones that bloom in the paths or somewhere outside the gardens. Her eyes light up and she wears a happy grin when she collects a tiny bouquet of Johnny jump-up pansies with bright, happy little faces to present to her mother.

Gravel trucks come in side-dumpers, belly dumpers, and plain old dump trucks.

It has been said that to write successfully, one must write about what he/she knows. Much can be learned through research, but observation is key to understanding. Reality is in the details. Anyone who wants to write needs to first be an observer.

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