From our archives:
The devil is in the details—not only when moving forward with any plan—or with life, but also when working to make a novel, short story, or even narrative nonfiction come to life for the reader.
In the following examples—selected randomly from my bookshelves—the specificity of the details pulls you right into each scene.
The slick black road became narrower, windier, became the single-lane track I remembered from my childhood, became packed earth and knobbly, bone-like flints.— from The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
His eyes had the bluish gray color of a razor blade, the same polished shine, and as he peered up at me I felt a strange sharpness, almost painful, a cutting sensation, as if his gaze were somehow slicing me open. — from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Her clothes can stay behind—her humble pale-print dresses, her floppy hat. The last library book can remain on the table under the sagebrush picture. It can remain there, accumulating fines. — from “The Jack Randa Hotel” in Open Secrets by Alice Munro
With just a few precise details, the authors do more than describe; they weave their tale. The road in Gaiman’s story speaks of the character’s childhood, perhaps a rough one, based on the bumpy flints. The razor-like stare of the man in O’Brien’s scene lets us know the main character has met someone from whom it may not be easy to disengage. And while we know that Munro’s character visits the library, the urgency of her departure makes an overdue book seem trivial.
So, details, yes, but only the right ones. That’s something I struggle with in my writing. As a former journalist, I was taught to focus on the who-what-when-how, so I’m prone to put in too much information.
Earlier this summer I was fortunate to hear Colum McCann speak at the Rutgers Writers Conference in New Jersey. I loved his Let the Great World Spin, and I wasn’t disappointed by what he had to say. In his keynote, he told us of his travels across America when he first arrived in the U.S. from Ireland. All interesting, entertaining stuff, especially when told in his lilting accent, but what really resonated with me was what he called “the beauty of the extreme detail.”
It’s finding the one bit of description to insert in the scene that makes your reader believe that what you’ve described is true. How do you find that one perfect bit? Through your research, of course, whether the research of human experience, through interviews, or by Internet searches.
McCann offered for his example his research into the world of ballet while working on Dancer. After spending hours of time hanging out with a ballet de corps, learning the terminology, the joys and frustrations, the daily life of a dancer, he took his young daughter to see their production of The Nutcracker. He later shared with the dancers his daughter’s hands-down favorite scene: the Waltz of the Snowflakes, with the snow drifting down. It was, the daughter said, magical.
Instead of agreeing with him, the dancers groaned: That scene was their least favorite. The “snow” that fell was swept up after every performance and set aside to let loose at the next one, without filtering out any of the dirt and debris that might have been on the stage. The dancers told McCann that the only thing they could think of when the “snow” began falling was that they would need to wash their hair.
He said that nugget of detail gave him more cred among dancers who read his book than if he had used other, more mundane descriptions of the corps.
I can’t say that I no longer struggle with the details in my WIPs, but they don’t devil me quite as much.
How do you decide which details to include in your writing?
My favorite books as a tween were solidly in the science fiction and adventure realms. My father introduced me to his favorite authors: Bradbury, Asimov, and Heinlein, and the public library helped me find others. I was astonished by the breadth of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, a series of stories about a Galactic Empire that predated by several decades the evil empire created by George Lucas. (A TV series version of Foundation is due out in 2021.)
As an adult I moved down a different reading path, in part because of the various book clubs I joined. Most were interested in either literary classics or women’s fiction, neither of which almost never included science fiction.
But lately, I’ve returned to reading the genre—loving The Sparrow and its sequel, Children of God, for example. And I discovered something new about Isaac Asimov: He also wrote mysteries. At a virtual writers conference I attended this year, a presenter mentioned Tales of the Black Widowers, a collection of short stories by Asimov that Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine published in the 1970s. I found a used copy online and dug in.
The set-up seemed somewhat dated: This is a men’s-only club that meets monthly, and women are forbidden to attend. But the stories themselves are fun little mysteries, with one character (not giving anything away) who is particularly astute at solving the puzzling situations presented. I was delighted to find out that the Black Widowers has several sequels, the first of which not surprisingly is called More Tales of the Black Widowers.
This is the centennial year of Asimov’s birth, with only a few days until that ends (on Jan. 2). He was a prolific writer, author of hundreds of books and stories, as well as being a biochemist and professor.
Speaking of mysteries, it’s nearly time for the Bethlehem Writers Group’s annual short story contest, which opens Jan. 1, 2021. The contest theme is An Element of Mystery. So, sharpen your pencils and get busy crafting your version of the mystery story.
Tatum checked the time: twenty minutes after Luna Hour 17, and Avery still hadn’t shown up. It was Tuesday Happy Hour, their ritual weekly date since Tatum was hired by the Zoning & Mining Commission last year. Not that she ever called it a date; she and Avery weren’t an item. She was sure of that.
But Tatum enjoyed Avery’s company, and Rick’s Café in Luna Center made the best Frozen Tychos in the entire city compound.
Avery was the one who had suggested that they hit Rick’s—Tuesdays were Ladies Night, a retro gimmick that appealed to the younger crowd in Luna City, which was pretty much the entire population. Luna Council had an upper age limit for immigrants, with the result: almost no one was over fifty-five.
“Another Tycho?” the wait staffer in Luna blue murmured at Tatum’s side.
Tatum nodded. What the hell. If Avery was standing her up—but he wasn’t, because they weren’t an item—then why not make the most of the evening before she headed back down to her pod on Level 9?
The cabaret was full, standing room only at this point, and Tatum watched the crowd churning through the room, laughing, talking, bouncing in the low gravity—one table was even singing a rousing happy birthday.
She sighed and drained her glass. Elbow to elbow with more people than she could count yet very, very alone: the life of an introvert engineer.
“May I?” A goateed man about her age nodded to the empty chair opposite her. He wore the dark green shirt and pants of the Air Quality division. “Our table needs an extra chair and this one is . . . ” He shrugged and smiled. It was a warm smile, a friendly one.
Tatum shrugged back. “Go ahead. I got ghosted. I won’t be needing it.”
The man raised his eyebrows, and Tatum knew she was being scrutinized; the gray Mining division uniform, her dark mass of curls, her face that tended too often toward seriousness. “His loss,” he said kindly. “I’m Sam. Please join us—we’re celebrating Kammy’s birthday. We’d love another partygoer.”
Avery emerged from the swirl of people to stand next to Sam, his face a scowl. “That’s my seat. Tatum was saving it for me.”
Tatum’s eyes flashed. “You’re forty minutes late, and it’s a zoo here tonight. He can have our chairs.” She took Avery’s arm and faced him toward the bar, then turned back to Sam. “We’ll stand—enjoy your party.”
Avery ordered a Bailly’s Special, and the two of them shouted to hear each other over the throbbing beat of an electronic “As Time Goes By.” He was late because of a priority request from the Mare Frigoris Region. He hadn’t messaged her because he was swamped; he didn’t think she would mind.
“No,” she shouted back. “I don’t mind.” But I do, she was surprised to realize.
Sam from the birthday table brushed against her as he passed, heading toward the bathrooms. He leaned in to speak in her ear. “Are you okay? You can still join our gang if you want to leave this basin bloke.”
Avery pushed Sam away from Tatum, and fueled by a second Bailly’s he’d just finished, punched the other man in the face.
“Ave!” Tatum said, grabbing to pull him back. “Stop!”
The music ended abruptly, as though someone had flipped a switch, and the crush of bargoers shrank back slightly, leaving the three in their own small, cleared, quiet space. Tatum could feel the crackle of emotion from Avery, from Sam, from the surrounding crowd. All eyes were on them. Luna City was fairly tame compared with the reports Tatum had read of Earthside towns, but arguments still erupted and anger still bubbled up.
Blood dripped from Sam’s nose, and he dabbed at it with a bar wipe. He faced Avery squarely, although he was half a head shorter and slender to Avery’s bulk. But Avery held up his hands, palms out, a supplicant.
“Sorry,” he said, “I went too far. But she’s with me.”
Sam gave a brief nod and looked at Tatum. “And what do you say?”
She reran the last few moments in her head—the explosion of anger, the fist connecting with face. Avery was jealous? It was a side of him she’d never seen.
“Thanks,” she said to Sam. “I’m fine. I’ll be fine. He’s with me.”
I found the rooftop garden because of Captain America. We’ve become close friends, he and I. He depends on me for fresh greens, and I depend on him to keep me from taking the last step off the ledge.
The electricity blinked off citywide five weeks ago, but the evenings aren’t as dark as you’d think. There’s the residual glow in the sky long after sunset, and the ants that crawl along the windowsill in the kitchen give off a greenish hue, like those plastic glow sticks kids wear around their wrists at birthday parties—or used to, before. The Captain is crepuscular, so he rustles around just at dusk, but then falls fast asleep as I watch the clouds on the horizon with wide eyes, such an unnatural pink against the faint sprinkle of stars.
Except for me and the Captain on the sixth floor, no one else is left in this building. Before, I sometimes had to turn on my white noise app to mask the street traffic and my neighbor Javier’s blasting salsa music. Now the only sounds are the distant whine of a massive piece of machinery spinning into oblivion, fed by its emergency generator, and the thumps and rattles of my building, trying to decide how much longer it will remain upright.
The evening is my favorite time of day now. Before, I lived for the morning, up before the alarm, out the door, at work in my cubicle in the financial district a few minutes before eight. Daytime reminds me of everything I no longer have–that the city no longer has. Maybe even beyond? It’s hard to say. With no juice to charge my phone, it’s been dead since four days after. That hardly matters because I lost coverage after a day. My parents live in Florida; maybe all is well there.
For some freakish reason, the plumbing still works. When life was normal, leaky faucets and cold showers were the stuff I commiserated about with my friends. Now, I wake each morning worried that the toilet will at last stop cycling or my kitchen tap will run dry. But they keep on filling and pouring.
Once they do quit, I’ll need to leave this place. I’ve been living on canned food, heating it on my tiny balcony with the mini Weber grill I hardly ever used, before. Without electricity, my fridge isn’t much help to store perishables. In the beginning, I helped myself to the romaine and tomatoes and strawberries at the corner market; with no one around, there was no use letting it go to waste. But that has long rotted, so my visits now are to fill my cloth grocery bag with whatever cans I can carry in one trip. It’s decidedly creepy to crawl through the rubble of a dead city—no cars passing, no people yelling into their phones, no trucks trudging to collect the garbage left decomposing at curbside.
The Captain isn’t mine. Captain America isn’t his real name either. He lived on the fourth floor, and I found him in the first few days after. Guinea pigs whistle when they’re hungry or need something, and he was setting up a racket I could hear from my sixth-floor window. I went searching, taking the stairs, of course, since the elevators ran on the energy grid. He was sitting in a 2-foot wire cage, looking at me with big, soulful eyes (and big teeth), and I picked him up, his tawny fur as soft as a kitten’s.
“Hello, there, Captain,” I whispered.
It was another living thing, not counting the immortal ants and roaches. But what did I know about guinea pigs? A city branch library is about three blocks from my building, so I went looking for a book to tell me, a tough hunt given that the online catalog was offline and the lights were out. If you need to know, guinea pig books are in section 636.9—with books on other small mammals like rabbits and hamsters.
Before, I liked looking out onto the courtyard between my building and the next one, where an older fellow named Pete raised tomatoes and squash and tried to keep the squirrels from taking bites out of them. Now the courtyard floor is buried in debris, and Pete and the squirrels have vanished along with the pigeons.
Just after I brought the Captain home, and desperate for some kind of greens for him, I located the entrance to the building roof. As I popped open the steel door, the earthy scent of soil washed over me and there it was: Three long aisles containing flat after flat of lettuces, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and more lettuce. I stood for several minutes, not believing my find. The wind picked up and a pelting rain fell, the first since before. I felt both drenched to the bone and refreshed, watching as the droplets ran down the lettuce leaves and dripped off the ends, exuding a faint bluish glow even by the light of day. My arms and legs—and likely my head—also glowed faintly in the dampness.
Later, with the Captain asleep and night descending, I pondered this new world where the sky was pink and the rain was blue. A line had been drawn for humanity. What I would find when the Captain and I finally struck out from the city? Would we meet masses of people who had fled … or no one? Or maybe, I thought, I’m crazy, and the world is still normal, but I just can’t see it.
It is now day forty after, forty empty days and forty empty nights. I am harvesting more romaine leaves and anxiously watching the new shoots I have planted poke out from the soil. Then I hear someone. They are walking on the street below, whistling. I slip to the roof edge to listen—it’s an old folk song, “For the Times They Are A-Changin’.”
Despite our catastrophic reality, a sense of humor.
“Hey,” I shout, but he doesn’t look up, doesn’t seem to hear me.
I run for the stairs—eight flights to street level—will I make it before he’s gone? I take the steps two at a time, then three. The Captain and I are not alone after all.
The house was still—so quiet and somber after Gran’s passing—but Kiri refused to turn on the TV or crank up her earbuds just to fill the silence with trivial sounds. She wanted to catch the memory of Gran’s voice, to hear that mischievous laugh again. Within that nothingness, the faintest of snuffles echoed in the hallway outside Gran’s study, where Kiri was reviewing for a test.
Putting her Econ book face down on the desk, she stepped close to the hall doorway and listened.
There it was again. Snuffle, snort.
Unnerved—she was alone in the house—Kiri poked her head cautiously around the door frame to look down the hall. Empty.
With a small sigh of relief, she walked down the hall and into the dining room to check there. The room was cramped not only with the eight-foot dining table, but also a sideboard, a corner cabinet and a large breakfront. She’d eaten many a meal in this room, with her Gran and, in the years before his death, Gramps presiding. Now both were gone. Despite the bulky furniture, the room felt empty, lifeless.
Scanning the area, Kiri noticed a small figurine on the otherwise cleared table. She picked it up. About six inches long and four inches high: An antelope with its feet tucked neatly beneath it, two short, thin horns, and large deer-like ears. It seemed to gaze at her with dark glistening eyes.
“Where did you come from?” Kiri addressed the object, turning it over.
Oribi, a small African antelope, the label affixed to the bottom said.
Kiri’s gaze wandered to the breakfront. In addition to Gran’s delicate china pieces with their faint blue cloud pattern, the shelves held a few other figurines: an impala and a gazelle, their horns much longer and more curved than the oribi’s.
Gran had a thing for antelopes even though she’d never seen one outside of the Philadelphia Zoo. “To be able to run with that grace and speed,” she told Kiri. “It must be an incredible sight on the savanna.”
Africa had been on Gran’s bucket list, but the Fates had another idea: cancer.
Kiri put the oribi back in its place, with the others, and closed the breakfront section. It had been a month since the memorial service and her parents’ decision that Kiri could live at the house, but how she missed Gran.
As evening came on, she cooked herself dinner, washed up, and went back to studying. Her class final was in two days.
Deep in thought on volume discount pricing theory, she was startled by another noise from the hallway.
Once again, Kiri followed the noise to the dining room, and there sat the oribi figurine, back on the table.
She picked it up, but this time, she carried it with her to the study. Clearing away a few papers and notebooks, she put the figurine under the desk lamp. How odd. Its head was turned now, instead of looking straight ahead. She ran her fingers along the antelope’s ceramic neck but could feel no place where it could swivel.
Two hours later, Kiri yawned and stretched. She had finished her review. She closed her laptop and textbook, and reached to switch off the lamp. The figurine had vanished from the desktop.
This time, Kiri jumped to her feet. What the—?
In the pool of light from the lamp stood the quavering image of an oribi—at about two feet high, it was the size of a medium dog, but with thin legs, small hooves, and no horns. Ethereal, the doe nuzzled Kiri’s thigh.
Then the realization hit her.
“Gran, is that you?” Kiri knelt and put her hands on either side of the creature’s face. It made no move to pull away, only looked at her with those same dark glistening eyes. Was that a hint of a smile? A moment later, Kiri was once again holding the figurine.
That night, she nestled the ceramic piece next to her pillow and dreamed of running fleet-foot across a sea of grasses under an equatorial sun.
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