Daily Archives: December 4, 2009

Realism: It’s in the Details

Last night I snuck found a small bag of Whoppers in the left-over Halloween stash.  I don’t really like malted milk balls.  Yet, when I popped one in my mouth, I was instantly transported back in time.

In my youth, Whoppers meant movie marathons with my uncles, shoveling manure with my cousins and having more freedom than children should be allowed to have.  They were the best of times…

The worst of times centered around my third grade teacher.  I’m not sure if she was a real one, but she sat in the desk and we called her Teacher.  I think she was a failed musician.  My clue?  The fact that we all had to learn Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the violin–everyday–after which Teacher would cry at her desk and leave us on our own to tell time, count money and not beat each other up.

Okay, maybe that’s not entirely accurate, but it is what I remember.  That and going across the monkey bars so many times my palms would blister into huge water pockets and I would walk around with them bandaged.  Those bandages were a matter of pride.  I lost so many layers of skin I’m surprised there are lines left to read.

The point of all this reminiscing is that the best things in life are chock full of details.  So, too, is great writing.  Just ask editor, Lynn Price.

On an AQ chat, we pondered how much of ourselves we should put into our writing.  My answer: the details.  Nothing brings characters or situations to life better than small details.

In one of my middle grade novels, I have a boy who associates learning to read with his weepy, whiney violin-playing teacher.  My beta readers loved this detail.  It’s also something I could’t have made up.   Thankfully, I didn’t have to, as my life is full of tiny experiences that breathe realism into my writing.

I did miss a plane once because my uncle had to stop for his Pepsi fix.  I know that you can run someone’s head over with a blue, banana seat bicycle and leave a nice tire track, but no lasting damage.  I have felt the stark terror of waking up with DH’s hands wrapped around my neck in his sleep-induced attempt to thwart a bad guy. 

If necessary, I can accurately portray how mind-numbing physical fatigue is.  Seriously, after an eighteen-game volleyball tourney that spanned seven hours, I was so exhausted I left the gym with fewer brain cells than I had going in.  I was quarrelsome, defensive and unmotivated.  I had no problem blaming others for my mistakes.  And no, I’m not usually like that.

The flip side of that is the adrenaline rush of being the hunter and the hunted.  After one stint on the course with my youth group, I’m a paintball addict.  Just thinking about it is energizing.

As writers, we should never memoir-ize our novels.  Quite simply, our lives are not that interesting.  Our readers would yawn their way through the first few pages before chucking our books into the nearest burn barrel. 

Yet, well-place details, taken from our experiences, can make the difference between flat characters and ones we cry for at the end of a book.  They can turn mediocre scenes into compelling reads.  They make fiction feel real and allow us to fall whole-heartedly into the pages.

I have no problem picturing my MC running to catch her plane after driving around town to assuage her Pepsi fix–her one weakness in an otherwise highly regimented life.  Suddenly she is thrust into a life-changing situation.  Maybe it’s sitting next to Mr. Wrong instead of having a seat to herself in first-class.  Or maybe she missed the plane that crashed.  Or maybe an airport cashier read her aura, making her question her entire life and everything she’s ever believed in.

While the possibilities are endless, the details make it fly. 

For my readers: What makes a character feel real to you?

For my writers: How much of yourself do you put into your work?

~cat