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?


17 responses to “Realism: It’s in the Details

  1. I definitely use those little personal details, and funny things that happen, in my writing.

    My favorite example of this is in my NaNovel, I got to write a scene where one of the MC’s car CATCHES ON FIRE. Because that happened to me during the last week of NaNo, while I was driving down the road. In my case, it was bad decisions on the part of those who made the car (battery cables rubbing against each other until the insulation wore off and the positively and negatively charged wires touched, sparked, and caught fire). In my novel, it was magically induced.

    Sometimes real life–with minor (or not so minor) adjustments–makes the best fiction.

  2. Michelle,

    I was out of the loop on the last week. Yikes. How scary. Hopefully nobody was hurt.

    And in the end, you got wonderful novel fodder!

  3. Oh yeah, the details make them real, for sure! I love little bits. I like putting them in and I like reading them in other writer’s works. Sometimes it’s easy to forget to mind the details, but it is well worth it.

    • I noticed this same tendency more in my NaNo novel this year than ever before. It was kind of fun watching them appear on the screen as if they needed to be there.

  4. You’re so right that being faithfully autobiographical can kill a novel – I’ve critiqued many WIPs where the writer has clearly become stuck on telling something ‘as it really happened’ and forgetting they have carte blanche to make things up.

    And the flipside is, all your friends (the non-writer friends) think that everything in your books is stuff that you really feel and that really happened to you!

    • Thanks so much for checking in. I hopped over to your blog and must say it will be my new favorite spot! You have such great advice and I immediately felt like I was at home there.

      I agree that often times readers have a hard time separating the writer from the content. Thankfully there are far fewer serial killers out there than books about them…

  5. You don’t like Whoppers??? I’m so sad 😦

    I love the little details – they make the characters memorable. My kids always love the Mars Bar/Snickers character in Maniac Magee – awesome character with a few telling details 🙂

    • I loved that book! Jerry Spinnelli is awesome.

      Whoppers are addictive. My uncle used to have boxes (those little milkcarton-y ones) everywhere. I eat them only because of the memories! Now a Snickers bar? Frozen. Yummmm.

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  7. This was a fun post. I like to use details from my life in my writing because it’s the only way I can “write what I know” given that my novel subjects are usually about people and places far away in time and space from me! At least I can “empathize” with my characters in their various situations and add details from my own life or the lives of people close to me that fit in.

    For example, my MC after losing a child has dreams where she walks up and down the beach, searching in vain but really feeling called to find her. Later she is told by that same child in another dream that she no longer needs to find her. Those dreams were real but in another context of course.

    I do worry a lot about the flip side that another commenter mentioned – having one’s family and friends assume that everything I write about, or every feeling my MC has, is something I think or feel or have experienced myself. How does one combat that? Makes me afraid to share my writings with people who know me, sometimes.

    Thanks for making me think!

    • Joanie,

      Thanks for sharing how your details impact your writing. I love this line: “At least I can “empathize” with my characters in their various situations…”

      I think it says so much about the power of experiences creating realistic characters.

      As to the fear of sharing, it breaks my heart that we have to go through that. Yet I suppose others do on some level regardless of what their jobs are. I know a public defender who is asked all the time how she can represent “those people”. As if her compassion and passion for justice is somehow less than worthy. They then pass judgement on her as a person because of her career choice, as if she was the one on trial. Which is interesting since she switched from a prosecutor to a PD.

      I suppose it is the same with writing. Each genre has its pros and cons depending on who you are talking to.

      Best of luck and when you find the answer on how to merge your real life with your writing life and gracefully sidestep those prejudices, let us all know how it’s done!

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