So Many Details! So Few Pages!
What to Put In, What to Leave Out
by Blythe Gifford
Those of us who write historicals often find our heads stuffed with wonderful minutiae on place and period, hardly knowing how we’ll cram it all into the story. But no matter how good the research, every descriptive detail in a story must either evoke an emotion in your character or reflect one. Otherwise, no matter how interesting, it is irrelevant filler.
Here’s an example:
Detail unattached to emotion: “A homeless person sat on the sidewalk, covered in a striped blanket, collecting money in an old peanut butter jar. She walked past him, pushed the revolving door, and went into the restaurant.”
Detail layered with emotion: “A man crouched next to the doorway, huddled under a threadbare blanket. A lonely coin clanked in his glass jar as she pushed open the restaurant door. The smell of roast chicken seemed suddenly unappetizing.”
See the difference? I used sight, sound, and smell/taste and chose “loaded” words: crouched, huddled, lonely. (If I had said he “lurked” instead of “crouched,” he would have seemed threatening.) By showing her loss of appetite, I showed her guilt instead of telling it.
Significant detail is specific. The sky is not gray, it is “ashen,” or “the gray of cat fur,” or “steel.” The connotation of each word lends a different layer of emotional meaning. An “ashen” sky suggests loss; the “gray of cat fur” sends one scurrying for a cozy fire; “steel” implies a hard, cruel world.
This is one of the treasures of the English language, which constantly absorbed different words for the same thing, allowing for infinite shades of meaning.
The importance of being specific extends to the naming of the tools of everyday life. The challenge is to use precise names without losing your reader. S/he should be able to figure out what the “thing” is in context, but the character should not have to explain it. We break the illusion of the character’s viewpoint by describing things s/he would not notice.
Think of your daily drive to work or the grocery store. If asked to describe your commute, you might mention the accident that kept you sitting for fifteen minutes or the pretty tulips blooming beside the road. You notice the unusual or what resonates with your mood. The rest has become background.
In a similar way, your characters must take their daily surroundings for granted. We cannot stop the story to explain the layout of the castle or the duties of various servants in the country estate.
The challenge is to set the scene at the beginning of a book so the reader can enter the world. This is why we begin a story at the moment of change. It was just an ordinary day and then BAM! This creates an opportunity to “compare and contrast” the change with the ordinary life.
Here’s an example from the first chapter of THE HARLOT’S DAUGHTER. The title character has just returned to court after ten years so she views everything with fresh eyes.
Eyes lowered, she looked toward the edge of the wide-planked floor. The men’s long-toed shoes curled like a finger crooked in invitation. She stifled a smile. Men and their vanities. Apparently, they thought the longer the toes, the longer the tool.
Using one detail about the men’s shoes, I conveyed the foppish nature of the court as well as the heroine’s cynical view of men.
So choose significant details that evoke your character’s emotions, convey them with strong, specific words, and you will transport your reader directly into your historical world.
Blythe Gifford’s second novel, THE HARLOT’S DAUGHTER, is an October 2007 release from Harlequin Historical. Reviewers have said her work has a “truly realistic feel” and that “she captures the history without bogging the reader down in trivial details.”
Visit her website, www.blythegifford.com, for details.
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Copyright 2007, Blythe Gifford
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