Tuesday, April 3, 2007


“Love is the hardest thing in the world to write about. So simple. You’ve got to catch it through details, like the early morning sunlight hitting the gray tin of the rain spout in front of her house. The ringing of a telephone that sounds like Beethoven’s Pastoral. A letter scribbled on her office stationery that you carry around in your pocket because it smells of all the lilacs in Ohio.” * Billy Wilder

JAN : As writers we strive for the "telling detail," the one thing that sets a scene or epitomizes a character. And as a reader, I love it when I can't get one of these story details out of my head. When one of these details alters or enhances my perception of the world. Scarlett O'Hara's sixteen inch waist comes to mind. In one vivid image, it reveals the requirements and constraints on women in the Civil War era in the South.
In Gone Baby Gone by Dennis Lehane, it was the nonstop television in Helene McCready's apartment. Helene McCready is the mother of a four-year-old who was kidnapped. When the detectives go to the home weeks later to question Helene, she is watching herself on TV as she is interviewed by a reporter. When she and her friend are introduced to a detective, they are immediately distracted by their own debate about whether or not he looks like "that guy on that show." Even when the TV is turned off, Helene's eyes keep drifting back to the blank screen. The television tells us everything we need to know about Helene's intelligence level and parenting skills. It also shows her anesthetizing herself from the horrors of losing a child. You believe she suffered from the loss, but at the same time, suspect that she might be somehow responsible. So I want to know, what are the details in books that you have read that you can't shake? That linger in your head and make you never forget a book or a story?

HALLIE: Details the reader can't shake... A severed horse's head is surefire. Of course, in “The Godfather.” Also in the Gunther Grass novel The Tin Drum -- Oskar watches a man at the beach, fishing with a clothes line. The man reels the line that turns out to be baited with a severed horse's head. Oskar (and the reader) realize the man has been fishing for green eels, and the description that follows is one I have never been able to get out of my head.It's always hard to know how close to the "edge of ick" you can write your details without turning off your reader. We want to take risks, go for the jugular when it's appropriate, to be real and authentic. But we don't want the reader to feel manipulated or sideswiped. On another level, pick the right detail and you can save a lot of trees, like in Jan's example from Gone Baby Gone. It's all about trusting the reader to 'get it' without having to hit him over the head. And in crime fiction, the details often turn out to be the clues... the red patent-leather, spike-heeled sandal that shows up in Act I turns out to belong to the murderer who's unmasked at the end of Act III.

RO: Most telling detail for me was from a movie, not a book, but it goes right to Jan’s point. Rosebud. (I don’t even have to say what that’s from, do I?)

HANK: Remember in Rosemary’s Baby? When she sniffs the fragrance of—rats, I can’t remember what it was called—and that’s how she realizes everyone is in a conspiracy in the make-the-devil’s-baby plot? I know it’s not Tolstoy, okay, but that really worked. Tannis, that’s what it was.
Edith Wharton. Breathtaking details, without any of the easy-way-out listings that some do. And I will never pass up a chance to offer you one of my favorite favorites: Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin. Part of it takes place in 1899. “He was seldom out of sight of the new bridges, which had married beautiful womanly Brooklyn to her rich uncle Manhattan…” Mysteries? Sherlock Holmes—Arthur Conan Doyle--was the master of details, right? The 26 kinds of Turkish tobacco he could recognize. Fibers and fragrances, way before CSI. And Agatha Christie would always just drop a tiny detail-clue in her novels, you’d read it and love it. But you wouldn’t know til much later how important it was. One of her details that’s always bugged me though—and of course I bow to her place in the pantheon of mystery geniuses—but remember in Murder on the Orient Express? ( I think it was called Murder on the Calais Coach when I read it. And if you haven’t read it yet, don’t worry, this won’t matter) There’s a woman in it, Mary Debenham. Poirot realizes she’s using a fake name, because her real last name is the other half of a London department store called Debenham and Something. (Anyone out there? What is it?) And since I relentlessly try to solve the mystery before the author lets us in on the secret, I was so frustrated. I remember thinking –and I was a teenager, I think, when I read it-- how am I supposed to know that? But I guess the divine Miss C. wasn’t writing for 15 year olds from Indianapolis.

JAN: Something to keep in mind when we write our own region-based mysteries??? You never know when you are going to pick up a fan in, say, India or Indiana. Anyway, I must have chosen this topic because I’m especially susceptible to the imagery in novels. Now it’s going to be while before I get the picture of the severed horse head and the smell of dead rats out of my head.


  1. ..someone recently (my editor, actually) mentioned a detail in my book, that I had pretty much forgotten writing. It wasn't critical to the story but she remembered it. All right, it was a cake, and the KIND of cake it was made the scene more memorable to her. Ok, it's not up there with Proust's madeleines, but if he had just liked crackers would anyone remember?

  2. Hey, ladies! Great topic.

    Jessica Andersen here, still locked out of my blogger account and too lazy to go fix it.

    I'm sorry to say that I'm not nearly as well read as you all- so here's a genre example of a telling detail. In one of the Jody Jaffee mysteries, which are set on the horse show circuit, a Jane Doe murder victim has a sticky, dirt-like substance under her short fingernails, and her fingertips were wrapped in tape.

    To anyone who's 'done' the show circuit, this indicates that Jane Doe was a professional braider. Other readers got to wait until the end for that reveal, which I thought was nicely done.

    In my own writing, I try to use detail to make the character's thought process feel more authentic. When I'm writing a medical thriller, my geneticist doesn't think 'that smells like skunk'- she thinks 'that smells like BME,' because beta-mercaptoethanol, the active ingredient in skunk smell, is commonly used in many lab protocols.

    This, obviously, is an area where 'write what you know' comes in very, very handy.

    The way I see it, most of the small, internal details in a character's POV often become invisible to the reader- but it only takes one wrong detail to bump the reader out of the story and lose that sense of authenticity.

  3. Watch out! Virgin blogger on the loose. I accidentally posted my blog on your Writing Well is the Best Revenge, so you can pop over and read it if you wish. It would be nice to get feedback on the conversation.

    I must admit that I, too, am a visual, sensual type of person, and that is how I must write as well. It is the best way I can convey mood, thoughts and emotions.
    I tend to use hints that I hope will kind of dawn on the reader in a "6th Sense" sort of manner where it all comes cascading into focus as the ending approaches. There are, of course, other hints I like to elude to before bringing them out into the open to further the story along. Verbal exchanges, visuals, and the like play in big.

    Jessica, I love that you're writing a medical thriller as I am too, and it's nice to meet a sister in the hood! In my other blog, I share how this day I sent my 1st query for my 1st novel.


  4. I love details, whether they be indigenous flora within the setting (White Oleander), a quirk in a character's personality (Trashcan Man), or the syntax (Huck). It makes all the difference, doesn't it?

  5. There's a line from the non-fic book Man is the Prey by James Clarke that gets me every time. He's talking about hyenas:

    "The animal clamped its terrible jaws over his mouth and nose, and with the ease of a man eating a biscuit, it bit cleanly through."

    Eeeewwwww. I'll never get that image out of my head. Of course, I share it with the students so we can have mutual shudder moments.

  6. The most lingering image for me is in Tess Gerritsen's THE SINNER, when an unexpectedly pregnant Jane Rizzoli, still in denial, goes off for a mad, last-minute Christmas shopping session at Target. She pushes the cart up and down the aisles, all the while hurrying and obsessing, until she rounds a corner to end up smack dab in the aisle with all the baby stuff.

  7. Debenham and Freebody, Hank--I had a friend who worked there one summer,long, long ago...

    In one of Lisa Gardner's books there's a woman who has been kidnapped and dumped in a muddy sinkhole, and while she waits for rescue (or death) she watches blow-fly maggots crawling under her skin. That image is hard to shake.

    On the other hand, in my current cozy, my agent and editor agreed that the reference to the smell of burning meat after my victim had been stuffed into a glassblowing furnace was a bit too much for cozy readers.

  8. Ah--Sheila! You got it!
    And even the thought of your (pretty unpeasant) olfactory image made my nose twitch...

    Love the other images, too..it's so much fun to hear from you all.

    New topic coming up Monday--see you back here then!