I don’t know exactly how it began, whether it was training for my goal to become an author or not, or due to journalism classes in which we focused on the 5 Ws (who, what, where, when, why), but I notice details everywhere. The pattern of tile in grocery store. The flap of wall covering coming down in the corner of a room. The cut design of crown molding or the texture of plastered walls. The color of front doors, or a burst of color in flowering shrubs in landscape.
These are important to writing because one such detail can provide a clue about a character or situation. When I was a new writer, I carried around a notebook and recorded names of people and streets and towns. I recorded brief scenarios and and bits of dialogue because I was told to. As a writer it was important, but I didn’t really “get” how this was going to help. Then the little things I noticed of someone’s home (such as those listed above) just appeared in a draft. They were brief and,like using an analogy, helped paint an image in the reader’s mind.
Soon I began noticing the things people did that hinted at their emotions or personality. The nervous clicking of a ballpoint pen, or the jiggling of a leg. As I began to teach, it was fun to notice how people controlled personal space—clutching a backpack on their laps, spreading books across the table into the next seat’s space, parking rolling bags in the aisle so no other student can easily pass to the seats behind. While I’m sure some of these students did these things unconsciously, I found them curious and intriguing and they provided insight into the anxiety these students must have felt (I taught remedial English and pre-comp writing and after the first class at least one student nervously approached to inform me he or she was “mistakenly placed” at this level. Sadly, they were not.)
Such details for both a setting and a character SHOW a lot. All can be provided in few words. They enrich the story. Now I cannot seem to turn off this observation. I often look around at the people, decor, and objects in a restaurant even as I carry on a conversation with those I’m with. It’s filed in my mind, even if I don’t pull out my writer’s notebook to jot them down.
Sometimes a detail I notice triggers the next scene for one of my WIPs or an entirely new story idea. For instance, as I sit at a café a cacophony of crows (or some such bird) is out of my line of sight but not my hearing. They sound as if they are having a discussion, an argument, with a back and forth volley of calls that sound like a gruff “haha-ha” punctuated with a single “awk-awk.” This might trigger a fanciful children’s story or suggest the cadence for dialogue in a current story. Since it’s beginning to get on my nerves, it’s gone on long enough, it reminds me that the back-and-forth of dialogue shouldn’t drag on the reader. It’s a reminder to limit and ensure the dialogue adds to the story.
What details do you notice that can slip into a story to make it feel more authentic? For some writers it’s easier to practice with people we know well. What mannerisms offer insight into their personalities? For other writers, the unknown is an easier place to begin noting details that help show both place and personality. Whichever type of writer you are, take this challenge: For 3-4 hours, note at least one detail about every person or place you encounter. Once you begin, it becomes easier. Expand the length of time and the number of details (2, 3, 5?), or at the end of the day make a list of each new place and person and include as many details about each as you can recall.
Soon, these observations will become second nature and filter into whatever you are writing. Feel free to leave comments about how this challenge has improved your writing.