It’s All In The Details

“The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.” (Henry Miller)

We have slogged through the winter solstice. Long fingers of twilight still reach up and take early hold of the afternoon of a sleety, biting day. Gray slush blends the road into the residue of the last snow and low-slung clouds. Why would a woman want to pay close attention to what’s around her on a day like today, especially on another dreaded trip to the grocery store, when there have already been way too many in the last couple of weeks?

For this writer, it’s because precise detail illuminates aspects of our world and is a raw material of literary fiction. For example, it’s one thing if an author sets a scene by including, ‘…a kid with a sled on a hill, his Dad at the base.’ It’s something entirely different for an author to describe ‘…a crying little boy, about six, in a red snowsuit and one mitten, dragging a sled up a hill while his father stands at the base, arms crossed, frowning.’ The details of the second are evocative enough to set a tone, or convey a narrator’s or character’s state of mind.

Of course, it’s the magical simplicity/complexity and depth of the story as much as the beauty of the writing that matters. I find my stories hidden in relationships: nuances of emotion and motivation. Human life and interaction are, in Miller’s words, “…mysterious, awesome (and) indescribably magnificent” in their woven tapestry of pain, joy, envy, avarice, adoration, lust and will, just to name a few of the forces that drive my characters. Stories that go to the marrow are, for me, found through close attention.

I’ll give you an example by going back to that freezing sleet trip to the grocery store in a too-early twilight. At a traffic light, I caught up to a black monster SUV on oversize wheels. The windows were tinted dark, and it loomed huge, my little silver Honda’s windshield seeming to be the target of its exhaust pipe. There was just enough time to skim the white lettering that stretched across the SUV back window: a date, two sets of curvy lines with the name Nicholas Woods in between them, and then another date. Underneath was written A Grandfather Never Forgives. I was moved, saddened, intrigued. A bit horrified. What could the grandson have done to arouse such rage? I began thinking about what understanding I could dig for that might apply in the new novel I’m researching now—in which there is, indeed, much unforgiven by a son who perceives himself to have been abandoned.

The traffic light changed too quickly, and the SUV made a left turn. Impulsively I made the turn too, hoping to glean more. I imagined a possible scenario: maybe Nicholas had been a teenager, repeatedly warned against drinking or smoking pot, say, but he’d done so, and killed himself and other people in a car. The grandfather was taking refuge in anger, unable to manage his grief. Grief compounded by guilt: he’d let the boy drink beer with him over the boy’s parents’ prohibitions because he hadn’t been close with his son, the boy’s father, and was trying to redo the relationship. Still, he was the only one who knew they’d done this. Who, exactly, is the unforgiven? What can I learn from a detail like this about how people express grief? There’s a whole different novel in an SUV I see on the way to the store. Either that, or there’s an idea to deepen the one I’m making notes for. This is what I mean about finding my stories in life, extrapolating from closely observed detail, applying what I know to what I don’t know.

This is a blog about writing literary fiction, about paying attention, the research, the thinking, the input and the output. It’s a process notebook. I’d love your comments and thoughts. Don’t be surprised if your suggestions show up in a novel! I draw material from life everywhere.

In my next post I’ll write about what I’d have missed if I hadn’t followed the SUV. I’m grateful for your presence and hope you’ll question and comment.

6 Responses to It’s All In The Details

  1. It’s funny how the mind works, and I wonder if it’s our own issues that dictate where an image goes. My assumption about the grandfather never forgives is that the grandson was either killed in a war the grandfather didn’t believe in (yes, I grew up in the Viet Nam era), or that the grandson was murdered and the grandfather’s unforgiveness was directed at the murderer. There must be something in the word “grandfather” that is so affectionate to me that I didn’t conjure the grandson as the one unforgiven.

    But that would be my story. I’m intrigued by yours.

  2. Your description of this dreary December we’ve just experienced was so perfect. Thankfully, the sun reappeared after the first of the year and the days are growing longer, offering us some beautiful sunsets!

    My reaction to the words on the back of the SUV are rather conflicted. First, I’m always a bit amazed that anyone would want to write something so personal on their car. Then there’s my constant annoyance whenever I have to travel behind one or park next to one given the fact that they block your view so completely. So, having such a poignant thing written on the darkened window of my least favorite vehicle left me feeling that this was a plea for attention. I believe that the unforgiving grandfather is grieving for his lost grandson and can find no solace other than to share that grief (and anger) with the world in general. My first reaction would be that the grandson lost his life in a way that grandfather thinks should have been avoided. Perhaps he believes a doctor made a wrong treatment decision, or that a drunk driver hit Nicholas showing no regard for human life. Regardless, the idea that someone needs to boldly state that they will never forgive is tragic.

  3. I’ve often thought it a grand thing to be a writer because we don’t let life just happen around us without jumping to story, metaphors, possibilities. This post is timely as I have a friend who wants advice on how to shift from writing nonfiction to fiction. I will send this post along as a perfect example of what we aim for: combining concrete details with reflective association. And, may I say, tension! I want to find that grandfather. Did you get his license plate?

  4. As a granparent myself, I would have an impossibly hard time forgiving something terrible done to my grandson. Needless to say writing that unforgiveness on a car is something also incomprehensible to me. That is how I take the story, not that he is holding resentment to his late grandson. So what did you find when you followed this behemoth?

  5. What an odd thing to write on one’s car! A written jolt which would immediately have lifted me out of the ordinary realm of driving to the grocery store, and quite possibly have caused my driving to suffer as my mind wandered! (Let’s hope this did not happen to you!) Eager to read more about your observations.

  6. Well, your topic heading may have been all about “Details,” and you’ve certainly covered that ground in an informative fashion, but your Opus One Blog accomplishes something even more helpful for an aspiring writer, namely you’ve demonstrated how to grab the reader and make him want to keep turning the pages — you slyboots, you. You used the old magician’s technique of sleight-of-hand wherein you do something interesting with one hand to draw our attention away from the other hand which is performing the actual “trick.” Under the guise of a lesson in dropping details into a story you’ve demonstrated how to “hook” the reader and compel her to stick with your story.

    Nu, hurry up and post Blog #2 — the suspense is killin’ me!

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