f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: The Little Things

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Monday, March 28, 2005

The Little Things

We see a lot of manuscripts here at Bethany House. Because of that bulk, one of the things that stands out most, in any manuscript, is something we haven’t seen or read before.

It can be a plot.
It can be a setting.
It can be a compelling voice.

In fact, it can be as simple and small as a single detail in your story.
The reason details stand out, is because, for the most part they can’t be faked. When we’re writing about something or someplace we don’t know very well we write vaguely and indistinctly. Details emerge from familiarity with our topic and that familiarity comes in three primary ways.

1. First-person Experience – If we’re writing about someplace we know or somewhere we’ve been, details from our memory help provide dimension and authenticity to our descriptions. Visiting your geographical setting seems like almost a prerequisite.

2. Research – If you’re a novelist, most likely you’re a researcher, too. Unless you’re writing a book steeped in a world you know, you’re probably going to have to look up some facts. These can be extensive—say, if you’re writing a historical novel. They can be minor, if you’re merely checking facts on a city where your book is set. The thing here is that the more research and the better research, the better chance you’ll find those imperative details that bring your story to life

I finished Tim Downs’ Chop Shop this weekend. He isn’t a forensic entomologist and yet didn’t skimp on the details. How? Research.

3. Imagination – If you’re writing a fantasy or science fiction story, you alone are supplying the details and facets of your world. But imagination brings to life even contemporary fiction set in our childhood house. Characters need interior lives and exterior skin. Real lives need dramatic envisionings to make them suitable for fiction. This all comes from the imagination.

Jim Crace, a fairly acclaimed author, barely did any research for his work Quarantine, preferring to conjure a harsh desert landscape out of his imagination. This gives the work a slightly "other-wordly" or dreamlike quality because the details are his alone.


There’s a reason why many writing instructors tell writers to "write what you know." It’s because it’s the easiest, on-hand way to introduce details. Research can be time consuming work and relying on the imagination is sometimes tricky business for novices. Personally, I think every author needs to rely on all three methods for each and every book. The more unexpected and evocative details the better.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about working them into your story.