Deviling the Details
Those of you who visited the Editor’s Corner last week will likely think I am working in a backasswards fashion. Given that I am never quite sure what I will tackle until I set fingers atyping, I am actually surprised this doesn’t happen on a regular basis.
Be that as it may, last week I spoke about going macro and reclaiming your Big Picture. Today, I want to turn the telescope around and talk micro: the realm of detail and what particular details tell the reader. A character can have breakfast, sure. But a breakfast of corn flakes and black coffee says something very different than eggs benedict and fresh pomegranate juice. A simple suburban house tells us far less about its occupants than a Cape Cod on a corner lot with a thriving vegetable garden around back. John Cheever would certainly never settle for the former! It is the details which define our setting, our characters, their actions, and are, at times, as important as all the broad brush thematic flourishes on which we prefer to focus.
In short, I am talking world building via vivid detail, the “life blood,” as John Gardner said, of fiction. And though ‘world building’ is a phrase more familiar to those of us who delve into the sci-fi/fantasy genres, I believe it remains apt for all.
Caveat emptor: I, as a rule, am one of those fantasy/sci-fi folk. I stride across landscapes alien and strange even when set in the relatively familiar environs of our home world. This often requires world building of the highest order, from geography to flora and fauna. That said, not anything goes. Quite the contrary. When we world build from scratch, we can be outrageous as long as the core structure is 100% authentic and believable. Natural law must apply. We can, of course, rewrite natural law but that usually demands far more exposition than most readers will abide. Thus, the best sci-fi/fantasy is grounded in a relative degree of familiarity. Air and water and gravity are constants for life; fish – or their counterparts – swim, and dragons –or their counterparts – fly. Within such parameters, all sorts of things can happen and the more detail you give your world, the more believable it becomes; the more clearly your reader can imagine your tale.
I am currently (still – I mentioned this story a couple of weeks ago and chide myself daily for my slow progress) reediting a short story which takes place on very foreign soil, the planet Asru-Nai. Though Earthlike in terms of atmosphere and livability, there are notable distinctions. Geographically, Asru-Nai is closer to Venus, with mountains that would dwarf Everest and a shallow sea twice the size of the Pacific. The latter creates real-life problems, like massive storms and tsunamis. This requires a believable solution: the colonists must terraform a vast archipelago of barrier islands to mitigate nature’s chaos. The flora and fauna are a treat to create, though I admit I spent 2 hours today trying to find the right name for a harbor delicacy that was both unusual and demanding no explanation. Tricky that, but the sort of thing which is essential flesh on a story’s bones. (I settled on braised jawfish on a bed of fern-root.)
Now, you don’t have to travel across the cosmos to build worlds. Every detail is important. More to the point, those details we choose to include in our work – as opposed to the plethora of authorial backstory – should BE important. We are painters with words and without detail the best we can hope for are rather ill-focused monochromatic sketches. From warm skin to fairy hair, from a praying mantis waltzing through the rhododendrons to the floral sweetness of saffron in bouillabaisse, these are our tales, the colors of our palette, the building blocks of our fictive worlds.
Use them well and wisely. Use them to clarify, not obscure.
As Natalie Goldberg wrote:
“We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let it be known, the earth passed before us. Our details are important. Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn’t matter.”