Wednesday, October 3, 2012

More on Details


One point I want to pound into you is that a novel is not reality, but you must make it seem real to the reader. You do this with realistic characters and a plot that makes sense—and also with the details that you select for your story. Each detail, no matter how small is important.

My own inclination is to know as much as I can before I start to write a  manuscript, but some details will not come up until I’m in the midst.  Nevertheless, these elements must be considered carefully.

I want to use DARK POWERS, my new Decorah Security novel, as an example.  The idea for the book began with a character—Ben Walker, whom readers met in DARK MOON. During a near-death experience, Ben acquired the power to touch a dead body and get the person’s last memories. I wanted to write his story, but what was the best way to do it?

First I needed a plot where he could use his psychic talent, and I decided that if he discovered the victims of a serial killer, he would know who murdered them.

Next I needed a heroine, and I came up with Sage Arnold, a hard-working accountant whose half sister, Laurel Baker, is kidnapped.

To create complications for Ben and Sage, I wanted the local police to insist that Laurel is a runaway. Why are they turning a blind eye to reality?  What’s their motivation?  And how can they get away with their behavior?

Because this plot element had to be plausible, I thought about where I could set the story and determined that the best place would be a small town run by an “old-boy network” where most of the income comes from tourism.  I could make those requirements work in a number of locations, but I decided to focus on Maryland’s Eastern Shore because it’s out of the mainstream and because I’ve gone there many times to do research for books.

Should you use real names of places for your work?  I do think actual places  add verisimilitude, and I often use genuine details like restaurant, city, and street names; but I have a rule that if I’m going to say something really bad about a place, I give it a fictitious name.  Since the conspiracy of silence in town is a major theme in DARK POWERS, I set the story in a place I called Doncaster, although the physical features match St. Michaels, Maryland, pretty well.

The name of my fictitious town is a detail I considered carefully.  Since Oxford and Cambridge are both located near St. Michaels, I continued the British theme and found Doncaster on a map of England.

Once I’d settled on Doncaster as my setting, I looked for authentic details that would make the story more vivid. The main industry on the Eastern Shore used to be fishing and crabbing, along with farming, which is why it makes sense to have abandoned warehouses and crab processing plants that are excellent locations to hide a dead body.  And on the outskirts of  St. Michaels is a newly developed golf course community—another prime setting for a body to turn up.

In town, I used  the seafood restaurant on the waterfront in St. Michaels/Doncaster, where diners can arrive on foot, by car, or by boat.  Then there’s the police station, located in a converted Victorian house. It’s charming on the outside and all business on the inside. (And I had the nasty idea to have my hero and heroine locked in jail cells there overnight.)

And where could a local resident stash a kidnap victim and keep her captive for several months before killing her?  That would have to be in an isolated area but one that was an easy drive from downtown Doncaster—where my kidnapper/serial killer works.

My heroine, Sage Arnold, grew up in Doncaster and has a love/hate relationship with the town. We see the community and its people through her eyes and also through Ben Walker’s eyes. I’m able to introduce the setting as Sage shows Ben around, commenting on the residents as she drives by shops and houses.

Scenes set in the various locations around town allowed me to drop clues about the kidnapper and the victim, clues that only become obvious near the end of the book.

And one detail that turned out to be essential—how does Ben see the last memories of murder victims and not the murderer’s face?  I decided he had to wear a black hood that hid his features from Ben—and from the reader.

In summary, never include a detail without carefully considering what role it will play in the story.  Think of the details as enriching your book and helping to make your fictional universe real to the reader.

What do you think about when considering the setting for a story?  How have you used details to make your fiction richer?

18 comments:

  1. Thanks, Rebecca! This is an extremely useful analysis of the kinds of details that make your writing richer and more firmly "in place" in its setting.

    I do a lot of research for my Scottish books, but I do need to walk the ground and get a visceral feel for the locations I use - not that I can jump back to the 16th century, but a trip to Scotland is on my radar. There's only so much I can get from reading.

    As you said - you've made many trips to the Easter Shore. Your writing reflects the 'feel' of the place.

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  2. Hi Ruth,
    Another great post. I'm really enjoying this blog.
    Sometimes I forget that my readers don't know my characters as well as I do. I also sometimes forget how important it is to remind readers of simple setting details. At the end of one chapter, I left my character with a great hook and it was raining. When I began the next chapter, I have him wiping moisture from his face. The first critique comment was WHERE DID THE MOISTURE COME FROM? I forgot to reset the scene--- remind reader where I left off.Those details, which clogged my head, need to be written down.
    Again, I love this blog. It's so helpful. Keep them coming.

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    1. Yes, you have to pay attention to little details like that. And keep track of what they're wearing. I have to go back and check on their clothing to make sure I have the right outfit in a subsequent scene.

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  3. Rebecca,
    I know details can impact credibility and make a setting very real. The same applies to characters. You've done a masterful job with Dark Moon. The reader has no doubt that Ben can do what he says and experiencing it with him was icing on the cake. It's good to get these reminders because as basic as they are, they're easy to forget. Great going!

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    1. Yes, Dark Powers. For Dark Moon, I used a lot of what I've picked up on cruise ships.

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  4. Luckily for me, I write paranormals set in ancient Egypt - you can't get more rich detail than that to play with! But then when I do my SF adventures in the future, I don't have the luxury of 3000 years of someone's civilization to pull from. Really enjoyed the post.

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  5. Good advice on real locations and problems that they cause. Fortunately, you can't get the details of a made-up location wrong and the real estate in your imagination never changes, gets torn down or paved for a parking lot.

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    1. Actually, for me, that's not quite right. The real estate I make up sometimes DOES change, and I have to make sure the details stayed the same.

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    3. True that. If readers get annoyed by mistakes in reality, they get even more ticked (not to mention, confused) when you are inconsistent in a reality that you have created Considering all the world building that you have done in your work, it must sometimes be difficult to keep track of your own imaginary "real estate," particularly when you spread it out over a number of books, as you have done. How do you keep tabs on the rules and those fantasy settings that you use? Or can we look forward to a post on how you do your literary housekeeping?

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    4. I am not great at making notes. I know the rules of my werewolves, but I sometimes have to thumb through previous books to find details that I've forgotten--like the names of children, for example. Another problem is that you my set something up, then find it's hard to keep that going in subsequent books. I first wrote about my dragon shifters in a short story for the Mammoth Book of Vampire Romance. To fit that story in, I had to make my dragon shifter also a vampire. Now I'm writing the third novella in my Chronicles of Arandal series for Carina, and I wish I'd left out the vampire part. Oh well.

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  6. I,be written several books in a military setting and several with courtroom drama, because that's what I know. Someday, though, I'd like to make up a completely fictional world for my characters.

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  7. Very interesting reading. I usually write non-fiction so this is not something I've thought too much about other than when I am setting scenes and quoting. Sometimes what really is said or that actually happens seems implausible, but since it's non-fiction I don't have to worry about it being believable.

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  8. What a great post I loved it. Thanks for sharing and it makes a lot of good sense. I hope I can work something out with the two things I've been working with. I might be able to use some of this planning for NaNo in Nov. Awesome ideas and thanks for sharing.

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  9. I can't wait to dive into this addition to the Decorah Security series. I've always thought "the devil's in the details" and this is very true about writing fiction. I've set books in real locations where things can happen in public places and I can get a sense of place and time either by visiting in person or by using Google Street View. I've also created fictional locations for the same reasons as you outlined above.

    Readers are very discerning. If there are glaring plot holes or quantum leaps of logic, they notice. Everything has to make sense--location, backstory, relationship, conflict, and resolution.

    FYI, I always learn something from your posts, Rebecca. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom.

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    1. Thanks! If I can't visit a place, I do web research, but I also like to talk to people who live there. Long ago, I spent a week in Madrid researching a RS novel. In the midst of writing the book, I sent my characters to a theater in Madrid. Then I realized I didn't know how the theater told people intermission was over. I called up the Spanish department at George Washington University and asked a professor. (they ring a bell.) Oh--and the play the h/h were watching was one I'd studied in a Spanish class.

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  10. Excellent post! I've set my own first stories in my geographic location, changing names and some details. But I know the area so well that it just seemed natural for the stories I wanted to tell.

    Once I'm finished with this series I may shift to another local.

    Thank you Google earth for the ability to check out details....

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  11. It was quite eerie reading a book set in the fictional Doncaster, US, since I live in the real Doncaster, England! Worked for me, though. It felt very real.

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