Details, Details

“The devil’s in the details” — or is it God that’s in the details? God and the devil are always mixing themselves up, but that’s a post for another time, another blog. What matters is that details are important.

For writers, they’re crucial. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, poetry or plays, details help bring your stories to life. (They can also weigh your story down. We can talk about that some other time.)

Where do details come from? They’re all around you. All you have to do is pay attention.

Four buses in waiting at the West Tisbury School

Four buses in waiting at the West Tisbury School

I was reminded of this yesterday when I posted “Little Changes” to my other blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories. On our walks, my dog and I often follow a trail that skirts the school bus parking lot at the nearby elementary school. Last year four buses parked there. They went away for the summer, but when school resumed earlier this month, there were again four buses in the parking lot.

124 signFrom a distance they looked like the same four buses — not only do school buses look alike, big, long, and bright yellow, but they look a lot like they did when I was a kid back in the Pleistocene. But they weren’t the same buses. Each bus has a number. Last year the regulars were 121, 123, 124, and 117H. This year 124 is back, but with different companions: 125, 126, and 116H.

Close-up of the 116H bus

Close-up of the 116H bus

Finally I got curious about the H. What made 116H and 117H different from their buddies? This wasn’t obvious from a distance either, so I looked more closely.

116H seats fewer kids than the non-H buses — because it leaves room for a wheelchair and has a wheelchair entrance at the back. The H, it seems, stands for “Handy Bus” (so it says on the side of the bus), and “Handy” is probably shorthand for “handicap access.”

Back in the Pleistocene, the school buses in my town weren’t accessible by wheelchair. By noticing the details, I learned something about school buses. Will this ever come up in my writing? (Other than this blog, I mean.) Probably not, but who knows? If I ever write a murder mystery, maybe a school bus will have been seen at the scene of the future crime. Maybe some alert soul will have noticed the number.

Too much detail can obscure the main point.

Too much detail can obscure the main point.

Details often sprout into images, similes, and metaphors. Images, similes, and metaphors aren’t scary when they grow organically from your own experience. If you mess around in a garden, for instance, your mind is almost certainly linking what your eyes see, your hands feel, and your nose smells to other things in your life. When I look at my little garden, sometimes I think about making pesto or eating cherry tomatoes, but other times I think, What a mess! I can’t see what’s going on here.

Which is what I sometimes think when I’m revising and come to a passage that’s drowning in detail. Pruning is good, both for prose and for shrubs.

I often think in generalities and abstractions, but when I describe my thoughts to someone else, I almost always reach for concrete images to illustrate them. No surprise there: most useful generalizations are firmly grounded in specifics. In the spring of 1970, I was a freshman at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Here’s a story from that time, as recounted several decades later:

Lauinger Library opened toward the end of my freshman year, about a month before the Kent State shootings shut the campus down. Within a very few weeks footpaths had appeared across the green lawn fronting the library, one leading from the main gate, the other from the corner of Healy Hall where foot traffic from several dorms and classroom buildings converged. Imagine a terrestrial ice cream cone, with the traffic circle standing in for one scoop of your favorite flavor and the tip at the library’s front door. While war raged in Southeast Asia and anti-war movements fought it across the United States and around the world, university officials battled the entire student body over the right way to walk to the library. The officials contended that we should follow the existing asphalt walkway around the perimeter of the lawn. Our footsteps, in their hundreds, then thousands and tens of thousands, countered that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line.

Our footsteps carried the day. Officialdom conceded, and the foot-beaten paths were enshrined in asphalt.

“The shortest distance between two points is a straight line”: Well, duh — everybody knows that. But the truism doesn’t stick in my mind the way that story has all these years. It taught me to pay attention to something that just about all of us tend to forget: footsteps matter.

Footsteps, come to think of it, are like details. Pay attention to them. They’re important.




The deadline-frazzled writer is often depicted staring at a blank screen or a blank sheet of paper. From the look in the writer’s eyes and the beads of sweat on the writer’s face, you know he or she is on the verge of panic.

Common advice to blocked or procrastinating writers: Chain yourself to your desk until it’s done.

Ummm — maybe. Writing every day is a really good idea. Chaining yourself to your desk — maybe not.  Staring too long at the computer screen can cause brain freeze. When my brain freezes, so do the characters in my story. So do the thoughts I’m trying to spin into an essay.

How to unfreeze the brain? What works best for me is physical activity. Something that doesn’t involve sitting in a chair. Something that doesn’t involve a computer.

Travvy, my #1 walking buddy, and I take a break on the trail.

Travvy, my #1 walking buddy, and I take a break on the trail.

Walking is high on my list. I walk a lot. Lately I’ve been walking even more than usual.

My last several weeks have been busy. I’ve got two huge, demanding editing jobs in progress, and I’ve also been looking after an assortment of critters while their owners are away. Usually these gigs only last a few days. In one case it’s three weeks. Weekend before last, the beginning of school vacation, I was looking after two cats, five hens, one rabbit, and four dogs, one of them mine.

My best writing time is first thing in the morning. The good news is that every single day for the last almost-three weeks I’ve managed to get up and write for at least an hour before I’m off to feed the dogs, let the hens out, and check on the cats. On my busiest weekend, three of the dogs could be walked in combination. My Travvy does better solo, and besides, a brisk hour-long walk is part of our routine. The upshot is that he and I don’t get home till a little after 10.

My writerly brain is not idle while I walk. While I’m talking to a dog and noticing changes in the air and landscape, my brain is testing ideas for my essay in progress — this is the one I referred to in “Get Me Rewrite,” about a statue that’s caused controversy at Wellesley College. It’s also playing with the structural challenges of Squatters’ Speakeasy, the novel in progress. When I get home, I scribble down notes that I hope will come in handy next time I sit down at the computer.

Try it. Walk. Knead bread (another favorite activity of mine). Knit. Chop vegetables. Do barn chores. Anything that doesn’t involve staring at the computer screen. We humans have bodies as well as brains. The two are connected. Movement of the body can unfreeze the brain.

Talk to your characters. Listen to them talk to each other, or to themselves. Play with the ideas you’re trying to shape into an essay. They’re talking to you too, the way characters do. Listen to them.