"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
On the one hand, I love details.
I love the color of a hero’s eyes, the scent of their skin. I love the music he listens to, the sports he watches, and whether he uses a certain shampoo or shaves his pubes or had a crush on his third grade teacher.
Details, glorious details—they make my people human in my own feeble brain.
On the other hand, I loathe details.
Did I say feeble? I seriously have the brain capacity of three-year-old head-cheese. Would we like examples? I think we’d like examples:
My sense of time has never been awesome:
I can lose myself in any task for between thirty seconds to four hours, and the only reason I know there’s a difference is because after four hours I have to pee like a racehorse.
I don’t recognize faces:
My husband has a bunch of clean-cut, generally Caucasian friends, and it took me years to learn which name matched which face. I still have problems remembering which man goes with which wife. (The wives I remember—hair length and color are lifesavers.)
I don’t recognize area landmarks:
One of the reasons I write so consistently about my hometown is that remembering visual place details is horrible for me unless I have some historical and socio-economic background to go with the place. All of those lovely detail receptors that make most adults function socially during travel in a non-freakish way are completely alien to me.
So research is a nightmare.
I can look up all the facts—have, in fact, spent hours looking up things like locations, travel time, the college basketball system, school rivalries, what it takes to get into a CSU—and I’ll always miss that last detail that someone will claim is the difference between a good book and a shitacular book. Hell—I graduated from the CSU system—in fact, helped students get in to college in California—oh, hell, I’ve got two kids in college in California myself, and I still can’t pin down the goddamned cut-off dates for applying for the new semester. (The fact that I like to write college-aged protagonists makes this particularly bitter.)
“So what?” you’re saying. “You can’t know everything!”
Well, yeah. Because I’m one person, right? But there are a lot more readers than there are Amy Lanes, and if I get something wrong, somebody is bound to notice.
· I spent hours looking up airtime from one European city to the next, and I still didn’t manage to convey a sense of time for the dogfight in The Bells of Times Square. I know this because a reader called me on it.
· God forbid I have a kid applying to college, because there’s always a reader who wants to tell me I missed the cut-off date.
· I was in junior high choir as well as high school and college band, have listened to music all my life and taught myself to play musical melodies on the flute by reading guitar sheet music, and someone just called me on a musical detail from Beneath the Stain.
· I watched videos of North Carolina basketball players during their freshmen year, and had The Locker Room proofread by someone who attended that college with her husband and who never misses a Tar Heels game on the radio or television, and yes, there is a review out there that claims I did no research whatsoever.
· And don’t get me started on the people in porn who read a Johnnies book and say, “They don’t schedule scenes like this!”
· Or the people who read a description from a city I know really well and say, “You, uhm, know that street is all strip mall now, right?
· And I’ll never live down the time I sent a guy on a motorcycle with no shirt, helmet, nor shoes, on a motorcycle ride that would take an hour and a half to complete. (It’s a good thing he wasn’t human to begin with.)
And I’m sort of at a loss for what to tell these people. I mean, good faith effort? I has it! But I also have the sort of mind that will let me drive through an intersection everyday, stop, look left, look right, and go through it, without acknowledging that there’s been a stoplight there for over a month. (True story, multiple times, multiple intersections, no traffic accidents thank God!)
I have the sort of mind that almost got me fired from teaching or written up on multiple occasions for not following standard procedure—because I didn’t remember standard operating procedure, no matter how many times the ever-patient secretaries gave me a list. I mean, the only reason I ever sponsored clubs was that the students patted me on the cheek and said, “Don’t worry, Ms. Lane. We’ll fill out the paperwork for you.” Hell, my publishers finally stopped trying to get me to send things up the food chain and finally just said, “Send your questions to us, Amy. We’ll take care of you!” because every time something changed it took me two months to realize I was even being rerouted and in the meantime I created unbelievable havoc by talking to multiple people about the same issue.
Just writing the list of my shortcomings is depressing.
What was I doing again?
Oh yes—explaining why those details are only ten percent of fiction.
They are. Those day-to-day details that get us sent to the DMV for weeks at a time or put off our school application for a semester or lead to the dog taking multiple dumps in your dirty clothes in one night aren’t the reason we pick up a romance book. (Especially that last one.)
Sure—the details might help make the romance more plausible, and even more enjoyable (except, of course, that last one) but we don’t pick up a romance book for gritty reality. We don’t even pick up a regular fiction book for gritty reality.
One of the first textbooks I ever taught from—Freshman English, mind you—had a section on “details”. I can’t quote from it exactly (see all the reasons listed above regarding terrible memory and space/time continuum) but I do remember the gist. It was talking about a cowboy showdown on the surface of a distant planet.
The textbook said (and I definitely paraphrase):
Do we want to say ‘There was one rock two-point-six feet from another rock, and another rock with a mass of seven cubic yards sitting four-point-two feet from the third rock. The dirt was a composite of clay, ochre, and many extraneous minerals, the humidity was negative six, and the ranged from 600 to 800 degrees Fahrenheit on any given day.’? Or would our purpose be better served with ‘The terrain was rocky and covered with red dust, and it was hot enough to cook a person dead without a space suit or temperature controls.’? Details are necessary to help a reader feel as though they were there, but too many details can obscure the purpose of adding them at all.
Yeah—that right there was a revelation to me, because it’s true. At least for the type of reader I am, with my squirrel brain. If I have enough details to set a scene and to give my characters motivation to do what they’re doing as a reader then damn am I done with worrying about details. What are my people doing instead?
Now I know for some people this sounds like heresy. Isn’t fiction supposed to pride itself on mimicking reality?
In reality, if I were to detail everything I see, hear, smell, think, and feel, just sitting at my kitchen table typing, I would have spent six hours on one moment—and not gotten to the point. What fiction does usually is put reality in sort of an order. I don’t need to list every exact thing for you to know there are bills, children’s toys, office equipment, and cooking supplies left over from when Mate was trying to make Christmas fudge.
What matters here is that the children’s toys actually belong to me, the bills aren’t in any sort of order, the office equipment is functional, and Christmas was two weeks ago. What does this say?
A. That I’m mentally six.
B. That we pay our bills electronically.
C. Cleaning up is foreign to us.
D. The kitchen table hasn’t been used for meals in over five years.
So what matters here is not so much the list of details, but what the details mean to the person, and that’s the rope I cling to when I’m trying to get details right for a story. What matters isn’t when Adam in Candy Man is applying to college and that the deadline is feasible (for transfer students it actually was—I checked with my daughter who was trying to transfer this December so she could start school in the fall) it is that Adam is still trying to get into school and hasn’t lost faith. What matters isn’t that Nate’s dogfight took hours (but was still feasible in one night—again, I did the math several times) it was that Nate’s plane went down because Nate was trying to do his job, and that Nate was facing prejudice even as his life was in danger. What matters isn’t what Mackey was yelling at Blake for, what matters is that Mackey would have yelled at Blake if he’d been pitch perfect and brilliant, because Blake wasn’t who Mackey wanted.
What matters isn’t that the details were perfect, what matters is that the humans were flawed.
Or, at least to me, that’s what mattered.
Now, I’m aware I could take some criticism for this—people will accuse me of being intentionally sloppy or dismissive of what’s important, or whatever, and once again, we’re missing the point.
I research. I’m not great at it, but brother, I do it. I look up details, I put them in context, I have twenty tabs open in my browser so I can go back and refer to things—my heart is there even if my skills are not. I will never not try to get it perfect.
I’m just saying that at some point, I have to acknowledge that I will never not fail, either.
And I have to remember that failing at the details shouldn’t stop me from writing. Those details aren’t the reason I write, and they’re not the story I want to tell. The details are the means to an end. The end is the emotional impact, the study of human virtue and vice, the inherent hope of writing a story in which two human beings connect and something joyful happens.
It’s like this—Eleanor of Aquitane may have died 811 years ago (looked that up, did the math wrong, wrote 611, proofread and fixed it) but that’s not the point. The point is, she brought stories of Arthur and Gwenevere and Launcelot from France to England, and a long history of believing that love was at least as important as king and country, began.