We are often told as writers to write what we know. That’s all well and good but what if you don’t know much? What if you haven’t experienced much? If your life isn’t as exciting or dramatic as you would like your stories to be? Are you doomed? I don’t think so.
The thing is, you have had experiences. An astronomical amount of experiences throughout your life. There have been millions of smells, tastes, sounds, and sensations. All of which made their own little imprint in your mind. You’ve seen and done so many things that if you stick just a fraction of those miniscule details together, you can create quite the mighty tale. The key lies in the math. The addition and subtraction of these tiny bits of experience equal the whole of a unique event. We as writers recognize this when writing any fleshed-out scene. These small details flesh out our real lives in the same way.
This theory is something that I’ve been kicking around for a few years now and has stemmed from my travels since moving to Europe. It’s probably not a new line of thinking but it’s not something I have researched either. I’d done some traveling in the past but living abroad and having so many travel opportunities at my finger tips, opportunities to see famous, extravagant places, has helped me realize that different locations on the map are far more similar than one might think. I’m forever grateful for the travel I’ve done, and while it has helped my writing, it isn’t a necessity. Very few of the small details that surround me as I travel are different than those back home.
A cold rain in New York and a cold rain in Amsterdam feel the same. The smell of loam and pine will greet your nose in an Austrian forest just as it would on a trail in the Rockies. The sound of a waterfall in Croatia is the sound of a waterfall in Hawaii. This of course is comparing like for like, glamorous for glamorous, which is not entirely what I’m talking about. I’m talking about using small ordinary details to build epic scenes no matter where the detail was experienced.
I recently had the chance to travel to Venice, Italy for Carnevale. The trip had been planned for almost a year and we decided to go for the gusto. Here’s a picture of us in full costume.
This was a massive, life-altering trip. Strolling through the gilded, elaborate enclosure of Saint Mark’s Square, dressed as some pagan god and being swarmed by photographers was, on the surface, utterly foreign. It seemed that way to me at first. I had never in my life been in a situation like that, or rather, that specific situation. As I thought about what was actually happening, as I narrowed my focus, I realized that the foreign feeling wasn’t in the details but in how they came together. Ordinary pieces came together to build a something remarkable.
It was a regular cloudy sky that held in damp, cold air. Being from the PNW, I’d lived hundreds of days like that. Crowds of tourists snapped pictures and clogged walkways. Just like any major city. Stone statues and marble pillars glistened above the wet stones in the square. Sounds, exotic right? Venice is one of the most beautiful and unique cities in the world and that includes its statuary and marble but again, the collection of details is unique, not the details themselves. Any rainy day in any western city could be described this way. They all have statues and marble, just not carved or used like this. Other details like shape and placement have come together here to make something special.
As we stood in our costumed glory, my Venetian mask stuck to my face with the same humid breaths that any Halloween mask would. The weight of my antlered helmet hurt my neck, just like a football helmet during the first days of practice. My sore feet hurt as I stood next to my wife, posing for the cameras, just as they would with any uncomfortable shoes, just as we would for any family photo. The differences were that these shoes just happened look like they were made for Peter Pan and this family photo shoot lasted for hours. There were a hell of a lot more cameras involved as well.
These very average details, things that wouldn’t normally warrant a second thought, combined into a magical experience. Real life does this all the time. Why can’t we as writers. The answer is, we can and we should.
There are however, two caveats that we can’t ignore as writers. First, our experiences are ours alone. We need to show how our characters would perceive them. We are, after all, striving for authenticity even in our fantasy. Try talking with others about their own perspective on the world. It will not only make you a better writer, but really, a better person.
Second, we have to complete the scene. I’m not saying we have flood our writing with detail. Far from it, We simply can’t overlook the importance of that final, unique collection. Sure, a raindrop is a raindrop, but when it’s hanging from the nose of a statue, that happens to be a gargoyle, that happens to be moss-covered and mounted on the ruins of a long dead castle, that simple, ordinary raindrop becomes a part of something much more.
This is a great article. I try to write with the little details in mind, but sometimes go too far into the realm of exposition. I appreciate your comparison of a waterfall is a waterfall despite the location, having just returned from Maui and seeing several – I now know how to write about them better.
I think the key here is to do exactly what you recommend, which is to know your characters well enough to understand how their perception of the details is different from our own as the writer. I will make sure to keep focusing on the differentiation.
Thanks for the read Drew. Rationing the details is definitely part of the job. I tend to go thin with detail then bulk up the work as needed. That’s the beauty with small details. There’s always room to squeeze one in and carving one away wont do much damage.
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