Writing: The Details

Question for readers: How much is too much? How important is accuracy in small details whether you’re reading or writing fiction?

I’ve never used roses as a bookmark, but this picture conveys how I feel about books.

I love fat novels that have a rich tapestry of detail. Except when I hate it when the book bugs me. I’ve commented about this before when I wrote my review of Ken Follett as a writer. So much detail in a childbirth scene that it could be a manual for midwives is too much. One of my Works in Progress (WIP) has a childbirth scene, but I plan to include only enough to make it feel authentic, not every contraction and scream. Margaret Mitchell did it well in Gone With the Wind when Melanie has her baby.

The book that’s currently bugging me with excess detail and inaccurate detail is The Alice Network. Kate Quinn does not give enough detail to make the characters come to life. The reviewer who said the characters were so vivid she half expected them to walk into her room must have been reading a different book.

Fictional people shouldn’t be like paper dolls with the writer coloring in the surface but the characters remain flat.

Maybe my novel, A Home for an Exile’s Heart has too much detail–hair color, eye color, what they wear, what they read, what they eat and drink, etc. Readers of historical novels generally prefer more details. Maybe I don’t have to worry.

Even though I’m writing fiction, I sweat the small stuff. Some of it I don’t worry about. I don’t particularly care if Seattle was snowed in on the day after Thanksgiving in 1952 as in the opening scene of my novel. The scene needs snow, so there is snow. 

I hate most 1950s slang so there’s almost none in my book. A few secondary characters don’t speak perfect English, but I try to keep broken English to a minimum. It’s annoying when there’s too much of it. Kate Quinn’s two main characters in The Alice Network have stutters–w-w-w-we have to put up with it throughout the five hundred-page book.

There’s one scene where a character is being tortured. Too much detail of blood, screams, and crunching bones that goes on for pages. It’s surprising how tedious a torture scene can be. If the character was vivid enough to seem like a real person, I might have cried, instead, the scene left me indifferent.

What really bugged me was the small, inaccurate details in Quinn’s book, details I might have overlooked if the book engrossed me.

One character plays with his water glass in a scene set in a cafe in France in 1947. Maybe it’s different now because many Americans have inundated Europe, but when I was in London, they did not have water glasses already on the table when we arrived at a restaurant. We had to ask for water. They brought a pitcher and glasses and diners had to pour it themselves, but nothing like that was mentioned in the novel. In my opinion, it should have been.

Open-faced sandwiches of the kind Latvians would eat–salt herring and diced onions on dark rye bread. Many people would go, “Yuck!” The photo makes my mouth water. I want some!

There are two scenes where characters eat sandwiches outdoors. Despite the Earl of Sandwich’s innovation in Europe people don’t eat sandwiches with two slices of bread. They eat open-faced sandwiches that don’t travel well even when wrapped. If picnicking in France the characters would most likely take a loaf of bread, but probably not a two-foot-long baguette (the French have many different kinds of bread, which come in different sizes), a hunk of, cheese, grapes, or apples, and a bottle of wine.

French bread in its various shapes and sizes.

(If you’re a French picnicker and I’m wrong, please correct me. But only if you picnicked in 1947)

Eventually, the Alice characters travel to Grenoble, which is in the southeast of France. It’s June and twilight falls quickly. Except not. In southern California, where Quinn lives, twilight probably does fall quickly as that part of the USA is on latitude 34. Grenoble is on latitude 45. Where I live, at latitude 47, daylight in June ebbs slowly, twilight arrives gradually, you look at the time and are surprised to see that it’s nine in the evening already. I expect that it’s not much different two degrees of latitude south.

I know. I’m persnickety. I hope my way of writing creates a realistic world in my books and that my characters seem like friends, people you know well and want to spend time with.

Northern twilights in summer are sweet, long, and mellow. My favorite time of day.

9 thoughts on “Writing: The Details”

  1. Details are not too important to me. As a writer, they are more important as is everything about the book. I can see my characters but never seem to convey their appearance. I will read your new book and tell you what I think about the details and how you deliver them to the reader. Did you have them sit in front of a mirror and hate their hair?


    1. To each her own, Peggy, but if you’re not conveying their appearance, you may need a few more salient details. I’m glad you’ll be reading my book. I hope you will find my characters, including the cat, vivid and likable. I look forward to hearing what you think. LOL! Nope. None of them is that vain.


  2. I don’t understand your sandwich paragraph. In Ireland and the UK sandwiches are most commonly eaten using two slices of bread. Are you talking in general or about a particular place? Just curious 😊


    1. Apparently, in Ireland and the UK, it’s different. In Latvia and the Scandinavian countries, sandwiches are open-faced. In France, they are too and are called “tartines.” Germany’s probably the same.


      1. Interesting. We do have open sandwiches as well but it’s usually specified as open. I like hearing about different traditions and customs like this 😊


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