by Sarah Saint John
Details are the spice of a story. They add flavor—they show instead of tell. Details make the work come alive, enabling the reader to see, hear, feel, taste and smell. Well, share a fragrance, not smell. It sounds simple enough. So how does it work?
Let me show you the difference between telling and showing. Using my work in progress Sacrificial Lamb as an example, if I were telling the reader, I could’ve written:
It was afternoon. Hope rode in the carriage as it went down the road."Instead, I wrote:
They were on their way to sell a man.If I’ve done my job, you should see the landscape and hear the birds. Perhaps you even feel the humidity of the day. You become part of the story.
Hope sat ramrod straight, her chin thrust out in rebellion as she watched the countryside stream past their carriage window. It was a temperate day, somewhat humid, and green graced everything the eye could see, from tall cypress trees to lush grass swaying in the breeze. Birds sang in praise of the afternoon…innocent beauty to defy the obscenity of her father’s mission.
A tear of perspiration drifted down her temple. "I hate you, you know."
Like any good spice, details should be sprinkled into the mix. If a writer is writing contemporary fiction, another way to add flavor is to use bits and pieces of pop culture. It’s easy to add a brand name, or a city, or a place like "Someplace Else" the sandwich shop. Little details like these make the story ring true. Stephen King does this often and well. He has a Coca-Cola machine kill someone in The Tommyknockers. Reading this scene, we can see the red and white refrigerated unit lumbering up the street, spewing cans, beating the poor victim until he is nothing more than a battered corpse. SK sprinkles bits of popular songs throughout his works. As we’re reading, the songs play in our heads and we are there, inside his story. What’s happening to the hero or heroine is happening to us.
My novel Trust the Night, available from Samhain Publishing in 2008, uses the above mentioned sandwich shop to locate a scene. Someplace Else has been in business in Oklahoma City since the Seventies.
Surrounded by the pleasingly eclectic ambiance of the submarine sandwich shop Someplace Else, Detective George Loman waited for his food, and Northcutt. The young uniformed cop had called that morning saying he had information on the case—important info which needed to be discussed in private. George told him to meet him at his favorite sandwich shop. He figured if Northcutt's news was a bust, at least he'd get a good meal out of the deal. And, if not, he would buy Northcutt a sub as a reward for whatever tidbit he had to give.Then, a bit later…
George looked up as Northcutt struggled through the lunch time crowd, trying to get to their table.
"Loman," the waitress called.
"Get it, won't you?" George pointed at the counter. Northcutt made a detour and wove his way back carrying two plastic baskets filled with the best subs in town, chips, and giant snicker-doodle cookies.
Northcutt sat down and George pushed a Styrofoam cup in his direction. "I got you a Coke."
The young cop grinned. "Nice of you, considering I just paid for lunch."
Northcutt fidgeted in his chair as George took another bite of his Cheese Special, relishing the tang of pickled banana peppers bursting on his tongue. For a moment he studied Chuck, watched him squirm. The kid had good instincts. Maybe he’d make a good homicide cop. He decided to give him a break.I’m hoping the scene makes you hungry.
If writing historical fiction, it’s fun to add one or two historical figures as characters. In my novel Blood Atonement, the villain is Vlad Dracula…the actual Vlad the Impaler. My hero is Matthias Corvinus, an actual Hungarian king who held Vlad hostage in the fifteenth century. The story takes place in 1815, after Vlad has taken his revenge. Lord Byron and Polidori have a cameo.
Royal blue velvet guarded the windows, protecting the elite from the crude eyes of commoners. Candlelight glared from multifaceted chandeliers, a show of molten gold luminescence that threatened to melt the fine crystal cradling the wax. Liveried servants hurried to bring wine to thirsty gamblers as, cravats loosened and waistcoats unbuttoned, they wagered away their inheritances.If I’ve done it right, you get the "feel" of the time period. Polidori and Byron make it seem real.
Baron Matthias Corvinus leaned back in his fine Louis XIV chair, oblivious to the studied elegance of his surroundings.
"’Zounds! He’s done it again." Polidori threw down his cards.
Matthias poured himself another glass of his deep red wine, using the action as cover as he watched to see how each of his companions would react to the creature's infantile show of temper. Sir Afton did his best to ignore it, thus saving himself the embarrassment of acknowledging any outward show of emotion.
Byron laughed out loud. "Do close your mouth, Polidori, you’ll capture a fly. Why act as if this were a novelty? Whenever we have the dubious honor of gaming with this man, we leave the table the worse for our wagers. Yet we continue to play. Tell me, Corvinus, are you amused at how green we are? Does verdigris suit me?"
"Naive, perhaps, but surely not verdigris. The pure stubbornness of human nature dictates you return to try for the brass. I count on it."
"Glad to oblige."
The final benefit? Adding details, adding zing to fiction is great fun—for both the reader and the writer. Whichever way you choose— by incorporating the five senses, using pop culture, historical culture or figures, or any combination of the same—it makes your work pop, which is a noble ambition for any writer. Do this and you’ll cook up a spicy gumbo indeed. I’ll look forward to reading your work.
About the Author: Sara Saint John crafts stories of good versus evil, horror and the healing power of love. Sara is a romantic at heart and believes in happy endings, even if they are approached from the dark side. Her first novel, Blood Atonement, from Samhain Publishing, Ltd., can be ordered online and at local bookstores using ISBN 1-59998-359-1. Trust the Night will be available in 2008.
Visit the author at her myspace page