Tuesday, June 24, 2008

It's All in the Details

By Mike Crawmer

Monday morning’s commute took me past a bus shelter in one of the city’s transition neighborhoods. Walking toward the shelter was a kid, maybe 17, 18 years old, wearing ghetto-wannabe attire: baggy, multi-pocketed pants that clung precariously to narrow hips and an oversized t-shirt.

I wouldn’t have given him a second look--nothing about his dreary clichéd uniform merited special notice--but for what he did as he reached the shelter: He looked down and, self-consciously, smoothed out his t-shirt.

That little detail almost caused me to run a red light. Such fastidiousness was unexpected. He wasn’t like any of the legions of kids I see every school day outside the local high school. They are completely comfortable in their look, whether wrinkled or ironed.

This kid was trying for that “look,” but for some reason he still felt a need to look neat. Why? Was his mother’s complaint that he looked like a slob still ringing in his ears? Or did I misread his action totally, and he was actually just trying to get his t-shirt to hang even lower toward his knees? His choice of clothes told me he wanted to fit in. That one action told me that he really cared how he looked, and a lot more.

As you can see, one action was enough to jump-start my early-morning grey cells. It’s often that way: An unexpected detail--the speed walker stopping to pick up a quarter, the seemingly happily married coworker who shows up one day without his wedding band--sparks the imagination and before you knows it, a story is a-borning.

Finding the right details that makes fictional characters believable creations is not easy. At least for me. Only recently did I come up with a detail that helps describe one of my characters--and the fact that I can use that detail as a clue makes it all the more valuable. As for my other characters, some have endearing, memorable (I hope) quirks--one 70-something neighbor wears hand-knit shawls even on the hottest summer day--some don’t. Not yet. But I’m working on it.

The kid at the bus shelter has given me an idea I think I can use to good effect. In the meantime, I’ll keep looking.

(It’s only appropriate that I saw this kid where I did. Telling details abound in neighborhoods in transition. There you’ll find a vibrant, boisterous mix of people, as the community makes the transition from hard-scrabble, worn-out blue-collar to energetic rainbow-collar--artists, techies, gays, old-house renovators and young professionals and the shops and restaurants that cater to them. Check ‘em out sometime.)


Tory said...

Mike, what a great detail! I think I will keep that picture of the kid smoothing out his shirt in my mind for a long, long time.

Annette said...

Interesting observations, Mike.

I love to people watch and the quirky things I see often find their ways into my stories. I recently had lunch at an upscale suburban mall where I spotted a woman with messy gray hair, wearing a flame-red jumpsuit, clomping around in platform shoes with a gait reminiscent of a five-year-old girl trying to walk in Mommy's pumps. I have just the spot for her in my next short story.

But I must say, I love the subtlety of your boy at the bus stop. It's those tiny details that really make a character jump off the page for me.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Mike, there are days when I pick up on details like that and days that nothing clicks. I walk at lunch and my day job is located in a rebuilding inner city area.

I've seen real estate deals and drug deals within blocks of here. It's an interesting area to pick up details.

JennieB said...

Damn, I'm gonna be thinking about this kid all day now! Thanks a lot, Mike...

Cathy said...

Your blog is a tribute to "show, don't tell." Very thought provoking, as always.

nancy said...

Okay, there's a long-running scam in the parking lot of my grocery store. A guy pulls up in a beaten-up minivan while I'm putting groceries in the back of my car. He ask directions for the nearest Wal-Mart. He expresses confusion as I proceed to give him details. He pulls closer and as the directions become more specific, he finally reveals he doesn't have enough gas to get to the Wal-Mart anyway, so could I loan him a few bucks? This has happened numerous times, and I've stopped even trying to be polite while the scam artist goes thru the drill. But today? The guy actually gets out of the minivan and takes him long, curly blond hair out of his ponytail and begins to comb it as he's nodding and asking questions and gearing up to ask for gas money. I'm still thinking about all that hair of his. Like Fabio's.

Great blog, Mike!