Do details in a novel bog you down or do they bring your writing alive? Obviously that’s a question of taste, I think. Some people love it, some... not so much. I had the pleasure of attending my second conference as an author a few weeks ago. The conference? Magna Cum Murder sponsored by Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. First off, kudos to Kathryn Kennison, one of the loveliest ladies I’ve met and a wonderful organizer. Also kudos to Jim Huang, owner of The Mystery Company in Carmel, Indiana and program organizer. I am confident that next year’s Bouchercon is in good hands with Jim at the helm.
So, I had a lot of time to sit and discuss issues with readers and writers and one of the things we discussed was the level of detail in novels. On the first day of the conference, a group of ladies invited me to it with them and discuss a few things. One of them was detail. And while some liked details and others didn’t, one thing was certain; if you’re going to put in details, get it right.
I prefer some level of detail in my work. I think that details, if inserted correctly bring familiarization to a piece. I’m also not against a certain amount of brand names if done to further the plot or define a character. I believe that the line; “He swung the door to the battered Pinto open, kicking the empty bottle of Wild Turkey as stumbled out to the pavement.” As opposed to the line: “He sat the snifter of Hennessey’s on the bar and called for the valet to retrieve his Porsche.” These are two very different men and using details, we can give you a sense of them in a few words, without slowing down the plot. But the details have to be right.
No one should confuse this:
For this, even in it's best days.
Case in point. I’m perfectly fine with the writer who uses the line, “She pulled out a gun and shot him.” However, if you add detail, get it right. “She pulled out her Glock, flicked the safety off and shot him.” A greater level of detail, but WRONG! I’m throwing this book against the wall.
So, I’m at the Magna conference, listening to a wonderful speaker. She reads an excerpt of her work and everyone is enraptured. Her words flow beautifully... and shades of Emeril, BAM! She loses me and I completely stop listening. What brought me right out of that happy journey that the author was transporting me through? A detail I knew was wrong. She talked about a situation where her young blind brother, a child, climbs into an old 1949 Ford. As he explores the car with his touch, he runs his hands along the steering column and finds the keys in the ignition. WHAT?
My dad had a 1951 Ford Crown Victoria.
The ignition switch was in the dashboard, not on the steering column. In fact, if I remember correctly, it was on the left-hand side of the steering wheel. Okay, maybe there was a ’49 Ford with a steering column/ignition interlock system, but I don’t think so. Regardless, she threw in a detail that pulled me right out of that wonderful story. In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter where the ignition was, but in this case, she lost a reader/listener. Judging by the crowd, I was the only one that caught it, but the story was an inspirational one and the details didn’t matter like they do in a mystery, where people are looking hard at the details to solve the crime.
So, how about you? Are you a detail hound like me? Have you ever read a book where a detail took you out of the story?