Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Devil Is In The Details

by Wilfred Bereswill

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?


Annette said...

oh, yeah, Will. My all time favorite wrong detail was the sniper on the hillside using a shotgun.

Details like the keys in the dashboard come from the author not knowing and using her own frame of reference. Was she too young to remember those older cars? I'm not saying that's an excuse. She should have done her research and visited a classic car show!

Joyce said...

I couldn't tell you the number of books I've stopped reading because the writer got a detail wrong. Most of the time it's something with police procedure or forensics because the author is relying on what they see on TV instead of asking an expert. These days, it's so easy to find out what you need to know.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

So Annette and Joyce, do you like details in your novels, or is "She picked up the gun and killed him" good enough?

Joyce said...

I'll have to say, "It depends." I don't use a lot of unnecessary description (at least what I think is unnecessary!). If I'm reading a book and the writer uses more than a paragraph to describe something, I'll skip it. I get the point and move on.

Sometimes though, you need the detail. In your gun example, I might mention the type of gun the first time, then after that just use "gun." I read one book where every time the character drew his gun, it was his Beretta 92F. Drove me nuts!

In the book I'm writing now, my protagonist's mother drives a pink Cadillac. The character wouldn't be the same driving another car.

Jennie Bentley said...

Wrong details bug me, but they'd have to be pretty blatant for me to stop reading a book I enjoy otherwise. I mostly just take them with an eye-roll and carry on. Probably because I'm a little loosy-goosy with details myself. If I need the results of the DNA test within 24 hours, then those results are gonna be available in 24 hours, even if they wouldn't be in real life. Poetic license, people... I do my best, but sometimes it can't be helped, you know?

And I usually just use the 'she picked up her gun and shot him', since I don't know one gun from another. The good thing is that neither does my protagonist, so it makes sense. I do use brand names when it comes to stuff I do know, though, since I agree with Will that a judiciously dropped name can really say a lot about a character.

Gina said...

I'm with Jennie - I tend to keep on reading in spite of the wrong details. The ones I usually catch are law-related, like one author (who shall remain nameless) who had an American trial with a division of labor between a solicitor and a barrister. [She must have been reading novels set in England.] Otherwise, whether or not I like details depends upon the writing and the subject matter. I can remember reading pages of details about ancient Greek grammar in The Secret History that I found fascinating, while I skimmed most of the description of Scarlett's party dress in Gone With the Wind.

Dana King said...

Excellent post, and a pet peeve of mine. I think there's an ideal balance of detail in every book. Too many, and the story bogs down. Too few, and the reading may become superficial, not fulling engaging the reader.

People who play gotcha with books drive me nuts, but some writers invite it. If the author is going to get specific about something, get it right. If you're not sure, leave some of the specifics out.

As for "she pulled out a gun and shot him," it depends. If the author has been specific about such things in other parts of the book, or if the specific weapon matters, then it absolutely has to be right. IF the story hasn't worried about firearm specifics before, and it doesn't matter to the story as a whole, don't worry about it. I've done both.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Jennie, Gina and Dana,

Sounds like we're in agreement. And Dana, I like what you're saying about consistency. Writers need to be consistent with thier voice, their characters and their level of detail.

I think in my first book, I mention the type of gun Laura Daniels uses in the first chapter. I think I refer to the specific gun in the last chapter too. Other than that, it's her gun or her Sig.

mike said...

Maybe a bit late to the discussion here...

Once I picked up a James Patterson book, set in D.C. (my former hometown). Good read, until a character fell to his death from the roof of a 20-story downtown office building. Well, it just so happens that federal law limits the height of all D.C. buildings to no more than 13 stories...all you have to do is drive down K Street to realize that all the office buildings are rather truncated at the top.

I finished that book, but never bothered reading another of his. Details used judiciously are great, but, yep, they better be right.

Dana King said...

That's exactly what I was talking about. Falling thirteen stories would have killed him just as dead. Why add the unnecessary detail, especially when most of them are so easy to check?

The WIP has a Chicago cop following a federal agent. I wanted to use the model of car a Chicago detective would likely drive, and the Internet didn't have anything reliable. What to do? I called the Chicago police, asked him what models unmarked cars they used. Three minute phone call, and I got a detrail that will now allow a reader to trust me about other things because i got that one right.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Mike, You're never too late. I agree. In my first book, I wrote about the Teton Mountains which I knew little about. Being familiar with the mountains in Colorado, I wrote something about the 14,000 foot peaks. Well, I started thinking about that and called a friend that lived in Billings, Montana. He said the Tetons were about 12,000 feet.

I think I altered the language to say something about the mountains rising well above the tree line.

Like I said, people reading mysteries are probably more likely to connect with details.

jnantz said...

I'll agree with that, Mr. Bereswill. I try not to overload with detail, unless it matters if it's a 9mm or a .40 cal (or something like that). But for my detectives in Raleigh, it was important for me to know that there wasn't a Robbery/Homicide Division, it's the Major Crimes Unit. Or that Raleigh uses Districts instead of Precincts. Or that Durham had a Forensics department, but that all of Wake County uses the City/County Bureau of Investigation, or CCBI.

Stuff like that matters.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Thanks, Jake.

In St. Louis, they call it the Major Case Squad. Just in case you're ever thinking about setting something here.