Friday, May 10, 2013

The Importance of Detail

By Charlene Raddon
Researching a book involves a lot of reading, in books, online, at a library. Research involves fact-checking and the verification of numerous details. Often writers, especially those who write historicals, get so wrapped up with the bigger facts, they forget about the little details.

Do oak trees grow in Wyoming? If so, what kind are they? Towering? Stately? Or the scrubby kind, more like bushes? How is the town in the story laid out? What about the house? Do you know how many closets the house has? How many bathrooms?

These seem like very minor points, but often it is the tiny details that add realism to a story and bring it alive.
Here is the opening paragraph of Lucia St. Clair Robson’s book Ride The Wind, one of the best I’ve ever read.

 A rolling sea of deep grass flecked with a foam of primroses washed up on islands of towering oaks and pecans and walnuts. The pale blue sky was fading at the edges as the sun heated up the day. Soon it would be hot enough for the children to sneak down to the nearby Navasota River to splash in the cook, shaded waters. The warm East Texas wind blew through the stockade door, bringing company with it. It was a morning in May; a time of sunshine and peace, an open gate and Indians.

 Note the author didn’t write “a field of primroses.” No, she penned “a rolling sea of deep grass flecked with a foam of primroses.” Far more provocative than simply a field of flowers. And those primroses don’t just lay there, they “wash up on islands of towering…” Wow, what a picture. And why is it so visual and impressive? The tiny details.

 I also love that paragraph’s subtly. What it doesn’t say is as effective as what it does say. The stockade door is open, bringing company. She lets you wonder what kind of company, and then answers it so subtlety a reader might miss the red warning light flashing in her eyes. “A time of sunshine and peace, an open gate and Indians.” In her next paragraph she blows that peaceful scene she created wide open and fills it with terror and violence.

 Small details, such as the type of oak or the layout of a town, seem so infinitesimal, commonplace and unimportant that the author might not both checking them out. And yet, they could stand out like that flashing red light to someone who knows they’re wrong. I read a book once by a bestselling historical author who had stately, towering oaks growing on a ranch in Wyoming. So what? Unless the ranch owner had those trees transplanted from Maine or somewhere back east, they are not going to exist. The oaks in Wyoming, and other Intermountain states, do not tower and are not stately. They’re what we call scrub oaks because they’re scrubby, often more like bushes than trees. That error screamed at me when I read it and my opinion of that author slid downward. She hadn’t done her research, not all of it anyway.

 In another historical novel I read, the hero went out with his rifle, shot a five-point stag elk, threw the carcass over his shoulder and carried it back to camp. Anyone see the red flag here? Male elk are not called stags. Stags are deer. Male elk are bulls. And they weigh about 500 pounds. That author’s hero must have been Paul Bunyan to have carried so much weight on his shoulder for miles to reach camp. I might have laughed at that boo-boo if I hadn’t found it so annoying.

 True, most readers would probably pass right over these small errors without even noticing them, but do we want to risk losing a fan over something so trifling? I never bought another book by those two authors. I have bought every book Lucia St. Clair wrote.
So never doubt the power inherent in small details. Use them to add definition, visual appeal, and  life to your work, life so vibrant the reader can’t turn away, only keep on turning pages until there are no more to turn.
Growing up in Kansas and Oklahoma during the depression and dust bowl periods, my mother had the improbable joy of living in several dugouts.

In my book, To Have And To Hold, I used some of the details she told me about living in such homes to bring a little more life to my tale.
Buck braced on his arms above her and gazed down at her flushed face, wanting to drag the moment out. Her eyes were open, watching him. Her hands slid down his back urging him closer.

Unfortunately, he had hesitated too long. A strange sound intruded into his consciousness, a scratching that seemed to come from overhead, and set the hair at his nape on end. "What in tarnation . . . ?

Tempest went stiff and still. "Centipedes," she whispered.

Every hair on his body prickled. "What?"                  

“Centipedes. The storm’s disturbed them. They've come down out of the sod and are running around inside the paper tacked to the ceiling."

He sat back on his heels, staring up at the dim, candle-lit ceiling and the flimsy newspaper that was all that kept the insects from plummeting down on them. "Judas,” he swore. “Must be hundreds of them."
In the next instant, my characters, Buck and Tempest, heard a loud snap overhead. They barely managed to gather up the children and escape before the roof caved in. A pretty compelling scene, but would it have been as alive and gripping without those centipedes? My grandfather wouldn’t have thought so. He was terrified of them, more almost than he was of the possibility of the roof caving in.
The next book you read, yours or someone else’s, take note of the details and what they bring to the story. You may be surprised.
A woman without a prayer…
A widow with two children, Tempest Whitney had to mortgage everything to repay the money her husband had stolen. But even as she struggles to hold onto her Utah homestead, a scheming rancher buys up her debts, demanding she either get off his land or marry him. Then a dark-haired stranger shows up, claiming to be her dead husband…

A man without a past….
Buck Maddux spent two years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Now a death bed promise has brought him to Tempest’s dugout. A man without roots, he doesn’t plan to stay—or to feel so fiercely protective of this feisty beauty he saves from a forced marriage. Suddenly, Buck yearns for a home, a family, a lasting love. But what can he offer Tempest? The surprising answer lies in the forbidden canyons of an ancient Anasazi tribe, where fortune and danger await—along with a passion more precious than gold.
Buy Link

To have and to Hold:
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Charlene first serious writing attempt came in 1980 when she awoke one morning from an unusually vivid and compelling dream. Deciding that dream needed to be made into a book, she dug out an old portable typewriter and went to work. That book never sold, but her second one, Tender Touch, became a Golden Heart finalist and earned her an agent. Soon after, she signed a three book contract with Kensington Books. Five of Charlene's western historical romances were published between 1994 and 1999: Taming Jenna, Tender Touch (1994 Golden Heart Finalist under the title Brianna), Forever Mine (1996 Romantic Times Magazine Reviewer's Choice Award Nominee and Affaire de Coeur Reader/Writer Poll finalist), To Have and To Hold Affaire de Coeur Reader/Writer Poll finalist); and writing as Rachel Summers, The Scent of Roses. Forever Mine and Tender Touch are available as e-books and after January 24, To Have and To Hold will be as well. When not writing, Charlene loves to travel, crochet, needlepoint, research genealogy, scrapbook, and dye Ukrainian eggs.



  1. Welcome, Charlene, to Sweethearts of the West.
    You made excellent points about attending to detail when we write historicals.
    In one novel I read, the author had San Antonio in North Texas and Fort Worth in Central Texas. It was funny, of course, but annoying, too, that she didn't even look at a map.

    In my recent WIP, I wanted oil drilling on a big ranch out near Lubbock on the South Plains. But I also needed a railroad. Whoa! Even at the turn of the century, there were no railroads out there at all. So, since I needed a railroad, I moved the ranch and oil field closer to Fort Worth.
    Probably, anyone who might read my book when it's finished wouldn't notice...but I knew, and someone else might, too.
    Good post today--love those centipedes! In Texas, we'd use scorpians.

  2. Charlene, you are so right, details can make or break a book. I have to say those centipedes did add realism, but they sure creeped me out. I wouldn't make a good pioneer.

  3. Thanks for having me here today, Celia. I'm like you, I always figure if one person sees an error in my book, that's one too many. Hey, Lyn, you aren't the only one who'd make a poor pioneer, although I suspect we'd all surprise ourselves.

  4. I remember the centipede scene in your book. Gave me the heebies then as it did just now rereading that passage.

    I love the passage about the rolling sea of deep grass. Great imagery. Anyone who's been in a big field of tall grass will know how sea-like it is. We have fields of grain behind us and when it's ripe and the wind hits it, it's just like a rippling sea of green.

  5. Hi Kem. Thanks for dropping in. I always love seeing you.

  6. Very good points, Charlene. Details do add the spice to the story. I have seen it go the other way with my stories when I sent them into contests. One judge slapped me around for putting deer in my California landscape, explaining to me that there were no deer where my story was set. I looked out the window at the two bucks and four does settled in the snow under a pine tree. It has made me a lot more careful of researching, but then again...

  7. Welcome, Gharlene. I remember the centipede scene also. Shivers. We had giant centipedes at the summer camp I went to when I was young. At least 5 - 6 inches long and very intimidating. But it was such a unique scene and really made me feel like I was there. Kudos

  8. Paisley, thanks for stopping by. Sounds like your judge needed to do a bit more research. I grew up south of LA and remember lots of deer. There always seems to be one judge in a contest who thinks she knows more than she does.

  9. Ciara, good to see you. The centipedes my mother remembered from her dugout days were as big as yours and had a very nasty bite that could be lethal. I'm so glad the ones here in Utah are much much smaller.

  10. Those centipedes are ugly creatures. Gives me the shakes just to think about them. The ones we had under a deck when we lived in Alpine were huge.


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