It’s in the Details

Authors are aware that details matter. Incorrect details, no matter how small they may seem, loom large to some readers. However, it’s not just to please readers, but also to satisfy themselves, that writers spend extensive time researching and ensuring that even the smallest detail is accurate.

 A Few Details That Mattered in Child of Desire

  • A major event occurred on the night of the full moon in a particular month. It was important to coordinate the event with the correct date.
  • In the 1930’s, most people who traveled long distances went by train. Old train schedules were used for planning travel for the characters.
  • Easter was one of the special days referenced in Child of Desire. The date on which Easter occurs impacts both weather and events. The Internet yielded a chart that provided dates for past and future Easter Sundays. Assuring correct dates and days for other holidays was also accomplished by using Internet charts.
  • Characters in Child of Desire attended a number of different schools. The existence of such schools in Virginia, Philadelphia and Colorado had to be verified.
  • At one point in the story, a young couple made plans to go to a nearby town to attend a movie. This had to be changed when research uncovered the fact that the theater there opened some years after the dates of the story.
  • When a young child in Child of Desire needed hospital care, Children’s Hospital in Denver, which first opened in 1908, was within a reasonable distance of the setting.
  • The path of the Arkansas River through Southeastern Colorado was determined in order to document that a river ran though a particular town. Old maps were used for this purpose. Maps were also used to verify highways and the locations of towns and cities on or near those routes.
  • Clothing styles and common names in the 1920’s and 1930’s were important when establishing a feel for the historical setting of the story. Much of this was done using family archives.
  • Research yielded the format for the 1935 telegram received by the story’s protagonist.
  • Among other things, the following story “facts” were documented: children rode school busses; one-room school houses were common in rural areas, girls graduated from high school and some attended college; many who prepared for church ministry attended Bible Schools rather than colleges; people canned vegetables and fruits and stored them in cellars under their homes; outhouses were the common small town “accommodation,” the majority of married women were homemakers; some people had telephones, but most did not; doctors regularly made house calls, lower income people sewed much of what they wore; and people in small communities cared for each other during the Great Depression.
  • A chart was created for the purpose of monitoring and coordinating the events in the story. Actions and dates were recorded of this chart. It served as an in-house research tool to confirm that things were “hanging together.”
  • Because multiple activities occurred inside of a home, a floor plan was developed for the house. This plan was used for each scene that took place inside of the house. Below is the floor plan for Sam and Amanda’s church-owned housing in Southeastern Colorado.

  • After the story was completed and had gone through multiple edits, all quotations were checked for copyrights. In order to avoid permissions and fees, only materials not under current copyright were included in the book.

 A Bit of Advice
Once published, don’t dwell on mistakes. Nothing can be changed. The sun will still rise again and most people won’t even care.

“Tomorrow is always fresh, with no mistakes in it.” – Lucy Maud Montgomery

Research - Just do it.

Happy Writing!

Related Blog Post: Anachronisms and Almost Words


Thoughts on Story and Concept Development

Storylines flow well and seem as though they could really happen when writers are totally engaged with their settings, characters, and conflicts. If a story is to be credible, it needs to be real, consistent, probable, and fit accurately within the time frame.

Making a Story Real
Writing a story that is “real” does not eliminate the writing of fantasy. It simply means that the story creates the sensation of being real, even if it takes place in an imaginary place.

Keeping Facts Consistent
It is difficult to take a story seriously if things previously established as facts suddenly change. In one novel I read, the color of a young lady’s beautiful ball gown changed mid-chapter. When authors picture scenes in their minds, this kind of switch is unlikely. (Maybe colorblind authors would have to write about black ball gowns.)

In a story I read last fall, the gender of a new baby changed from one chapter to the next. I read both chapters a second time to be sure I had not misread. I hadn’t. A baby girl had changed into a baby boy. My advice is: Don’t change anything in the story without going back and correcting previous related information. Edit, edit, edit!

Thinking Probability
Recently, I read, “…a bell clamored so loud it almost knocked her over.” Hyperbole? At least gross exaggeration. (Never mind that I wanted to change ”loud,” to “loudly.”)

In a different novel, I read, “Luca points a stern finger into the dogs eyes…” Ouch! That dog really needed to bite Luca’s stern finger.

Insuring Accuracy
Writing with accuracy is important, and the basis for accuracy is research. Authors need to understand the time periods and regions about which they write. They should also have knowledge of local history, indigenous events, and the unique culture of the area.

A reader challenged me concerning the size of the 1930’s Southeastern Colorado town in my story. Historical documents had already informed me that the town I used as a model, although unnamed in the story, was at that time a thriving community with over 5,000 people. The population of that same town is now less than 200.

Know the facts of your story well enough that you can meet a challenge.

A final thought: Always strive for excellence.

Happy Writing!


Effective Story Settings

Effective story settings transport readers into the action. Some writers possess the ability to develop stories and settings concurrently. What they envision, they create in the minds of their readers. Other writers go into description mode and their readers develop mental pictures of places prior to occurrences of action. These two types of writing will be illustrated here with examples.

A story might take place at one of my favorite places in Colorado, The Seven Falls. I have seen this beautiful place from the bottom of the falls. I have climbed the stairway beside the falls. I have looked down over the falls from the top of Mount Cutler. As beautiful as it might be as a setting, the environment should never take center stage by being presented in isolation.

Example 1: Description Mode

“Colored lights create rainbows on the beautiful clear water as it tumbles wildly over the granite rocks of the canyon. Spruce and pine trees seem to jut magically out of giant boulders. Rising from the canyon floor, 244 steps lead to flower-decked banks alongside the crystal-clear stream. The creek, swollen with snowmelt, swirls angrily before plunging over the boulders.

Are you sleeping yet? This is way too much telling. The story’s protagonist needs to interact with this scene.

Example 2: Concurrent Development of Setting and Story

Tourists stop to stare as I sprint up the steps two at a time. My side aches; my head throbs; my legs protest. Cold water from the cascading falls sprays into my eyes.

Blinking the water away, I glance down the stairway. The man is getting closer. I can't see the knife, but his scowling face, lighted by a blue spotlight, says he is angry. I can almost feel the firm pressure of his grasp on my arm. Gasping for air, I try to move faster. Tears form in my eyes. 

"Stop her! Stop that woman!" The deep raspy voice rises above the roar of the water.

Beside the next step, a tall pine juts from the granite. I have no time to calculate risk. Quickly, I catapult over the railing and grab for a branch. Needles pierce my hands and scratch my face. I’m sliding downward.

Sirens are wailing. My back is screaming. I’m screaming. I hear a rumbling sound. 

“She’s alive.” The man’s face is blurred but I can see his lips moving. I think the patch on his shirt is blue and white. I can’t make out the fuzzy letters.

“Ashley, can you hear me?” The man’s voice seems far away. I focus on the lights reflecting on my beautiful Seven Falls. The water no longer rumbles but silently cascades down the granite rocks of the canyon.

Everything is fading away. I’m not afraid anymore.

This type of narrative engages readers’ senses and assists them with developing mental images of the setting at the same time characters are introduced.
Things to remember:
  • Story details should be a part of actions and dialogue.
  • Everything in the environment including weather, scenery, landmarks, time, and people factor into what characters think and how they act.
  • Be aware of adjectives. They just might be the enemy that slows the action, destroys the scene, and causes confusion.

The Seven Falls at Night*
Happy Writing!

*Picture from SevenFalls.com


Writing Dialogue

Most writing conferences have sessions that provide instruction in writing strong dialogue. Presenters for these sessions emphasize the importance of dialogue being realistic, age appropriate, fitting for the time, and succinct. That so many sessions are devoted to this topic suggests that writing realistic dialogue is a challenging task. I found this to be true.    

Realistic Dialogue
Conversations that writers overhear and in which they participate provide information that is useful when constructing realistic dialogue for their stories. Writers need to listen for language patterns used by groups of people in various circumstances around them. They also need to research in order to learn about language patterns from other times and locations.

Age Appropriate Dialogue
By mimicking those with whom they interact, children develop unique sentence patterns and words. A child who hears adults using contractions such as “don’t” and “can’t” might invent the contraction, “willn’t,” and say such things as, “No, I willn’t.” and “He willn’t share.” This is appropriate for a three-year-old. As children mature, their language patterns and vocabulary become more complex and standardized.

A family of characters in one of my winter reads includes an eight-year-old girl. In one scene, the mother carried this young girl on her back. I pictured a rather small third-grader. In an apparent attempt to include details via dialogue, the author repeatedly wrote improbable dialogue for this child. At one point, while speaking to her mother, the child said, “There is no more pressing circumstances for a woman in the home, than in an uncivilized place like this.” I contend that even a precocious eight-year-old child would not make such a statement.

Teenagers have always used unique phrases. “Whatever” would fit appropriately into dialogue written for a teen living in 2014. Partial sentences and the question, “Huh?” would also make current teenage dialogue believable.

Adult dialogue needs to be based on the sentence structure, grammar, and unique words common to the area where the story takes place. If “ain’t” is a word commonly used in the area, then it is acceptable to use this word in dialogue.

My brother writes a continuing series in which the characters are from a specific area and by-gone era. The dialogue and narration are distinctive with relationship to grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure, and language. As a writer in the 2000’s, it no doubt requires a lot of concentration and attention to detail in order to be consistent. As a dedicated writer, he is consistent.

Dialogue Fitting for the Time
Catch phrases, slang, and sayings are invisibly stamped with a time. In the fifties we said such things as “she had a cow,” “I dig it,” “don’t go ape,” “I’m steamed,” and “neat-o.” We creamed our dads’ cars and wrote KILROY WAS HERE on walls and sidewalks. Today’s teen-agers say things like “cool,” “whatever,” “get real,” “my bad,” “well, duh,” and “yeah, right” (plus many other things I wouldn't want to write here). They drive parents’ land yachts and write on Facebook walls. It’s important for writers to study culture related to the times in which their stories take place and to include only time-appropriate sayings in the dialogue.

Businesses and institutions use specialized languages (jargon) unique to their trades or professions. These languages also change over time. Writers need to research thoroughly before using jargon in dialogue.

When a familiar word or phase from a television program or commercial is used in dialogue, it is the responsibility of the writer to insure that the referenced word or phrase was aired before the time of the story. Even some best-selling authors have been required to add disclaimers to their novels because they failed to fact check.

Succinct Dialogue
Writers who are good listeners discover that most dialogue is succinct. Occasionally people relate things in great detail and refuse to allow anyone to interrupt. Their favorite connector words are “and-a,” “but-a,” “you know,” “then-a,” “um-a,” and “well now.” This is monologue, not dialogue. Unless depicting an annoying person who relates everything in unnecessary, tedious detail, succinct dialogue should be the norm.

I believe that good writers are always good listeners. Go out and listen.

Happy Writing!

(Bro's blog link - his stories are posted on Thursdays.)