Detail: What Noticing Stuff means to a writer.

Some random true life stories this week, as inspired by Mr Chuck Wendig’s blog, even if I’ve missed the deadline and my very tenuous efforts to link them to my ‘job’ – which is really just an incredibly expensive hobby.

Story 1. Years ago, in the mid 1990s, I was driving to my job one summer morning. My journey to work used to take about an hour, 20 minutes to the outskirts of Cambridge and 40 minutes queuing. I drove an elderly Triumph Spitfire so the morning queue had a worrying tendency to turn into a game of temperature gauge chicken. On the up side, even if I had to sit there with the heater on to stop the engine boiling, at least I could take the lid off.

So there I sat, at the end of the queue, in my car. I leaned back looking up at the blue sky I saw, where other’s saw the deadness of their car’s upholstered roof. An aeroplane flew across and directly above me. As I watched, it began to blow out smoke – not yeek-my-engine’s-failing-and-I’m-about-to-plummet-out-of-the-sky-type smoke you understand – stunt plane smoke like the Red Arrows (or les Bleu, I don’t have a picture of the red arrows) blow out in red white and blue. Anyway, I watched and as it flew, smoke in full er… puff? It drew a circle. Then after a bit of flying back and forth, it put two eyes inside the circle and a smily mouth. Then it flew away. What I liked about that was the fact that the pilot must have known that hardly anyone would see what s/he did but they went and did it anyway.

Thank you Kate Jackson, over at Roughseas for having a picture of the Red Arrows blowing out volumes of exactly the kind of smoke I’m talking about.

How does that pertain to writing? Well, to me it says that sometimes, even if you think only one person in a thousand will ‘get’ something, it’s worth putting it in if you believe in it. Why? Because chances are, they’ll be aware that this is a very obscure joke and putting it in will make them feel like you’re sharing secret code with them.

Onto the second story. A week or so ago, at the school picking up my son. I was just having a quick chat to his teacher about his maths when a helicopter came over.

“How very odd coming up out of the sun like that and flying so low,” said McMini’s teacher.

“Yeh, and they’ve got the door open,” I said, as we both looked up. “Perhaps we should give them a wave.”

We duly both did, along with McMini, who didn’t need much encouragement. The wave spread – or several other folks had the same idea – and then to our amazement the helicopter did an circuit of the playground, the folks in the open doorway leaning out and waving like looners. Then everyone waved back at them: the kids and some of the parents were even jumping up and down and cheering. The helicopter then headed off. None of us know where it came from, where it was going, or why it flew over us. But we do know that pretty much everyone felt good after it had gone, including, perhaps, the folks in its open doorway.

Relevance to writing is a bit thin here, I’ll give you, but perhaps it shows the value of a wave and a smile, the power of simple things, or of small acts of friendship. I’m a great believer in approaching the internet like that. It’s full of people who’ve had a bad day and are ready to rip your head off, but sometimes, all it takes to break the ice is a kind word, a smile or, yes, a cheery wave.

Which brings me to the last story.

As most of you know, my Dad suffers from memory loss. Before all that hit him, he was a life long lover of wine and spent many hours poring over lists from the Wine Society, and other esteemed wine sellers, selecting and buying wines. Many of these were bought to drink with Sunday lunch, which was a bit of an event in our house, or at the riotous dinner parties my Mum and Dad used to have. One of his favourites was a claret called Leoville Barton. For some years, he bought cases of it to drink on special occasions – although my Dad being my Dad, quite a lot of quite mundane occasions were ‘special’.

The other night, a friend came round to dinner and we had a wine tasting. We put the bottles in socks and juggled them about a bit and then tried to guess what they were and who’d brought what. One of the wines felt familiar and I realised that it reminded me of the Chateau Leoville Barton my Dad used to love and which, I admit, I rather like, too. And as I said this to McOther and our friend, I suddenly felt incredibly affected. I was amazed how a single flavour could bring back such vivid memories of the happy times I’ve had drinking a glass of that wine. And as I remembered my Dad as he was then, it hit me, anew, how much of him has gone forever.

So what do these things mean for writing? Well, maybe that small things, tiny details inserted in the right place, can show the reader volumes about your characters without you having to tell them. I guess it also means that a deftly added detail can be incredibly poignant or can make the difference between a boring scene and diverting one. Perhaps it also means that as writers, we should train ourselves to notice all this stuff – or perhaps the fact we do is what sets us apart and makes us writers. Perhaps some of the battle we face, when trying to turn our writing from good to amazing, is working out which details to add, and when; and even more importantly, which ones to leave out.

 

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21 Comments

Filed under General Wittering

21 responses to “Detail: What Noticing Stuff means to a writer.

  1. Hmmmm. I’m worrying reading this! My father loved red wine but it was a different Leoville. LaCasse maybe? At one point we had preferential clarets, my mother liked Rothschild, my dad liked Latour, and I liked Lafitte. Luckily I don’t drink red wine any more.

    PS I have a red arrows pic. Want it?

  2. I’ve never forgotten the Gilbert Sullivan line: it is corroborative detail to add artistic verisimiltude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative…

  3. Love your stories, MT. Small details can make or break a book. I like lots of action in my stories and in those I read, but there also needs to be emotion. Without that, the whole thing is just a series of scenes that don’t touch my heart. Thanks for pointing this out.

  4. Jemima Pett

    Awesome post. I know what you mean about those little things that bring the real person back to you. Hugs.

    • Thanks. Yeh, life seems to be trying to kill me with the death of 1000 cuts at the moment. Lots of micro problems that take ages to sort, so I think I’m more vulnerable to the Leoville Barton effect.

  5. I read somewhere that what differentiates the brilliant writer from the good writer is the ability to put into word those little things we all experience but don’t really notice or analyze. And when it is put into words, the reader says, “Oh my Gosh, that has so happened to me and I never really thought about it, but it is true – that does happen.” The great writer makes life noticeable.
    Great post!!!!!!

  6. Good point about noticing the little things, MT.
    My heart goes out to your dad and the family – my friend’s mother is in a similar state and it is so tough for everyone.

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