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Details and Description—Getting the Facts Right

February 10, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified February 10, 2013

I was recently on vacation, going places and seeing sights I’ve never experienced. And I can highly recommend the practice as a way to remind writers and editors to look at details and description in a fresh way.

Vacations are also a marvelous way to recharge your soul’s batteries, but you already knew that.

But as for details, the right ones can add depth and emotion and color to story. They can tease the reader’s senses. They can flesh out scenes and characters and setting.

But the wrong ones can make a story ho-hum and common or laughable. And they can make a writer lose credibility.

A few quick suggestions about details and description—

Don’t overburden a scene with too many details; give readers only enough so they can picture the events and setting without being overwhelmed by information.

Don’t let description substitute for action or dialogue. Each story element has a distinct purpose.

Use new imagery. The tried and true become the boring and forgettable when used again and again.

Get the small details right. There’s nothing like putting characters in recognizable places but getting the specifics wrong; at least some readers will notice. And while they may never call you out on your incorrect facts, their buying habits may reflect their opinions.

Be specific when you can and when the scene allows for it, and be as specific as possible. Specific details are almost always stronger than generic ones.

Don’t be stingy with fact-checking. If a writer makes a factual, provable assertion, both writer and editor should be checking for truth and authenticity.

Include any and every detail you want to in your first drafts, even if you have no idea whether they’re true or not. Refine, cut, and verify when you edit.

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No hard and fast rules or deep discussion today, just a few truths about details and description that I was reminded of while traveling. (I also wanted to let you know why I hadn’t been around the last couple of weeks.)

~  You can always write about what’s familiar to you, and you can always make up a new world where no one is familiar with the setting, but if you set a story in a real locale you don’t know well or one you haven’t visited in a while, research is a necessity. If this means visiting the place and a visit is possible for you, do it. If you can’t get to the locale, check out the Internet and let your fingers do the walking. Sometimes it only takes one phone call to verify a fact. And with that one phone call, you might just get more information that you can use in other parts of your story.

For example, call a chamber of commerce for details about cities or counties. Call a historical society for dates and locations of events from the past. Call or visit a military recruiter for details on military matters. Pick the brain of a reference librarian for the odd stuff you can’t find anywhere else.

On my trip, when I told a man I met that I was an editor, his first question was about checking details in a book. He asked if it was the author or the editor who was responsible for fact-checking. He went on to explain that he’d read a book in which the author had put a window on a building overlooking something (a park?) from the north, something the man said was an impossibility. He assured me the detail hadn’t lessened his enjoyment of the story but since the book was one he’d read a while ago and that detail was still on his mind, I’d guess that it had bothered him more than a little.

I’m not suggesting that writers need to go crazy with research at the expense of finishing a story, but I will suggest that both writers and editors should be alert to possible errors in the details. Buildings, cities, and countries change names. Political alliances shift. History is uncovered. Laws valid 40 years ago may not remain in effect today.

As an example, remember that until 2006, Pluto was one of the nine planets in our solar system. Now there are only eight. This fact, the number of planets in the solar system, would be written one way if a story took place before 2006 and a different way if the story setting was after 2006.

Facts may not necessarily change and history may not really be rewritten, but new information is revealed all the time. Make sure you keep up with the facts that you assert as truth in your stories.

New ways to describe the common can come from anywhere.

I was standing on the bow of a ship, watching an island draw near, and the women next to me were trying to decide on the color of the water. I’d been looking for a novel description myself—I’d never seen water such a deep, rich color.

One woman suggested midnight blue, but I’d discounted that earlier. The description was too common, too uninspiring. Too blah.

Another woman then suggested denim blue, new-denim blue. The rightness of her description hit me immediately; she’d pegged the color perfectly. The ocean was the bold and rich color of stiff jeans, unwashed and unworn.

I’d been unable to come up with an acceptable color and while there are probably dozens of other valid descriptions, hers resonated with me.

My suggestion is that you step outside of your own mind on occasion and listen to what others are saying as they describe their worlds. Mine not only your own memories and imagination, but the minds and emotions of others.

Yes, you’ll hear a lot of clichés. But you’ll also likely hear something fresh, especially if you’re in the company of people of different backgrounds and ages, different cultures, and dramatically different life histories.

~  Assuming facts isn’t wise.

I’d been in and on the ocean before, if only closer to shore, so I expected the sea air to have an odor. But not once while we sailed did I smell salt or any other scent; the air was strangely free of smells and odors. It wasn’t fresh and bracing and it wasn’t briny—from my vantage point, it was simply void of any fragrance.

I would have been mistaken to assume that ocean water smelled the same away from the beaches of the continental United States as it did at those beaches. It would also be a mistake to assume that ocean air smells the same during storms as it does when the water isn’t churning or that ocean water is completely odorless around the globe.

Keep in mind that facts aren’t universal–what fits one situation and location and time may not fit others. Verify what you present as fact.

Use the unexpected or the shocking in setting details to influence your characters.

When I returned from my trip, it was to find gray, bare trees and a heavy winter sky. There was no snow and the temperatures were fairly mild, especially in comparison to parts of the world and country experiencing the brutal violence of a stormy winter, but I’d stepped out of palm trees and lush vegetation and back into the barrenness of winter.

Winter has a beauty of its own, to be sure. But I hadn’t realized I’d grown so used to warm air, dark blue skies, and a half dozen colors of green interrupted by gorgeous flowers. When I saw the naked, colorless branches, I realized my vacation was truly over. I felt the change in my attitude and in my body.

Characters would notice the same kinds of changes. Their moods and affect would be, could be, influenced by such details in their environments. Remember to use stark changes, or even extended periods of relentless monotony in setting, to influence your characters.

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To look at details and description in a new way, treat yourself to time away from your computer and go somewhere different. If this means walking into a fast food place rather than rolling through the drive-thru, do it. If it means taking a hike through the woods, try that.

Ride a bus or the subway instead of taking the car. Or try getting around and parking in a city where you usually use public transportation.

Go to a museum, a play, or a concert. Watch a little league game. Bowl a few games in a bowling alley.

Stroll a college campus when students are between classes. Listen to their speech patterns and the topics important to them. Do the same in a sports bar.

Go to a courthouse or a police station or a bail bonds office.

Try a new food in a restaurant where you can’t read the menu, ride in a hot-air balloon, climb a mountain.

Absorb new scents and tastes and sights. Open yourself to experiences new and confusing, frightening and exhilarating. Remind yourself there is more.

Tempt your senses.

Make yourself uncomfortable by stepping into the unfamiliar. See what strikes you when you’re in a place where you know no one or where you can’t communicate or where you don’t understand what’s happening. See what details stand out. Make note of the kinds of details that catch your eye and then use those in your own stories.

Make use of details to affect tone and character emotions as well as character actions.

You don’t have to go to a setting you’ll be using in your story—simply take yourself out of the familiar and expose your mind, emotions, and your senses to the different. You’re sure to find new ways of including details and description in your fiction.

Shake yourself up and give your stories fresh and powerful descriptions.

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Tags: , ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

18 Responses to “Details and Description—Getting the Facts Right”

  1. Robert Darke says:

    I always enjoy your blog and the tips you give! Every now and then I learn something completely unrelated to writing – like what happened to Pluto! I had no idea it had been dropped from our solar system in 2006 – that piece of news had simply passed me by. So it would never have occurred to me to check my facts in the (unlikely) event that I might ever mention it in a novel. I know now that it was downgraded to a dwarf planet because your blog prompted me to look it up. It’s easy enough to research anything you don’t know. The hard part is researching what you don’t know you don’t know. If you were taught at school that Pluto was a planet in our solar system why would you question that fact in later life? I guess I’ll have to be even more careful about my facts from now on!

    Thanks Beth for another informative, educational and thought-provoking blog!

  2. Iola says:

    You were asked “if it was the author or the editor who was responsible for fact-checking”

    In my opinion, it is the responsibility of the author to ensure all the facts are correct, and the responsibility of the editor to check anything that doesn’t ring true — and to have enough general knowledge to know what might need checking (e.g. the number of planets in the solar system has not always been 8, and you might need to check when Pluto was in and out).

    But the editor’s responsibility should only be to check and alert the author if something might not be right — at the end of the day, the book is the responsibility of the author, especially when it is self-published.

    I’d still be interested in what you think.

  3. Hi There Beth

    Thank you for sharing this Info, I shall Indeed keep it in mind.

  4. Helen says:

    What a terrific and useful post! Thank you!

  5. Robert, that not-knowing-what-you-don’t-know thing is tough. That’s why a second or a third pair of eyes on our work is so vital. Even if you don’t have an editor go through your manuscripts, see if you can tap a know-it-all friend to read them. This is one time we do want friends to point out our flaws.

    I’m so glad you enjoy the blog. Thanks for letting me know.

  6. Iola, I agree that the ultimate responsibility belongs to the writer, but as a freelancer paid to find and point out problems and suggest solutions, I feel it is my responsibility to go the extra mile for my clients. I do a lot of fact-checking on my own, often to verify a hunch or to just make sure I’ve got my facts right. I don’t want to counsel a writer to go one direction if I’m not absolutely sure of the facts. And if I already look up the info, then I might as well share it.

    Because editors do have that broad knowledge of many fields, they’re uniquely positioned to both be intrigued by something new or unfamiliar and have a sense that something’s off when they read a fact counter to facts they’re familiar with.

    Sometimes just pointing out a possibility of a fact being wrong is enough. Other times a word or two about the topic is appropriate to share. And sometimes the writer comes back with more information, something like insider facts, data or experience that shows that what he wrote was indeed correct. This exchange is a benefit of the writer/editor relationship, a benefit for both parties. After all, both writer and editor want the story error-free.

    Neither writer nor editor can possibly know everything about every subject (and so most stories can have errors), but editors, because of what they do, should be alert to the possibility of factual errors, at least enough to suggest the writer check facts whenever feasible. And while it’s true that both writer and editor may both have the same mistaken view of something—and thus neither verifies a supposed fact—the two working together reduce the likelihood of such errors getting into the final version of a book.

    Yes, at the end of the day, the author’s name is the one on the cover. But an editor’s reputation is behind it, and both writer and editor should be committed to making the story as solid as possible. As for self-published authors, they should be committed to making books as error-free as any writer. If that means hiring an editor or bugging friends to proofread, that’s what they should do.

    This is where I admit that editors are an odd bunch. You probably can’t keep most of us from verifying facts ourselves—we like facts and knowledge and information. We like cool stuff. If a writer asserts something about a topic we know nothing about, it’s likely we can’t wait to check out the subject. While some editors, like everyone, may know some subjects in depth, many editors know a little about a whole lot of subjects. We’re fascinated by new stuff. And if it’s something our writers mention, we want to know more about it. I think the compulsion to learn more is genetic ;)

    I know, more than you wanted to know. Thanks for the question and for allowing me to share more on the topic.

  7. Susanna and Helen, thanks for letting me know you were here. I’m glad the article struck a chord.

  8. Hi Beth, another plate of awesome, as usual!

    I recently got a lump of feedback from a trusted and close friend, a writer, and was stunned at what he told me. As one who prided myself in my meticulous research, I totally dropped the ball on one aspect of my character’s culture. I blew it bigtime! Not because I didn’t ask questions, but let’s put it this way, asking a Mohawk about Navajo burial traditions will get you a Native perspective, but just not the right one.
    Had a Navajo reader bought the book the way I had it, the word would have gon far and wide that I didn’t know my stuff.

    And the one who pointed out the error? A pasty white guy, who’d basically been adopted by a Navajo friend’s tribe and knew ALOT !! Thank God for friends.

  9. Jennifer, did you treat your friend to a drink, a double-scoop of his favorite ice cream, or a ball game? Yes, such friends are indeed invaluable. Friends who aren’t afraid of telling us when and where we’re wrong are priceless.

    I had the same kind of situation when fact-checking something for the military. I’d consulted an army officer, but read somewhere that the Marines did some things a bit differently than did the other service branches. I had to ask the same questions specifically of Marine protocol and got the answers I needed. It always pays to go one step deeper.

    And we’re back to the value of that second pair of eyes—the rule is always have at least one other person read your work. None of us want to look foolish as writers; fact-checking lowers that possibility.

    I hope you keep your friend on speed dial.

  10. I set all my fiction in real places but am usually only brave enough to pursue locations I’m familiar with. I did write one story set in New York and I’ve never been outside Australia, Google Maps was great, I could get right in and find an apartment in walking distance from the museum and find the local pizza parlour! I’d do a lot more research before tackling the second draft of that one though.

  11. Charmaine, the Internet has made research for writers so much easier. Branch out when you’re ready. And keep in mind that you can always get info from online groups as well as general Internet sites—in chat loops or other communities, ask about details that will make a locale even more believable in your stories. Ask how the locals refer to famous landmarks or street names or even the city (or section of a city) itself. A great way to get a feel for an unfamiliar city is to listen to a radio station or two from that city. (Traffic reports are wonderful for getting the feel of place and street names.)

    Examples of the kinds of information that could give veracity to a story or that, conversely, might trip up a writer—

    References to local places. Folks near Washington, D.C. don’t call it Washington, D.C. It’s typically just D.C. The locals in San Francisco say the city to refer to SF. Most locals have a name for both their cities/towns and the cities around them.

    In much of the southern U.S., the roads are called highways, not freeways. In southern California, they’re often called freeways and the freeway number is prefaced by the word the (but that doesn’t hold true in other parts of CA). In some states and cities you’ve got thru-ways and expressways. Some people use the term interstate. In some places the locals call highways by name, in other places it’s by number.

    Outside the U.S. you’d have motorways and carriageways.

    And are local roads called roads, streets, lanes, or avenues? Boulevard?

    Names for foods. There are more than a dozen names for a submarine sandwich, including hero, hoagie, grinder, and torpedo, and many are used only locally.

    Words referring to a food in one country may not refer to the same food in another country. Biscuit means one thing to those in the U.K. and something different in the U.S. Same for chips and many other foods.

    Don’t you just love the options and variety facing writers? Have fun with it, but check facts when you can.

  12. So many great suggestions and a few important reminders. Thanks!

  13. Terry says:

    Hi Beth,

    I am a relatively new writer and have been reading your blog for some time. Thanks so much. It’s really helped me a lot. I also work with a coach and writing group.

    I wanted to make a comment here. You said, in regard to the use of details: “Make use of details to affect tone and character emotions as well as well as character actions.” Wouldn’t the details be a reflection of character emotions as much as affect them. For example, the protagonist is arrested and describes the Police Precinct as ” a depressing grey cinder-blocked cube with cracks above its entrance. The building was flanked by tall, gleaming red-bricked apartment buildings that made it look like a sickly child squatting between his parents.” I guess what I mean is that the protagonist’s description is a function of his perception. But I guess reflexively, if he saw it this way, it didn’t do too much for his state of mind anyway. But it started with his perception. What do you think? Thanks again Beth.

    Terry

  14. Terry, I think we’re probably talking about the same thing, but from different sides.

    I was trying to remind writers to use details as a means of building tone and character emotions. So clanking chains and a growing storm and the smell of perfume in what should have been a long-empty house could be used to influence a scene’s mood and a character’s emotions.

    At the same time, the character might only note certain details because of the emotions he was feeling. I think this is what you were getting at, is that right? A character’s perceptions, based in part on his emotions, would have him noticing only certain details and not others. Yet the writer still has to include details that will have an impact on the character’s thoughts and emotions and on tone and mood as well. That is, a writer has to choose the right details that will produce, that will add up to, the emotions that she needs characters to experience.

    If a writer chooses the wrong details, she runs the risk of creating competing or even wrong emotions for the character.

    Does that explanation help or do you still have a question?

    • Hi Beth, I started writing you and now I think I’m confused. I am writing in a first person POV and thought that scene details/perceptions would always be a reflection of the POV’s mood. But I guess even in that case the scene could either reflect the perceptions of the POV or the author. But what is actually the difference because the writer is the person telling the story, i.e. the POV character. No? It reminds me of the struggle I have with the difference between inner thoughts and thought shots. They both are thoughts of the POV. Anyway, I appreciate your ideas. Thanks, Terry

      • Terry, mood here has nothing to do with the character’s mood—it’s the feel of a scene or story as felt by the reader. Think dark or lighthearted or ominous. So the details that you use to create the mood influence the reader. One reason you include those kinds of details is to get the reader feeling emotion.

        Yet those same details should also affect the character. So if you’ve set the mood of a scene to be scary and suspenseful, both readers and characters should feel the suspense and be frightened.

        Does that help?

        • Terry says:

          Hi Beth,

          Yes that helps. Maybe its useful for me to remember that there are several layers to this. First the author, who creates the story and character(s). So the mood created by the author draws the reader in and impacts the character. When the story is told through the eyes of the POV the details reflect the mood of the character as well. It was difficult for me to tease out which details reflected the POV character versus those of the author.

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