Friday, May 22, 2015

Details Do Double Duty

A few weeks ago, I went to the California central coast. A friend and I walked around Carmel at night after all the stores had closed. Strings of white lights hung from trees in the center, making it a perfect place for a stroll after dark. Numerous art galleries lined the side streets, their windows showcasing paintings of the ocean rimmed in ornate frames. 

I took pictures of the art, the buildings and the alleyways that led to bars and small
wine shops. Sounds of music filled the night as we walked up and down the streets. I soaked it all in with special relish.

Sensory details like these are important to help me find my way into a story. And while details enrich a story and entertain readers, writers must be conscious as to why they are including those specific details and not some others. How are they used bring the story to life? What are they telling us underneath? Everything a writer includes should have relevance or it doesn’t need to be there—especially if it pulls the reader out of the story.

Using excerpts of my novel as in Parts 1-3, Tessa has entered the courtyard of the hotel to have breakfast. The details of the moment, touch on her past and foreshadow that something deeper is about to happen:

     As I sat in the empty courtyard, I watched Koi fish move slowly beneath the rippling water of the pool and traced the bougainvillea vines with my eyes, from their gnarled old trucks heavy with magenta-colored blossoms, to the top of the weathered, cracked garden wall. Mexico was working its magic. I could feel my built-up tension beginning to ease.
     There was something about the oldness, the weight of time on the solid stone walls, the cracks and mold—the presence of the past. It made me keenly aware that my own past eluded me. If only I could feel complete again.

And so begins the descent into the story beneath the story. On the surface, Tessa is seeking relief from her repetitive nightmare, but here we get a hint that there is something from the past about to intrude into her present day life. She thinks what she is feeling is about her own childhood, only it goes farther back; to something much older.

Later on, when Tessa is at a dinner party, the atmosphere presages that something mystical is about to commence:

    We entered the large dining room a little early so he could show me the old, massive, finely carved wooden furniture. The amber glow from the wall-mounted sconces created an atmosphere of elegance from another century.

The two candelabras sitting on the lace-covered dining table were carefully polished, old silver. The fine bone china and heavy cut crystal gleamed in the light of the beeswax candles.

Tessa meets the host of the dinner party she is attending, Senor Martinez. She’s been troubled by a curandera – medicine woman of Mexico – she’s met, and knows he is an expert on the subject of curanderas and shamans. She feels comfortable enough with him to ask about the woman.

    “Know her?”
    “Ah, si. A student of Isabella Sabina, la curandera mas famosa, here and around the world.”
    Impressed, I shifted Marta out of the slot marked weird that I had stored her in, into very credible. “Sounds fascinating. Tell me more.”
    “Isabella Sabina was what is known as a master walker in the spirit worlds,” Eduardo began. “She communicated with beings that helped her know about healing of the mind and body. She could do things, powerful things. Magic, some would say.”
    “This is documented? I asked.
    A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “She is well known here. It is accepted,” he said with finality. He told how she was able to tap into powerful energies and wield those energies for healing both the mental and physical. “She passed away quite a few years ago.”
    The flickering light of the candles flared through the multi-faceted crystal goblets like thousands of tiny lighthouse beacons swinging briefly into view. Someone who overheard Eduardo said that maybe she wasn’t as dead as we thought. Everyone laughed but I couldn’t help feeling that vulnerability I’d experienced at the cave when the apparition of Cimi had swooped against me. It was a sense of helplessness against an unfamiliar power.

So, for economy and crisp writing, use words that do double duty; details that go deeper into the story behind the story—the underlying themes that readers identify with. Even though they might not know why they are engaged, you need to.


So, writers, leave a few lines of your story in the comments—an example of how you use details to enhance meaning. We all benefit from sharing.

Dance the Dream Awake—on sale now.


Carole Avila said...

Good lesson, great writing. Thank you!
~Carole Avila

Cora said...

Thanks, Carole.

Mike Schulenberg said...

Some good advice here. And I like the way your description of your visit to Carmel segues into it :)

Cora said...

Thanks Mike. There were so many rich details to observe that night in Carmel, I knew I had to use them somewhere. That scene in my book came to mind to use. Voila! Still more details from that night are working themselves into a short story.