Focusing on Details Can Give You New Direction

Apr 14, 2015 | For Beginners, Novels

Jillian SullivanJillian Sullivan (jilliansullivan.co.nz/) leads writing retreats and serves as faculty at selected workshops. Here Jillian shares some thoughts about paying attention to details:

Often a writer is blocked in a piece of writing simply because they do not know enough details yet to write. By taking time to find a detail, there is new learning, new energy, a new direction.

Once, I was trying to describe a river in a couple of sentences in a short story and it all sounded clichéd. I got in the car and drove to the Motueka River. In a wider, deeper part of the river, the water hardly appeared to move and yet dimples swirled on the surface. This was not the clichéd rushing river I had been trying to describe but something else. Here’s how it turned out in the story:

“She liked it here where the water slid past smooth and deep. Further down it rattled low over stones, fractured, but here it was all mystery, all stones deep down and just that gliding dimpled water.” (Hey Tony, p26)

American writer Dayton O. Hyde taught me a writer needs to go down that dark road to get a story. He told me he once went out on a lake in a small boat during a storm so he could write how that felt. I thought of his example when I was writing my novel Silverstream. I had my main heroine, a girl of 14, up a mountain in the dark. And I thought, I can’t put her there unless I’m prepared to do the same myself. So there I was, up a mountain in the night, feeling very sorry for myself, alone with wild pigs crashing in the bracken beside me. Three times a large black pig jumped out onto the track in front of me–a few details I hadn’t known to put in my novel! Here are a few sentences I got from that research:

“We started walking faster, but the crashing, snapping and grunting kept pace with us. Every few steps Rebekkah played the torch around the banks of fern and fallen branches. The black shape of a pig burst out of the undergrowth…”

And this sentence I got from being aware in the dark of the smell of a creek in the bush: “We went up around a corner into a smell of wet rock and fern so strong it was like walking into cold, stone-flavoured air.”

I’m glad I went up there in the dark and got those details. I’m happy with those sections in the book. Next time, though, I think I’ll go somewhere without wild pigs for my research.

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