It’s the details that bring a story to life: the sights, sounds, smells and feelings. In my recent book about the voyage and quarantine of a typhus-stricken 19th century emigrant ship, for instance, I wanted to create a vivid scene – to immerse the readers in those foul conditions. The dimness below decks, the stench of steerage (think of vomit and dirty nappies), the cramped prickling of the 18-inch-wide berth and its straw mattress, the strains of the hymns typically sung during a funeral at sea. The good captain’s distress and outrage at the media’s finger-pointing.
In fiction or narrative non-fiction, these details are crucial. But they don’t just have to be there; they also need to be credible! Include an implausible detail and your readers will no longer feel part of the scene. Examine every detail. Is it the right time of year for the roses to be in bloom? Would you truly find mangroves so far inland? Your character’s wearing a singlet top – but wasn’t it mid-winter in the last chapter, just days ago? A cassette tape is playing in the 1950s – but weren’t they invented in the early 60s?
Writing a timeline can help to plot the chronology and keep track of the seasons, so that you can at least get the weather conditions right. Check everything in a scene: the flora, the fauna, the geography, the history. Even in a fantasy novel, you’ll need internal consistency, so it’s important keep track of your details.
You don’t need to overdo the details, but including little observations that are pithy, fresh and unique will really make your writing shine.
About this blog
Through my experience as an editor, a reader and a book reviewer, I’ve noticed that some writing faults keep just popping up again and again. As an author, I’m especially aware of those writing crimes that I’m frequently tempted to commit myself. This series of brief tips addresses the common writing problems that I’ve encountered. Following them will help make your writing clear, accurate and stylish.