Thursday, 30 July 2009

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

I’ve adopted the role of outsider most of my life. You’ll find me circling perimeters, hugging walls at parties (actually, worse – avoiding parties altogether), hovering helicopter-like over conversations, hating small-talk. From these vantage points I get to see the big picture, the overview. Which can be very handy when writing a novel. The downside is that I often miss out on the details.

On a writing workshop, they set us a task: Your character is at the supermarket, filling up her trolley with goods. What’s in there? And oh no, you can’t get away with ‘hair products’ or ‘vegetables’. You must lovingly describe the detail of each – the make, the quantity, any little extras along the way:

Nice n’Easy comb-through highlights (No.2 – Ash Blonde); one organic avocado, reduced from 99p to 50p due to squeezing; Take A Break magazine, featuring Jordan’s latest explosion at Peter Andre and Your 2009 Horoscope: Will Love Find You This Year?

One small tin of Lyons Golden Syrup; The People’s Friend; two slices of ham; one tin of potatoes; one carton of strawberries (reduced to 50p); one brown plastic comb; three tins of Whiskas (Tuna, Liver and Lamb).

6 cans of Red Bull; two Cup-A-Soups (Chicken and White Wine flavour); one loaf of white bread (thick-sliced); multipack of Walkers Crisps (Cheese and Onion flavour); Heat magazine; one packet of ribbed, SupaSized condoms.

Who we are, how we live – it’s all in the tiny details, the tics, the little eccentricities and oddnesses that make a person who he is. The dust on the dressing-table; the dead fly on the kitchen sill; the grey woollen socks (one inside out) hanging half out of the overflowing laundry bin. The momentary question in the eyes, the veins running like roots over the back of the hands, the down-at-heel slippers. In the details lie the secrets, the taken-for-granted intimacies, the white lies, the small betrayals, the unacknowledged passions.

Looking for examples for this post, I opened Jane Austen’s Emma. Though I’ve always felt a great sense of place in her novels, I realised that Austen hardly ever describes places or people objectively. Rather, she reveals these things through the tiny details of her characters’ conversations. Through their subjective eyes, we ‘see’ places, people, situations, and we see them in the minutest of detail:

"- there was a little disappointment. The baked apples and biscuits, excellent in their way, you know; but there was a delicate fricassee of sweetbread and some asparagus brought in at first, and good Mr. Woodhouse, not thinking the asparagus quite boiled enough, sent it all out again. Now there is nothing grandmamma loves better than sweetbread and asparagus – so she was rather disappointed; but we agreed we would not speak of it to anybody, for fear of its getting round to dear Miss Woodhouse, who would be so very much concerned."

Dylan Thomas, in Under Milk Wood, uses lists to great effect:

"Only you can see, in the blinded bedrooms, the coms. and petticoats over the chairs, the jugs and basins, the glasses of teeth, Thou Shalt Not on the wall, and the yellowing dickybird-watching pictures of the dead."

All this brings to mind Sam’s recent blog post about obsessive/compulsive disorder and the flood of responses to it. Maybe writers need to be obsessive about the little details, to return to them again and again. As Barbra Streisand said:

"I’ve been called many names like perfectionist, difficult and obsessive. I think it takes obsession, takes searching for the details for any artist to be good."

They say the devil’s in the detail. Maybe the alchemical gold lies there too.

20 comments:

womagwriter said...

Love the shopping basket characters - what a great exercise, I can SEE those people!

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Thanks, womagwriter - and SORRY, Sarah and fellow Strictliers, - I honestly don't know how this happened: I posted this for 6am tomorrow!
Susiex

emmadarwin said...

William Carlos Williams - he of the plums in the refrigerator - said, 'No ideas but in things'...

Even truer of fiction, arguably.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Interesting post, Susie! But I have a bit of a quibble about the contents of that basket. If you read T-A-B you'd know the ed eschews all that celeb rubbish. Their readers are much more interested in their own lives than those of a bunch of over-paid, talentless etc etcs. Nor would you get TAB in the same basket as People's Friend. Not unless they were shopping for Granny.

Sometimes, however, I think there can be far too much detail in a piece of writing. It has to be used judiciously not heavy-handedly and I always think, personally, that less is more.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Apologies, Susie! Realise you didn't have those two mags in the SAME basket! DUH!

Julie P said...

You'll find Take A Break and People's Friend both in my shopping basket! For research purposes of course.

Julie xx

Samantha Tonge said...

Don't you think though, Geri, many people are made up of contradictions? I mean, i'm blonde and i read Heat and OK, but i like to think i've got a few grey cells and am interested in serious issues:) And that's also what makes a character real and not a cardboard cut-out, the surprises that sometimes exist in the detail.

Great post, Susie!

Geraldine Ryan said...

Of course, Julie!

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Geri, I did wonder ('cos I have to say I've never read Take A Break) whether you'd pick me up on that one! Which just goes to show that you DO need to be obsessive - even about the detail of the detail!

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Ooh, and I've just re-read the trolley bit as if they were all one trolley - The People's Friend, Lyons Golden Syrup and Supasize Condoms - now that IS a complex character!!

CarolineG said...

Beautifully written post, Susie. Really wonderful.

Geraldine Ryan said...

I agree, Sam, that we are all a bunch of contradictions and that's what makes for a great fictional character too. But within your contradictions I think you'll find that you're probably consistent.

In my case too, you might find "Heat" and The Guardian. But you'll never find the The Daily Telegraph, for instance.

sarah fox said...

Susie, thank you for reminding me how brilliant Dylan Thomas is! I think I have to read Under Milkwood again soon.

Rebecca Connell said...

Very interesting! I don't think I notice details that much in real life, to be honest, but I do try to slip them into my writing.

I liked the baskets too... but the big question for me was, was number 3 a man or a woman?! I was thrown by the heat magazine - the rest of the basket suggested a man but I'm not convinced that many self-respecting blokes buy heat (!).

Susie Nott-Bower said...

You see? I said I was crap at details! It should have been, er, what's it called - FHM?

Olivia Ryan said...

Your shopping baskets were brilliant Susie! I've often wondered whether people who work on supermarket checkouts can help themselves from speculating about the lives of the people whose shopping they put through. I know I'd be doing it! I recently had a comment of 'Hm - very healthy!' from one, about my trolley contents (we buy a lot of vegetables because I don't eat meat - but trust me, there were chocolate and biscuits and other goodies in there too!) - and I was surprised that she actually commented: it seemed almost 'unprofessional'! I wonder if she said 'Oh dear, not very healthy!' to people buying lots of fatty food - or 'Looks like more than the recommended units' to someone stocking up their wine rack! Very interesting post!

Susie Nott-Bower said...

LOL, Olivia!
Or 'Hmm, looks like you're in for a long night' when she sees the condoms! (Sorry, I seem to be condom-obsessed for some reason).

Derek said...

I guess someone who merits supasize condoms is the people's friend.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

:)
Susiex

Fionnuala Kearney said...

Susie, what a fantastic post! Sorry I'm only getting to it now - love those shopping baskets!