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.