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Nov/Dec 2007 Worlds Apart

November/December 2007 Issue


The Questions of Description and Detail




How Much is Enough?


For many months now we’ve been looking at a host of ways to build a historically accurate world in which to set your stories. You want to create, or build, a world that is realistic, understandable and truly consistent so that when the imagination of the reader is added, the world comes alive.


We have discussed using things such as family and relationship information, descriptions of physical characteristics, food, clothing, the use of appropriate language in dialogue and narration and many other points, and throughout those columns I used expressions such as “mention,” “work in,” and “find an opportunity to…”


For the next few months, therefore, I want to look at actual methods of including the necessary description. I’d like to try and offer some very practical suggestions about how to incorporate the historical detail into your stories. First of all, however, I’d like to think about the more general question of how much detail you need. How do you know when you have enough, and how can you avoid having too much?


In the previous two issues of the Marquee I discussed research, and for the purposes of the next few columns, I’ll assume that you have found the sources you need, are well underway with the research and your storyline is at least generally mapped out. When you arrive at this stage in the writing, you will have a good sense of the historical period you are dealing with, and should have a fairly clear picture of it in your own mind. For most writers of historical fiction, the periods chosen tend to be ones with which they are basically familiar already, and so the research provides the necessary depth for that particular story. But in any event, it is important to do sufficient research to provide a concept for yourself. Remember that if the world doesn’t live for you, you won’t be able to make it live for your readers.


The first thing always to keep in mind is that you are not writing a history textbook. You are not trying to turn your readers into historians. Your aim is to build the world in which your story is set, that’s all, but that being said, it is important to realize that readers of historical fiction tend to be interested in history and do want to learn something as well as be entertained.


That latter fact is the tricky one. It is necessary to find a balance in which you provide enough detail while avoiding the two extremes of having too much or too little. Too much, and you sound like a history lesson; too little and you may not satisfy all your readers. And, what is worse, if you are really too thin on the detail, you won’t really build the world at all.


So, what’s to be done?


When I’m writing, I find that a careful examination of pace and timing is a good place from which to start when evaluating the amount of detail. If, for example, an important dialogue is in progress between a certain number of individuals, and an additional person enters the room, you would not interrupt the flow of the dialogue with an extensive description of what that person is wearing. If his or her clothing is significant to the story in some way, then the character needs to be introduced in a manner that allows the necessary description to take place without jarring the pace.


Similarly, if a group of people are eating a meal and are unexpectedly set upon by a band of thieves and murderers, the time to mention what they’re eating is at the beginning, if you mention it at all, and not in the midst of the fight.


In other words, try to avoid “shoehorning” detail into the story that is inappropriate to the action. The art here is to work in the necessary detail to keep the world-building going such that it provides a foundation for the unfolding of the story. The detail must help you tell the story, not hinder it. Always ask yourself is this the time for this or that description? How else might I include it? Is this the place for it now?


The reader needs to be able to visualize the setting in which the story takes place, and historical description must facilitate that. But note the following point carefully: Historical context is another question entirely. Context goes beyond descriptions of immediate setting or surroundings. Context provides a much broader picture, a more global view of the world at the time your story takes place. Can you tell a story without historical context? Yes, you certainly can, but you can’t tell a story without detail, without building the world.


More about this next month.

Write on,