When somebody is overwhelmed a a multitude of small things, they sometimes say, “It’s like being nibbled to death by ducks.” Well, say each detail of your story is a duck.
The kind of car your main character drives is a duck. How their house is furnished is a duck. Where they got that clock on the mantle is a duck. What their back yard looks like is a duck. How they got their name is a duck.
You get my drift. I love ducks, me. I don’t feel like I can really write a story until I’ve played enough games of Solitaire and stared absently into space long enough that a sufficient quantity of ducks have collected to make the setting and characters real enough to interest me.
Details – mundane details – what kind of transportation is used, how status is marked, what the rules of proper etiquette are, what utensils they use to cook and eat – ground characters in reality for me. But each of those details is a duck.
Each of those details will nibble a little bit of the reader’s attention, if you don’t deploy them carefully. Mundane details are just that: mundane, everyday, unremarkable. So the only way to deploy them is without emphasis or remark, as a matter of common knowledge or in passing.
Much has been said about J. K. Rowling‘s writing, and I come down firmly in the “for it” camp. One of the things that blew my mind about her Harry Potter books, especially the first few, is how many mundane details she just tossed off like, oh, here, this old thing.
An even better example is Katie Waitman’s THE MERRO TREE. Be warned, though: If I had realized the amount of hot and steamy male-on-male interalien sex there would be, I wouldn’t have read the book. That would have been my sad loss, because it’s amazingly imaginative quite apart from those bits. On every page, there are at least three references to things you don’t know, referenced off-hand, unimportant and unexplained but clear from the context. Brilliant.
If you bring a detail into the foreground, please make sure there are at least two excellent reasons for it. I’ll talk more about that in a future post. For now, please allow me to urge you not to turn all your ducks loose and quacking all over your manuscript. If you do, you risk your reader feeling nibbled to death.
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Get a non-genre book written in an earlier time set in ordinary life. Read a bit of it and see how many mundane details are in it but made little of. Jane Austen is good for this. So is Mark Twain.