At the last meeting of the Inkhorn Society, we looked at three stories by members of the group, and something struck me while reading a chapter of a book by Kelly Chen. Kelly is an accomplished artist, and the book she’s working on seems really interesting.
At one point, a background character is drinking. It was just a scene building moment, and she wanted a drunk in the background, but here’s the thought that entered my mind while reading it.
Never throw away an opportunity to provide a specific detail.
If someone is drinking a gin and tonic, it’s a very different experience than drinking rye whiskey and coke. They could’ve been drinking a glass of Massandra Livadia red port, or caipirinhas, or synthesized petroleum based vodka substitute. Each type of drink evokes a different experience for the reader, a different feel to the setting, so you can further cement your setting in the readers’ minds through a few very specific details.
Now, I recently wrote a story called The Hands of Erica. In it, there’s a juke box. I had a homeless man in the story who would spend his quarters playing songs on the juke box. My mind raced back to my Uncle Dave, who had a juke box in his basement, and as a kid I would play the same three songs over and over again while playing down there. The only one I really remember was Crocodile Rock by Elton John, so that was the song the man played in my story. It didn’t feel right. It was too upbeat, and not the right era for the feeling I wanted for the character. On one of my numerous rewrites (and still more to come, as it’s getting critiqued this upcoming week) I changed it from Crocodile Rock to the songs of Percy Sledge. It was a different era of music, with undertones of the great depression. His songs are often sad, the kind that you can feel deep into your soul, and that’s what I wanted people to feel about this character.
When writing, think about broad terms, and use them to build setting. Driving a car could be driving an Aston Martin, or a 2010 Ford Fusion, or a 1968 Buick Wildcat. Orange juice, or Pomegranate Juice with Wheat Grass. Knockoff Chuck Taylors or Longwing Brogues.
Details make the story.