It’s all in the details . . .
“Name names. Make your writing physical. Use lots of exact nouns. ‘Food’ is an idea; ‘black-bean soup’ is a thing. Naming not only makes the writing more visceral, it makes the reader trust you. And use your own expertise, whatever ‘insider information’ you have. Use words like soffit, draw shave, spit valve.” ~ David Long
Years ago, when I was writing my second Special Edition for Silhouette, WHEN SOMEBODY NEEDS YOU, the members of my critique group commented about one of my scenes, saying I’d put in too many details about the heroine’s cooking.
In this scene, my heroine and hero are alone together for the first time. They’ve only recently met and the heroine, Desiree, has invited him into her home to have dinner with her and her small daughter Aimee. Desiree has just settled Aimee in the living room with a video of “Dumbo” to watch and led Jack, the hero, into the kitchen while she cooks.
This is the scene:
“Sit,” Desiree said, and Jack sat on a kitchen chair. She opened the pantry door and rummaged on the shelves, pulling out a large jar of prepared spaghetti sauce, a couple of cans of plain tomato sauce, a jar of olive oil and a package of spaghetti. “Remember, I’m not all that great a cook.”
“So tell me what the other reasons were for your moving to New Orleans. Where do the rest of your family live, anyway?” Jack leaned back, balancing the chair on its two rear legs.
“In Patinville, just west of Baton Rouge.” She opened the refrigerator and extracted a large onion. Then she took a package of ground meat from the freezer and shoved it into the microwave to thaw. “It’s a small town. You’ve probably never heard of it.”
“You’re right. I haven’t.”
Desiree pulled a large pot out of the cupboard and set it on the stove. She poured a bit of olive oil in the pot and turned the heat on under it. Then she opened the cupboard where she kept her spices and started pulling things off the shelf.
“You still haven’t answered my question,” Jack reminded her. “Say, do you need help?”
“No. I’m doing fine.” She took a deep breath. “If you must know, I came to New Orleans because everyone in Patinville knew about Aimee and the circumstances of her birth. I didn’t want her to feel as if she were different. I didn’t want people talking about her or making her feel bad.” She put her chin the air and turned to face him. “You see, I wasn’t married to Aimee’s father.”
There was no censure in his expression as he absorbed her statement. Only a quiet acceptance.
In that moment, Desiree decided Jack Forrester could become very important to her. Probably too important.
[at this point, the chapter ends and a new chapter begins]
What did she think he was going to do? Sneer and call her names? Obviously, this was a subject that Desiree was sensitive about. Jack chose his words carefully. “I’d hate to think people are so narrow-minded they’d be cruel to Aimee over something like that. Single mothers are not exactly uncommon, you know.”
“Maybe not, but they’re completely nonexistent in my family,” she said. She peeled the onion and began chopping it.
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
Her shoulders stiffened. “No.”
Jack wished he knew her well enough to get up and rub the tenseness out of her shoulders. He wished he had the right to comfort her. He wondered who the guy was who had hurt her so badly. Because it was obvious to Jack that Desiree was hurting. Jack decided whoever the guy was, he had to be a first-class jerk to let Desiree get away.
Desiree finished chopping the onions and scraped them into the pot. They hissed as they hit the hot olive oil. Immediately the kitchen filled with the aroma of frying onions. Jack watched her, enjoying the way her jeans clung to her nicely rounded rear as she moved about. Even though he’d never had any desire to settle down, he could see that some aspects of being married might be nice.
The microwave dinged, and she took the meat out. “What?” she said when she saw how he was looking at her.
He grinned. “I was just thinking how nice it is to sit here and watch you do all the work.”
“Chauvinist!” she said, but she grinned.
* * *
The scene goes on, with Desiree continuing to cook while Jack watches, and there are more details about how she does it. After getting the sauce ready, she begins to make a salad, and more details are added there.
Anyway, after my critique group’s criticism, I was stubborn and refused to take any of those details out because when I read a book, those are the kinds of things that make the scene come alive for me, that make me feel I’m there. Sure, I could have said Jack watched as Desiree fixed the meal, but saying it and actually seeing it are two different things, and when you put concrete details into a scene, you make the reader see it and hear it and smell it.
That’s what is meant by “showing.” Not how many “was” verbs you have, but concrete details that bring the scene and the characters and the emotions alive.
After that book was finished and I turned it in to Silhouette, my editor commented on that particular scene, too. Her comment? When she read the scene, she thought how very mainstream it sounded. I took that as a high compliment and I’ve never forgotten it. And I’ve never let those critique partners of mine forget it, either!
Since that day, I’ve paid attention when reading mainstream novels, and my editor was right. Sometimes just a word of two of concrete detail makes the difference. For instance, what gives you a better picture? Saying Nancy drank a can of soda or that Nancy drank her Dr. Pepper? Saying that John bought a new convertible? Or that John bought a dark green Corvette convertible? Saying that the house looked rundown? Or saying that the front porch floorboards were sagging and the screened door was off its hinges? That the yard was messy? Or that the yard was filled with scattered toys, unweeded flower-beds, and an uncoiled garden hose?
So pay attention to those details. It could make the difference between selling your masterpiece and having it gather myriad rejection slips.
Copyright: January 2014 Patricia A. Kay
Note: If you’re interested in reading more than just that one scene from the above-quoted book, it is now available in digital format under the new title NEEDING NICOLE.