Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Where the Devil Lives

They say it’s all in the details. When you’re writing a scene, how much needs to be told?

-From Frank

Ah, a perfect question for the day before I depart for Bouchercon! A craft-related, insider baseball question, for sure. 

You're getting my second draft of this post. In the first, I filled an entire page with an analogy about details in a scene being akin to nudity in film. I think the analogy worked, but it wasn't family friendly. And comparing a police procedural to detail porn felt like I was taking a swipe at myself and anyone who writes procedurals, so I dumped the entire post.

The central point, though, remains. There is a delicate line of balance in including enough detail to inform the reader but not too much that it overwhelms her, instead keeping her engaged or even intrigued.

There's an argument to be made that the subgenre plays heavily into this. When I am writing a River City procedural, there is often significantly more detail of police procedure in the telling of the tale. This is what readers want and expect from the subgenre - a lot of details around the how of the story. How do the police try to solve the mystery? 

In any scene, though, the delicate line of balance exists. Where it lies on the spectrum may shift due to subgenre, but you're still trying to inform, engage, and intrigue the reader, right? 

Outside of the police procedural elements, I tend to believe that the right place for me to be on the equation is giving the reader just enough description of a location or a person that she can have a picture in her mind of the scene I'm writing about. The human mind is a wonderful thing and most readers will fill in their own take on anything that is missing, as long as you give them enough of a template to start with. Other writers I know are very detailed, and some readers prefer that approach. So in addition to subgenre expectations, you've got varying desires from different readers to contend with.

I think every writer finds the answer to this in his/her own way. For me, it is generally this:  A broad, general description for context, with a splash or two of very specific details to give it the right flavor.

For example, one of my central characters in the River City series is Officer Tom Chisolm. Chisolm is a grizzled veteran of both war and policing. He bears a significant scar on his face from his time in the military, and he's been a cop for fourteen years at the outset of the series, so we can guess he's probably hit the big four-oh (while being part of the five-oh!). Aside from that, I don't know that I've ever given the reader any more specific physical description of Thomas Chisolm, outside of some that are implied (he works out, so he's probably not fat, etc.).

Officer Katie MacLeod, who is the core of the series (at least for me) gets even less physical description. No hair color, no body type, no distinguishing marks. I mean, I have a picture of her in my mind, but the reader may have a very different one, because even though I'm working on book #6 right now, I don't believe I've ever directly described how she looks -- again, outside of what is implied by her actions or others' reactions to her.

But both Chisolm and MacLeod are very real, evolved characters. The details I've chosen to accentuate involve their thoughts and actions. The reader gets to know them both very well based upon those details, and to be honest, I think that those are the most important ones. I don't mind if someone sees Chisolm as a beefy linebacker or a wiry gunfighter, as long as they know who he is as a person, and what he values. Likewise, the reader is free to envision Katie as blonde-haired and curvy or dark-haired and stocky, as long as she knows who Katie is - her courage,  her strength and her vulnerabilities.

Those are the details that matter most, at least to me. They inform, engage, and hopefully intrigue the reader about what is most important. So my answer is -- put enough of those details into the scene (with an eye toward subgenre) to accomplish that task.


Blatant Self Promotion Brought To You By Me

Another reminder that my newest release, At Their Own Game, was just released from Down and Out Books a couple weeks ago. 

This novel is the first in my SpoCompton series, which focuses on telling stories from the perspective of those on the wrong side of the thin blue line -- the criminals. The second, In the Cut, comes out in January 2020.

At Their Own Game features Jake Stankovic, a former cop turned fence, who runs a two-man crew. He's doing great until he breaks his own rules and gets in over his head on a deal. Now he has to deal with a pissed off drug dealer, a pissed off police detective, a worried and possibly treacherous crew, as well as a dangerous woman from his past....and he has to find a way to beat them all, at their own game.  

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