Wednesday, May 4, 2022

In the works

Adding description to a story is an art. Too much, and readers skip over it. Too little, and the sense of place and mood aren’t adequately drawn. What techniques do you use, and please provide examples from your work?

by Dietrich

For me, the process is more instinct than technique. The telling works in time with the pace, and the words fit into the moving scene that comes to life as I write. There are no rules or formula that I stick to. Instinct just guides the way. 

When I’ve finished a first draft, I go back over it, looking for anything that didn’t quite work the first time around, catching any description that needs to be trimmed, smoothed, or even added onto. More importantly, I’ve learned what needs to be left alone. 

When researching a story, I usually end up with far more than I can use, so I’ve also learned to be selective, using what I consider to be the best of it, and just enough to set the mood and to create images for the reader. For the sake of pace and moving the story along, I’ve reluctantly had to leave some interesting details behind.

The question asks for examples, so here’s an excerpt from the my current novel, Under an Outlaw Moon, based on the true story of the FBI’s most wanted Bennie and Stella Mae Dickson, published by ECW Press. This was a departure for me, basing the story on actual events, and adding a lot of fiction to bring the characters and scenes to life.


. . . one

June 12, 1937

“Sixteen, huh? Well, I might’ve guessed older.” Flashing

her the honest blue eyes.

“Well, maybe you’d’a been wrong then, huh?” Said her

name was Stella Mae Redenbaugh, looking at him like she

saw something underneath his smile, this guy with the wavy

hair, skating around the roller rink, looking at her now and

then, finally coming over when she was alone next to the

boards. Making a fast stop and showing his moves.

Stella knowing her friend Liz and the other girls were

looking over from the concession stand, whispering and

giggling to each other. Made her feel good, lying to him

that she was sixteen.

“Well, I been wrong a time or two,” he said, “but still,
I guess you’d pass for older.”

“Older, like how much?” Crinkling her nose — Stella

guessed it looked cute like when she practiced it in the

mirror — smiling at him, liking the way this Johnny

O’Malley was flirting with her, something no boy had done

before. Not feeling that unease she often felt around men.

Been that way since her real father just walked off, Stella

thinking good riddance, happy her mother wouldn’t get hit

and bruised anymore. Her stepfather, Lester, being made of

better stuff, a quiet man working hard for the family. Maybe

dull in that way, but at least the man didn’t leave those awful

bruises on her mother.

Fifteen and Stella wasn’t sure what the look meant

that Johnny D. O’Malley was putting on her, but she was

thinking maybe she wouldn’t mind finding out.

“I don’t know, let’s see . . . eighteen maybe.” Johnny

grinned, saying, “Guess I ain’t saying it right.”

“Well, I think you’re saying it just fine.” She liked the

way his cheeks flushed then, yeah, starting to feel easier with

him. Not tall, but a nice build and good looking with the

blue eyes and wavy hair. Older by a mile, even if she had

been eighteen. Stella liking the way Liz was watching from

the refreshment stand, talking to some boys, the rest of the

girls gone home.

Bennie Dickson had been feeding lines to the pretty blonde,

this Stella Mae. Now he was getting caught up in it. Laid

it on pretty thick, saying he was a prize fighter in training.

That part was true, and Johnny O’Malley was the name he

used when he stepped through the ropes.

Not sure why he used the name on her, the name the

promotor had come up with, telling Bennie it gave him the

Irish edge, a young fighter showing promise, along with a

punishing right hook, something they could build on.

Bennie didn’t tell her anything about the trouble he’d 

been in, the stuff he got into back when his old man told him 

he was acting more loser than winner, anything but a Dickson

man. Strike one coming for the stolen car, doing time in

that reformatory and shaming the family. Bad Bennie not

learning life the easy way, then taking a second swing when

he got mixed up in the Missouri bank job, giving up six

more hard years in the Missouri pen, same place they kept

Pretty Boy Floyd, the place inmates called The Walls on

account of that high gray limestone surrounding the place.

Life’s lessons kicking Bennie hard that time. Working in

the prison library and learning to box while inside. Finally

convincing the parole board he got the message and wasn’t

going to make the same mistakes, released into his father’s

custody. Just turned twenty-six, and Bennie swore to go

straight this time.

Might have been partly why he was feeling more Johnny

than Bad Bennie right then, telling this girl about the job

he just took driving a cab, the money he made allowing him

to sweat and work the bag in the Hard Rock gym. Then

switching the focus, telling her she skated like a pro.

“You been watching me, huh?”

“Admit I was.” From over by the boards, betting all 

the boys looked her way. From the corner of his eye now, he

caught the three mutts eyeing him from over by the food

stand, the ones chatting to Stella’s friend. The looks meant

they guessed who he was and knew about the time he served.

Thinking they were better and wanting to prove it. Bennie

feeling glad his older brother Spencer had showed up 

at the rink today, two years older and born on the same day,

the two of them of the same blood. Spencer known around

town as a tough customer. And although the oldest of the

three wasn’t there that day, the same went for Darwin, a

reputation for watching out for his brothers, likely the main

reasons the mutts were keeping their distance. Still, they 

had that look, like they had something to prove.

“Me, pffft, nobody sees me. Just a place I meet Liz and the

girls and have a few laughs, is all.” Stella Mae thinking who

had money for roller skating, a nickel just to get in the place,

wondering again if Johnny meant what he said, that she

looked eighteen, maybe older. Could be on account of the way

she’d pulled her hair back that day, not wanting it in her eyes

when she skated around, the sweater showing the promise

of changes coming, and the ruby lipstick from her mother’s

dressing table completing the picture. Liked her lips red like

that, Stella doing it more these days when her mother was out

of the house. Always wiped it off before she went back home.

“How you like it, the music?” Johnny asked. Not sure 

what the number was piping from the speaker cone. Admitting 

to her he had a tin ear.

“This one’s Lionel Hampton, called ‘Hot Mallets.’ They

play it all the time, everybody skating to it. One the girls like

to dance to.”

“That right? Well, lucky for Lionel, how about it then,

let’s see you do it. Dance or skate, either one.”

“Just ’cause you say so, huh?” Stella acting indifferent, 

the smile letting him know she was playing too.

“Just like to watch you move.” The blush in his cheeks

betrayed him, and he pushed off the boards and skated around

the rink, turning and going backwards, moving faster between

and around the couples and singles, pretending he was doing

it to the music, moving his hips and clowning, looking her

way, smiling from across the rink. He swished around and

grabbed hold of the boards next to her, saying, “So, come on,

girl, catch up if you’re any good.” And he was off again, going

around and looking to see that she was watching. “I’ve Got a

Pocketful of Dreams,” coming through the speakers now. The

three mutts over at refreshments watching him too.

Standing with a hand against the boards, Stella glanced

over at Liz still talking to the boys, likely saying something

dumb. Pushing off, she windmilled her arms to gain her

balance, half the rink between them.

Johnny coming around and past her, calling out, “Hey,


Picking up speed on the rented skates, she ducked and

went under a couple with joined hands, nearly ended on

her butt as she bumped them apart. Johnny slowed and

let her catch up, holding out his hand, then catching her

again from falling, the two of them moving around the

rink, holding hands now. Going around two more times,

he stopped over by Spencer and introduced her, asking

how old Spencer guessed she was, mouthing eighteen

behind her back. Also pointed at himself and mouthed to

call him Johnny.

Spencer said, “It ain’t right to guess a lady’s age.” 

Smiling at her, offering his hand.

Stella liking this older brother calling her a lady, told

him it was nice to meet him.

Taking her hand again, Bennie did it like it was a natural

thing. Stella not pulling away, thinking maybe he did it to

keep her from falling, but she liked the way her friend Liz

kept looking, the three boys looking too. And she lost track

how many times she skated around with him, talking about

where they went to school, places around town they both

knew. Bennie saying he was serious about his boxing, and

driving a cab too. Then asking about her, where she lived,

how she liked the school she went to, getting to know her.

Letting him buy her a soda after, the two of them

just kept talking, not running out of things. Playing at

being eighteen, she pushed away thoughts of her mother

worrying about her being out as the afternoon gave way to

evening. Then realizing Liz had gone home, Stella told him

she’d better get on home too.

“Well, I got my car, can give you a lift if you want?”

Wanting to trust him, but knowing her mother’s rule

about getting in cars with boys. Saying, “I’m okay, I can


“Well, I’m just offering is all.”

They stood talking a few more minutes. Bennie didn’t

push it, offering to return her skates to the rental desk,

asking, “So, how do I see you again?”

“Well, you come next Saturday and maybe you will.”

Smiling, she let him take the skates.

“Not the brush-off, I hope — I mean, you’re gonna 

show, right?”

“Guess you’re gonna find out.” Smiling, she started

walking, knowing he was watching her, not sure how she’d

get another nickel, but she’d get it, and she’d be here next

Saturday alright.

Copyright © Dietrich Kalteis, 2021


Susan C Shea said...

Great scene at the roller rink!

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Thanks, Susan.