Yesterday’s observations have remained with you through a busy day of editing and reading proof on The Fiction Writer’s Guide, two wildly disparate activities, both under promise of prompt delivery. For a thing such as details to continue in some form of active life, you need to give it some attention.
Details are the things you see as you look about you, wherever you happen to be. The same holds for the characters you create. They see differently than you. They should see things differently; they are not recognizable as clones or products of you.
Out of respect for them and for you, you need to do a great deal of processing, somewhat like the Mars probe, sending impressions back for analysis. You want to take them in as much for their self as for questions you might have about them, so that when you write about these details as they relate to you, they will crowd out other details that might have been given priority by persons or sources of no real concern to you.
The better you are able to do this for yourself, the better you reckon you’ll be able to delegate the experience to characters.
When you read something you begin to think of as memorable, worth studying to the point of keeping it alive in your “active” files, the more you are impressed with the inevitability of the details. There seems to be a logic and order or, to the contrary, a purposeful lack of order and yet the lack seems to insure your sense of realism and believability. Things that seem random are distractions, a holdover from the time when you were impressed with so-called realism to the point where you thought laundry lists of details gave life to story. You did not do well nor last long at what you’ve come to look at as the kitchen sink school of realism and detail.
Even a fantastic image has to convey a sense of believability. You don’t do it with a jumble of details; you do it with just the proper amount of details given careful editing to make sure no distractions sneak to the head of the line.
Last night, your early years in Los Angeles played a particular part in demonstrating how the feel of a place came through to you. Even though you didn’t realize it at the time, Mexico City was coming through to you because of your habit of wandering the streets, looking for odd, quirky details that were your visions rather than tourist guide visions.
Thus the enormous caldrons of boiling corncobs outside the bull ring on Sunday evenings and the times of the day when the firecracker company near where you lived tested batches of firecrackers. Mexico’s big cities are firecracker cities. The man who got drunk every Sunday morning, then began accosting people on the street. “Le gusta Pancho Villa?” And when he got no answer, “Si no le gusta Pancho Villa, chinga tu abuela.” You could not make those things from whole cloth any more than another drunk, who roamed the streets where you lived, playing Gilbert and Sullivan on a sour cornet.
What makes one place better than another? Why do you remember to this day the name of the bus driver on the way from just over the border in Arizona to Mexico City? M. Alvarado H.
You go about like a vacuum cleaner, gulping in swaths of details, holding them, savoring them for the times they will pop out of their own accord to paint the picture you cannot otherwise paint.