Saturday, November 23, 2013

Details

Your embrace of the so-called school of realistic fiction came at about the time you'd discovered writers such as James M. Cain, James T. Farrell, and John O'Hara was a full-frontal.  You were excited by the possibilities of defining a character through details of their personal tastes.

The number of times you'd reread the famous scene in The Great Gatsby, where Gatsby is showing Daisy his custom made shirts had driven you to the point where you'd saved and scrimped until you could yourself own a Turnbull and Asser shirt of your very own.  The fact of having such a short and a bespoke blazer from Cyril Castle in London gave you the exact sort of protective coating a writer ought not have, but at the time you did not understand this and so you affected yet another detail you were positive such as Fitzgerald, if not Gatsby, would appreciate.  You switched from smoking Camels to Benson and Hedges.

At that time, when you were at a party or a dinner guest, you made a point, notebook in hand, of listing the contents of bathroom display cabinets, the sorts where men kept shaving gear and women a myriad of cosmetics such as Maybellene mascara and Tangee lipstick.  You noted colors, hues, preferences for Anacin over aspirin, reliance on such gastrointestinal prompts as Alka-Seltzer and Bromo-Seltzer.  From prescription medications, you were able to guess at physical and psychological conditions.  You were at first surprised then delighted to discover how often persons in your circle of acquaintance had as their physician a dear and treasured friend of yours from high school and college days.

Based on your copious notes, characters of your creation would be certain to have, on closer inspection, the contents of their bathroom cabinets harbor specific products as you believed reflected various character types.  Male characters you disliked--in those days, you were allowed to not like characters--were more apt to use Schick razor products than Gillette.  Male characters you really had it in for used electric shavers.

Women characters you tended to admire use the chemical depilatory, Nair, for keeping five o'clock shadow from their legs, but in a flagrantly poor use of point of view filter, you, intrusive author that you were, ventured that a particular character was no mere slave to convenience or convention; she used a Woman's Personna razor with Personna or Wilkinson blades.

Such fondness for realism would have had some practical application at the time, when writers were often paid by the word, and one editor stipulated that one of your characters was a stutterer, added an omnibus ten dollar addition to what you'd ordinarily have been paid, then warned you this was a one-timer, by which he meant no more stuttering characters, ever.

Somewhere along the way, individuals began to speculate the presence of the Devil in details.  Your own experience with nonfiction books of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could also be places where you began to get the notion of the tail wagging the dog.

Details should be every bit as relevant to the story as such matters as plot, motive, setting, historical time, social class.  If a character is to be  assigned a dominant left hand, that detail must not go unchallenged or noticed in some thematic way.  If a twenty-year-veteran New York cop orders fillet of sole almondine at the retirement dinner for a brother or sister officer, at the least, someone should have words--disparaging words--about such fillet of sole.

A medical examiner who favored steak tartare in a police procedural thriller would be a funny detail.  A tuna sandwich is a funny detail.  A Denver omelet sandwich is not funny.  When you were moderating a panel discussion of authors, it was a funny detail when you said of the originator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, "Jack Canfield can never wear a necktie.  The minute he puts one on, he'll get a soup stain on it."

Details ought to be enhancements rather than distractions,which means they ought in one or more ways to support your understanding of a character, a theme, the character's motives, or of a place or historical era.

You try to be generous with details, but not to the point where they seem to point out that you have nothing else in the way of opinions or observations.

If the Devil, whatever that may mean to you, is in the details, you need to reexamine the project so that instead the Imp of the Perverse is in the story, or maybe the Imp of Mischief.  In some of your stories, you try to pick one character whom you secretly imagine to be that great Trickster surrogate brought to us through Groucho Marx, in the play and, later, the film, Animal Crackers, Captain Geoffrey Spaulding.

Devils are too serious and tendentious.  Even for details.

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