The Writing Process 2015: Finding the Right Details

finding the right details

If you’re new to The Writing Process 2015, these posts are a chance to share my journey through my latest novel, starting right at ground zero. Today let’s talk about finding the right details for your story.

We’re about to pull our biannual house switcheroo. This means that we are entertaining a steady stream of visitors and phone calls. By visitors, I mean plumbers and security system techs and the air-conditioning service guy, not to mention our friend the pest control guru. By phone calls? Phone companies here and in New York. House minder. The guy who cuts our hair. The dermatologist who sees us regularly because we not only live in Florida, my husband and I both grew up here in pre-sunscreen days.

In the midst of the hubbub I’m still working on my book. I’m even making progress, at least a little. But the going’s been rough.

In the past two weeks I’ve moved into a new section of my story. With the move came a scene change, which will be repeated again and again before the book ends because my major characters are on the move. Suddenly I needed new details and new ways to quickly bring my readers into my setting so that they will feel they’re right there living the story along with Robin, Cecilia and Kris.

Describing scenes we know personally isn’t easy, but it’s easier. We can visualize something we’ve seen–like closing my house for the summer, as I described above–and we can carefully reconstruct it in our minds using new similes or metaphors, new descriptive language. But as I’ve said before, at a certain point authors of multiple novels eventually run out of things we know. Or even quite possibly we find the things we know so boring we prefer to write about things we don’t.

Right now I’ve spent a lot of what writing time I can eke out (or more accurately eek! out) familiarizing myself with my new setting, then picking out details I want to share to bring my readers into the story with me.

Here’s what I look for:

  • Realistic details that still offer surprises.
  • Local color, and lots of it.
  • Details that use all five senses, hopefully in a new way.  How does the air smell in autumn? How does it feel? Will you taste wood smoke on your tongue, hear a barn owl hooting?
  • Interesting bits of history.

Here’s where I look:

  • Wikipedia–a good start and the best way to get quick answers
  • Biographies, travel guides, history–both fiction and non-fiction. Sometimes another novelist has found a treasure trove of detail–but check it for accuracy and thoroughly rewrite whatever details you use. True for all your research, of course.
  • Websites. This week I spent hours on local history sites, official websites for the towns I was interested in, websites for restaurants, hotels, inns.
  • Photos. Real estate sites often have great ones, as do personal blogs. When choosing details choose those scenes you might take a photo of yourself if you were there.
  • How-to books for professions or hobbies I’m using. I buy these and keep them on my desk, marking what I think I’ll need. If I can buy for my Kindle I highlight details I’ll use later.
  • Case histories and true life accounts.

It’s important to know what not to use, as well.

  • Fascinating details that have nothing to do with your story.
  • Details that have to be pounded into place with a sledgehammer because they don’t quite fit where you want to use them.
  • Details that nobody else will care about because most readers have no special interest in the subject.
  • Details that have to be so carefully explained the reader will fall asleep before finishing.
  • Details that slow the story or halt it altogether.

When I’m researching something brand new, I often give in to panic. I will never know enough to write about this. I will never be able to convey the heart of it. I will make mistakes, terrible, terrible mistakes. Then, somewhere along the way–and it depends on subject matter–I feel something thump into place inside me. No, I don’t know everything, but I can convey what I find most interesting about what I do know. And yes, mistakes are possible, but the harder I work, the fewer I’ll make.

I can find details to make the story seem real. I can find details that will make the reader want to continue reading. And that’s my job.

Do you have a novel you love that makes you feel like you’re living the story with the characters? Anybody’s novel. Want to share with us?


  1. carol greenough on May 12, 2015 at 10:47 am

    In addition to Emilie Richards I like the novels of Julia Spencer Fleming. Her first title In the Bleak Midwinter (one of my favorite hymns) caught me and as I live in the Adirondack setting she writes about it is easy to place myself in the area.
    I also especially like the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. You all seem to have the same talent.

    • Emilie Richards on May 12, 2015 at 11:42 am

      Carol, both of them illustrate this point so well. When I read JSP I feel like I’m right there in the Adirondacks living her life.

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