November is National Novel Writing Month. If you are trying to get a first draft of your “I have this idea for a story” book, now is the time. You have only to write everyday in November in a completely free flow of putting stuff down on paper. Then for the next year you can rewrite. Or if you are really good, you can rewrite for six months. Me? I rewrite, put aside, rewrite more. And I need a critique group to prod me every week.
For this November, though, I’m doing some guest posts arranged by Pump Up Your Book. Today, November 6, I have a post on Workaday Reads. I’m putting the same post here. But stop by Workaday Reads to see that site. You might need a review of your NaNoWriMo product.
Are you watching the new Sherlock Holmes, the one with Sherlock in rehab and Watson as a woman? It’s different. But no matter how current authors tweak the classic character, Sherlock remains the epitome of keen observation.
When I started writing Artists & Thieves I knew a great deal about observing language. My first Master’s degree was in English, my second was related to language disorders. I’d read literature biggies and dissected how they did what they did with language. I worked with children who had difficulty using ordinary language and I had to pinpoint what was missing. In both cases, I learned to observe.
So when I wrote Artists & Thieves, adding details to a scene to put the reader “there” was easier for me than adding tension or conflict to a scene. I’m always on the lookout for details. I don’t record them in a notebook but they pop into my head as I’m writing.
When I bought a new gas stove I was surprised to hear the pilot light clicking away before the flame started. My old stove didn’t do that. I was working on a scene with Angelo, an artist, moving him around in his loft. I gave that detail to him: “At the kitchen sink he filled the tea kettle with water, and when the clicking of the pilot light finally caught enough gas to flame, he set the pot on the burner’s medium flame.”
When I needed details to bring the setting of Fisherman’s Wharf to smelly life, I remembered a crowded market in San Francisco’s Chinatown: “He bounced down the rough, tarred surface of the wharf shoulder to shoulder with morning tourists. He passed raw sea creatures displayed outside the seafood market on his left, then crossed to the other side to catch the aroma of clam chowder steaming on the counter at Bernie’s, ready to be ladled into paper cups.”
Details are not just for describing a scene. They work to add tension or stress to a character. While I was working on the climax of Artists & Thieves, I needed to build suspense by putting obstacles in the way of my heroine, Mai, as she frantically rushes to find the bad guy. I remembered driving home late at nigh lost in fog so thick I had to stop the car and wait for the fog to break. No cell phones then. A spooky situation. I gave that experience to Mai: “The streets at the west end of Golden Gate Park were shrouded in fog and darkness. Mai couldn’t see the white center line on the road or the one at the edge marking the bicycle lane, couldn’t keep the Jaguar in her lane. . . . She leaned her head out the window, straining to see beyond the flapping windshield wipers. . . .’Where am I?’ She was frustrated, talking out loud.”
And on a more poetic note, I’ve seen a red tide twice in San Diego. The waves fluoresce at night in moonlight. A fellow writer in my critique group suggested that I use a red tide to add mystery to the setting for the climax. My memory helped: “Long bands of glowing light stretched up and down the coast, eerily luminescent in the fog hanging over the waves. The red tide’s tiny organisms sparkled, ebbed and flowed in the ocean’s easy motion.”
Observation is a writer’s necessity as much as it is a detective’s. For me, plotting and character development require a lot of rewriting. That is a long and tedious process.
But I can Sherlock descriptive details quickly. And that’s the fun of writing.