The Details Make The Story

Description is my Achilles heel. My writing tends to be so sparse it’s practically naked, and to make up for that lack I’ve done some pretty embarrassing things in the pursuit of details.

It’s fun to go back to my earliest manuscripts and see how much my writing’s improved. And then shake my head – I showed that to an agent? *smacks head* Live and learn. But those stories have taught me a lot – and one of the lessons I’ve learned is that description and sensory details are things I have to consciously add in, adding layer after layer with each edit. And then my co-writer reads it and says, ‘You need more description.’ lol. So, I’m still learning.

In fact, Marcy – my co-writer (and long-time critique partner) on the latest WIP, constantly fires questions at me about details on the scenes I write. They go like this:

Marcy: What kind of tree are they sitting in?

Me: I don’t know. A leafy one.

Marcy: But I want to picture it in my mind. What kind of tree is it?

Me: I don’t really care what kind of tree it is. Pick one.

Marcy: Let’s make it an elm tree. The bark smells like poop.

Me: ?? Sure. It’s an elm tree.

True story. Now, you might find this amusing – but you multiply that process a dozen times for every chapter and I’m ready to throw my laptop across the room. But Marcy’s right – description is important.

An Errand Of Fate

I have a romance manuscript in a drawer somewhere – yep, in hard copy. I wrote it about eight years ago. It’s a sad thing – but I still really love the characters. It features a firefighter as the hero.

This was the first novel I’d ever attempted, and doing research wasn’t something that had occurred to me. I was driving down a busier road with my 3 kids on an errand. I ended up following a fire truck – the kind where firemen sit facing backwards behind the cab. I caught a glimpse of one fireman’s face. This was the face I’d been picturing in my mind of my main character. So weird, right? I mean, there he was – in real life – in living flesh, before my eyes. I followed the truck for several blocks at a likely unsafe distance just to stare at the poor man, what clothes he was wearing, his posture. At some point he realized I was staring and waved. It’s actually impossible to duck behind the steering wheel and stay in the same traffic lane – trust me on that one.


Anyway, I decided there had to be a safer option. So, my introverted self booked a tour at the local fire station (not the one I’d followed the truck to across town) and dragged a writer-friend with me. Turns out people love to talk about their work. We were given the longest tour in the history of that fire hall. We touched all the levers and buttons and dials. We sat in every seat in the firetruck, tried on the hats. Eventually, all the firemen on duty that day were standing in the truck bay telling war stories with the chief – and I soaked it all up. Pretty awesome, right? They even helped me with an arson scene – those guys are pretty creative.

As we’re doing this tour, I turned to the fireman and asked if I could feel his hands. Now wait – It wasn’t like that. I grew up reading romance novels – devoured them – one or two a week at least. The feel of a man’s hands is an important detail to romance readers (I really hope the hubs doesn’t read this). The fireman agreed to let me feel his hands after I made him blush. His hands weren’t rough as I’d imagined them, they were very smooth – more like a mechanic’s hands. That was sensory detail gold, right there. Anyway – OK, maybe I’m the one blushing as I write this (how do romance writers who are married handle this?) – but my point is that details are important and sometimes hands-on research *cough* get-your-mind-out-of-the-gutter *cough* is required.

Not being good at description or details isn’t an excuse not to work at it (even if you have a Marcy). Take a hard look at your story. Is there anything you need to research more to give readers the description and sensory details to make that scene, that setting or character really leap off the page?

What’s one of your favorite sensory detail to include in your stories? Have a story about researching your novel? Share them (then I won’t feel so neurotic).


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  1. says

    I naturally find myself writing about smells.:) The rest I have to kind of force myself to focus on and describe. A few years ago I would write fast, telling myself–oh I can add the description later. What a mistake!! It’s so hard to go back and do that. I have to stop and not only smell the roses but really look at them. Ha ha :)
    Great post Lisa.
    Coleen Patrick recently posted…Happily Wrinkled in Time

  2. says


    Oooh, I don’t know if I should share this, but why not?

    Sometimes my heroines have problems of a personal nature like endometriosis. (Look it up)

    So I spoke to my gynaecologist about the disease and asked if it was physically possible for my heroine to get pregnant. He sat back in his chair (picture a farmer with wild hair and hands the size of a dinner plate) and said, ‘hmmmm, hmmmm.’ Then he looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘yes, anything’s possible and I’ve seen plenty of miracles in my time, eggs jumping from an ovary with no fallopian tube into a fallopian tube with no ovary. But they are rare. However, you’re writing fiction and you’re God, so why don’t you decide.’

    There you go, Lisa honey, you’re God and you decide!

    Great post.
    CC MacKenzie recently posted…Integrate Cool Applications with

  3. says

    I started laughing when I read this because I hit a point in my story when I needed to name the tree and I was all, “What kind of trees are the walking amongst? Hmm.” Enter research. I actually love the details, but I’ve read some things that have told me I should cut back on detail, that it bogs the reader down. Sigh. I guess it’s trying to find that balance. Asking your betas what they are skipping past and what they want to know more about. I was actually planning a post about a crazy trip I planned in the name of research.

    Fun post.
    Debra Kristi recently posted…Immortal Monday – A Dragon’s Birth Revealed

  4. says

    Hmm, I like describing fashion and the way things taste. Maybe that’s because I like to eat! I guess I’ve never really thought about that before. When I’m writing, the scene is usually playing out like a movie in my head so I describe what I see and hear. And I always think about how people smell and the way things taste. Maybe I need to make sure I’m adding in enough touch? You’ve given me something to think about!
    Emma Burcart recently posted…Some Things You Just Know

  5. says

    LMAO. Loved this. My first novel also sits in a box and features a firefighter as a hero. I actually did make some phone calls and learned quite a lot about their education and training. Stupid me never thought to book a tour. Anyway, in Sept. 09, I was in a wreck – flipped my car while texting, easily the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. I was very lucky, crawling out with only one bruise, phone still in hand, car upside down and totalled. So I refused medical attention, but I seriously considered it just so I could ride in the ambulance and do research (my hero began as an EMT, then moved onto firefighting). I didn’t, and I’ve always regretted it, lol.

    Descriptions are hard, but they’re something I actually enjoy writing. I try to always thing about all five senses at the beginning of every scene. My issues are crutch words and visceral emotions. I’ve gotten much better thanks to Margie Lawson’s lectures, but they’re a constant work in progress.

    Thanks for sharing with us, and sorry for the long comment!
    Stacy Green recently posted…Thriller Thursday: Personal Tragedy


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