Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Devil in the Details

Last week I discussed my love for “place”. This week I will discuss my love for details, which in turn, adds to place and often teaches me new things. Trivial things sometimes, but interesting to me. I love learning. I love reason. In a nerdy way facts connect me to the universe. Jon Krakauer knows climbing, Herman Wouk is a military geek, and Laura Hillenbrand loves horses… and it shows. I can see, feel, and smell their worlds and characters.

Examples:
"I’d gained nearly seven hundred feet of altitude since stepping off the hanging glacier, all of it on crampon front points and the picks of my axes. The ribbon of frozen meltwater had ended three hundred feet up and was followed by a crumbly armor of frost feathers."  Jon Krakauer, describing his ascent of The Devil’s Thumb in Alaska from, Into the Wild. (Meltwater and frost feathers? Are those his own word combinations? Bully, bully, Mr. Krakauer) 

"Charles Howard had the feeling of a giant onrushing machine: You had to either climb on or leap out of the way. He would sweep into a room, working a cigarette in his fingers, and people would trail him like pilot fish. They couldn’t help themselves. Fifty-eight years old in 1935, Howard was a tall, glowing man in a big suit and a very big Buick."  Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit. (Note that among all of these descriptors, somehow Ms. Hillenbrand is able to "tell" us that "They couldn’t help themselves" and yet it comes off looking like a "show". Get it?)

"The focus of Willie’s mind widened beyond the plank now and took in the quarterdeck of the Caine. It was a place of noise, dirt, bad smells, and thuglike strangers. Half a dozen sailors were clanking at the rusty deck with metal scrapers. Other sailors were walking past, cursing under crates of cabbages on their backs. One man in a welding mask was burning a bulkhead with a crackling sour-smelling blue flame. All around were patches of new gray paint, patches of old gray paint, patches of green prime coat, and patches of rust. A tangle of snaky hoses, red black, green, yellow, brown, lay all over the deck. The deck was covered with orange peel, fragments of magazines and old rags. Most of the sailors were half naked and wore fantastic beards and haircuts. Oaths, blasphemies, and on recurring four-letter word filled the air like fog." …  Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny. (If you haven't smelled The Caine Mutiny, it's time for you to do so. Don't be put off by the length of description here, the book is a character piece and in this scene Willie is entering his new world, much to his chagrin.)

Munk's opening line:
The boat was powered by the souls of frogs.
Discuss, Munk

Please fall into this week's music... Fishing Blues by Taj Mahal, it's like one last breath of summer.

And thanks go out to TJ Riles... for being cool. Go GB. 

19 comments:

Bryan Russell said...

I do like details, and the devilish ones most of all.

K.C. Woolf said...

Wonderful examples. I love reading detailed writing but only when it's done well, i.e. clever, original and evocative.

Towanda said...

It depends. I can easily live without the details of someone like John Updike describing a parking lot; although I do admit it sets a mood. I often find myself skipping over paragraphs full of too many details. However, I love a strong sense of place and knowing who a character is and that takes details.

dbs said...

I love details when they make me want to peel them away to get to the core:
"A sliver of moon rose over the horizon, hardly large enough to make a path of light even when it sat right down on the water; but there were other lights in the sky, that moved fast, winked, or went out, though not even a faint popping came down from the battle fought at ten miles’ height. But a sign came down from the world of grown-ups, though at the time there was no child awake to read it. There was a sudden bright explosion and corkscrew trail across the sky; then darkness again and stars. There was a speck above the island, a figure dropping swiftly beneath a parachute, a figure that hung with dangling limbs. The changing winds of various altitudes took the figure where they would. Then, three miles up, the wind steadied and bore it in a descending curve round the sky and swept it in a great slant across the reef and the lagoon toward the mountain. The figure fell and crumpled among the blue flowers of the mountain-side, but now there was a gentle breeze at this height too and the parachute flopped and banged and pulled. So the figure, with feet that dragged behind it, slid up the mountain. Yard by yard, puff by puff, the breeze hauled the figure through the blue flowers, over the boulders and red stones, till it lay huddled among the shattered rocks of the mountain-top. Here the breeze was fitful and allowed the strings of the parachute to tangle and festoon; and the figure sat, its helmeted head between its knees, held by a complication of lines. When the breeze blew, the lines would strain taut and some accident of this pull lifted the head and chest upright so that the figure seemed to peer across the brow of the mountain. Then, each time the wind dropped, the lines would slacken and the figure bow forward again, sinking its head between its knees. So as the stars moved across the sky, the figure sat on the mountain-top and bowed and sank and bowed again." LOTF

The Gaelic Wife said...

Love Taj Mahal! As to your first line...

"The boat was powered by the souls of frogs. Frogs being the penutimate modern-day scourge. She had lived through an earthquake and a hurricane in one week, the remnants of a second hurricane the following week. A flat-bottomed skiff was the only means of transportation to the ABC store to restock the vodka supply."

Suze said...

'In a nerdy way facts connect me to the universe.'

Pitch-perfect.

Munk said...

@BR- you devil you.
@KC- agreed, it can be overdone.
@T- Well said.
@DBS- I am hanging my head in shame while admitting to never reading LOTF. Even at a young age I avoided narrative without hope. Leaving Las Vegas left me more than empty... it left my soul with bills to pay. Convince me there is hope in LOTF and I might give it a fly.
@TGW-Damn I love your marvelous takes on my openers. Ain't Taj the bee's knees? Lord I swear the perfume you wear is made out of turnip greens...
@S- yep, I'd take the red pill.

Kat Sloma said...

I love details like you've described. I just hate when there are too many... when you can skip a paragraph or two of description and not have lost anything of the story line, that's too many. I think I remember doing that often in Jean Auel's books...

dbs said...

I like your explanation. If you do decide to try it, both Ralph & Simon were enough hope for me. Although Ralph makes a tragic mistake.

L.G.Smith said...

I read a lot of historical fiction, and I do love it when the authors are able to weave in specific details that support the story, but I'm also one of those readers who doesn't tolerate well a two paragraph description of a room or landscape. I tend to skim over those.

Rusty Webb said...

I do like details, but only if the story has already sucked me in. Those same details I love in some circumstances can turn me off in others. It's a tricky thing.

Michael Offutt said...

I love Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit" and I thought the movie adaptation was good as well. I have meant to read her new book but I got inundated by some self-pubbed stuff (four novels) that are pretty weighty (tipping at the 1000 page mark on my Nook. I've plowed through quite a few of them...just have these last ones to blow out and then I can move on to some better written stuff. Yeah I just said that...some of the self-pubbed stuff I've been reading hasn't been all that great lately. A lot of it is because of what you pointed out here. The fiction worlds are not detailed well. It's not just a matter of stringing together adjectives but knowing when and how to inject feeling...knowing how to take flat characters and spin them like pennies on a tabletop so that they appear three-dimensional. Not everyone that writes has this ability (obviously) but I will say that no everyone that is published by the Big Six has it either. I may have to look into Wouk. I've never read any of his stuff.

Munk said...

@Kat-I remember reading Clan of the Cave Bear way back when... that was enough Auel for me.
@DBS-it remains on the possible list, reading some William Sleator right now.
@LG-details can become too ornate... like a Victorian parlor.
@RW- plot before nuance.
@MO- I have also considered LH's latest. I can't imagine it not being good, but I've also heard it isn't an easy read. Excellent penny analogy. The Caine Mutiny... highly recommended. The study of Captain Queeg is frustratingly perfect.

Lydia K said...

I love good details too. Some of them I'll remember long after I've put the book down.

Love your opening lines. I don't want to think about what happened to the bodies of those departed frogs, though.

Donna K. Weaver said...

I like details to a certain extent. Sometimes the story can get lost in detail.

Rebecca Kiel said...

Some details plunge me further into the story. Others feel contrived and pull me out. Choosing details carefully is a must!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Ok, I'm going to tack left and say no, I don't like details! Which, of course, is not entirely true. But my tolerance for, or perhaps love of, description is less than many writers, I think. But a well described scene with an economy of words that evokes emotion - I'm yours for life. :)

Jayne said...

I am laughing too much to discuss that opening line.

Details, I like. Floraly stuff, I don't. The Caine Mutiny, you have convinced me, I've got to read. ;)

The Desert Rocks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.