Thursday, September 4, 2008

Noticing Details

New places are an opportunity to see fascinating details. But it takes time to see the details.

Each of us notices different details because of our life experiences and who we are. Same with our characters.

I receive a huge onslaught on my senses the first day, (and the first week) when I enter a foreign country. I mostly notice big things, with a few small details that catch my eye. As I adjust I notice more details. My first day here in China--through the mental haze of jetlag--I noticed things like all the green and flowers; some cool architecture in some old, sagging brick buildings towered over by skyscrapers; the cars and taxis zipping in out of traffic--normal big city traffic. I noticed the river we crossed and the yellow apartment building. (Why are we always in a yellow house or building?) I noticed the huge empty feel of an empty apartment, void of everything except basic furniture.

Now I notice different details: things like the pollen falling from the palm trees; a tree with vines growing downward out of the limbs whose vine tips are a lighter color, and if they find soil they will become roots and eventually trees; the gardeners dipping small buckets hanging off 4 foot long poles into water in a wheelbarrow lined with plastic to water hanging plants; the men walking on hanging scaffolding under the bridge--doing repairs; the narrow passageways in some of the markets with the uneven, ancient stone and dirt walkways; the cage-like metal bars around apartment building decks; the laundry hanging outside of windows--inside these cages; green onion cookies (!); bamboo scaffolding that climbs up and up tall skyscrapers.

Photo is of a narrow street in downtown Guangzhou, near Shamian Island. I didn't get a photo of the passageways--but in them I felt like I stepped back 1000 years in time.

The characters in my WIP are entering a new environment. They will notice more details, just as I notice more, as they grow accustomed to a new place. I’m trying to capture the essence of a new place and a new experience. They’ll notice more and more details and understand more of the language with each chapter. The trick is to make their experience feel authentic to my readers.

I love looking for details. Sometimes I wander with my camera and take photos so I can remember things when I'm bombarded by too many details.

Are there any books which use details extremely well? Do you have any favorite books that show characters becoming familiar with an unfamiliar place?

I think details noticed are an essential part of the character voice. Books with a strong voice, tend to have a character who sees details in a way unique to that character and this flavors the entire story.

(Note--I can only see and reply to my blogger. I don't have access to the LJ feed, so if you have a comment please come to or send me an email.)


Anonymous said...

I love how you're applying your new experiences to your writing like this. Great food for thought.

Sarah Blake Johnson said...

Thanks, fandoria.