Hi. I’ve been yapping a lot about things that I’m not fond of in the world of crime fiction and writing lately. Now that may sound like I’m about to change course, but I’m not. Truth be told, I didn’t have a clue what I was going to write about this week until throwing it out there on the Meg Brown Facebook Page (if you’d like to help direct the course of this blog, that is an excellent place to go) Seeing as I got exactly one response from Vicki, she wins. Spider-man band aids it is. Of course it wasn’t very easy coming up with a tie in to mystery writing when all you have to work on is ‘spider-man band aids’. It’s not like you can use them to patch a bullet wound or anything. Though it might be fun (fictionally speaking) to try. Nope. I had to come up with something else to work on but it got me thinking.
Isn’t it a lovely detail? One of those things that just pop out at you? I mean you can picture it can’t you? A spider-man band aid. Maybe you’re picturing what its covering. Maybe you’re picturing the accident that precipitated it’s use. Regardless of all that i bet you can see that band aid can’t you? It pops the image a bit doesn’t it? And look – you can pull back from that too! An overturned tricycle, a wailing kid, perfect green lawns, picket fences, the soothing tones of your mom while she puts the band aid on… OR (seeing as we’re in the world of mystery writing now) a reeking wreck of a flop house, rotting food spilled on a table, the smell of rancid milk mixed with a pile of clothes well past their expiration date, and of course… a corpse. With an impeccable, spotless band aid covering a tiny insignificant scratch on his smooth-shaven chin.
I LOVE it.
Have you noticed just how many crime shows there are now that live off of tiny details – even if they bury them under cumbersome plots? Let’s see… just off the top of my head we’ve got Elementary and it’s infinitely superior counterpart Sherlock, we’ve got Psych, The Mentalist, Lie to Me, Bones… The one big thing that distinguishes these shows, much to my chagrin, is that they insist on using details to crack the case. Unfortunately they usually do this by bringing in some outside consultant to pay for their brilliant insight into these details because, you know, your standard homicide detective is an imbecile on these shows – slightly less cro-magnon than their quarry and utterly incapable of the insights necessary to catch a cold without the help of some schmuck from the street.
Right. ‘cuz police departments are so flush with cash that they can spend thousands per case for consultants. Uh huh. Pull the other one.
And really all these consultants ever do is look at the details that the detectives were too myopic to detect, right? But I promise I’m not going to go into that again. I think I’ve made my feelings on tv mysteries pretty clear.
All I really want to say is that I am in love with detail. I want to know which direction a character parts their hair. Do they chew the erasers off of pencils? What brand of cigarettes do they smoke if they smoke, and how much do they smoke, and what does it look like when they smoke? One of my all time favorite novels is Lonesome Dove which is not a mystery at all, of course. If anything it’s a western but it’s awash with brilliant detail: from Pea Eye Parker desperately trying to unbutton himself in the morning before he pees his pants, to the burnt out husk of the old saloon at the very end. It was the first time in literature where I was constantly smacked in the head with detail. I’d read other books of course. In fact I think I ended up working through War and Peace that same year, but it was the first time I read something and wondered why the author had put that there? What purpose to the story did it serve?
The answer, I think, is none and everything.
Detail is the specific, the poetic, the thing that makes something unique. It lives in nouns and verbs and without it you just have the mundane, the standard, and the generalized. Boring people walk. Characters lumber. Joe Schmoe answers a phone but the person who snatches the same phone… who are they? It’s the spider-man band aid. It’s the old yellow toaster over. It’s the lilac and daisy print dress and the 70’s era console television with the chipped plastic glow in the dark jesus on top.
To certain characters like Patrick Jane of The Mentalist and certainly Sherlock Holmes, the specific and the poetic is their life’s work. By using the most minute detail they manage to extract grand deductions about the people they’re dealing with and we love them for it. But, more often than not, detectives in literature and television search for the obvious connections between things. They flounder and flail about in the obvious like idiots in Frankensteins workshop: yanking this lever, pressing that button until something lights up and it works. I don’t know about you but I get a bit sick of it which frequently ends in me yelling at the TV screen in about the thirteenth minute of a show (or the 86th page of a novel)
In my own stories I love letting Meg deduce from the specific. She doesn’t do it all the time because I try, very hard, to be conscious of the fact that deduction is only one tool in the tool box and I really want her to be a competent detective in a world run amuck with literary and televised morons. When it happens I get a little giddy because it’s generally just based off of description I was barely conscious of writing – stuff that I hadn’t really even thought about. Meg takes it and runs with it. It’s fun to watch her mind work these things through and has provided quite the kick to plot when I feel like I’m about to bog down. I’d like to think Doyle probably had a similar feeling of elation as he watched Holmes go rhapsodic over the tiniest little thing. If you read Holmes a little closer you can even see the writing process behind it – you can see where Holmes himself stepped up to retrieve the story and set Doyle on the right course using the details that even Doyle couldn’t decipher.
So. Just as a thought experiment, let’s go back to that Spider-man band aid. Put it in your head and draw back from it. Who’s wearing that band aid? Why did they put it on? What does it say about them? Are they kids? Are they adults? If they’re adults do they have kids? How did they get the band aid? Was it the only thing the convenience store had at the time or did they pick that specifically? If they picked it specifically what does it say about who they are? Was it simply a moment of whimsy or are they generally a whimsical type of person or did they think it was awesomesauce? One little thing can lead to stories, clues, plot lines. It can reveal characters. In your writing you need to be observant enough to notice these things but don’t be afraid to let your protagonist notice it too.
When it comes to writing your detectives take a look at your own environment. Look at it closely. Realize that you have selected it and it says a lot about you. Shouldn’t your characters and creations be given as much life as you give yourself? Don’t you want them to breathe? Or would you rather write cut out box tops from a box of wheaties – folks who can easily exist in any environment. As I put it last week – make yourself into the corpse in your own living room. What would the detectives on the scene know about you instantly without ever having met or spoken to you and how would they know it?
And please don’t make them morons. I’m tired of it. Let them see the details and let them point the way.