Description in Writing: What Details Do You Prefer?


I really only have one rule when it comes to settings in novels. Don’t write [at least not extensively] about a place you have not been. The reasons are obvious. To create, for the reader, a sense or a “feel” of the place, I really think you have to experience it. If you haven’t come face to face with the detail, then how can you convey any kind of credible impression?

My experience of New York City, London or Venice won’t be the same as yours. Why not? Because we are different people, with different experiences in this world. Our temperaments may be very different, too.

A friend once described me as “oblivious.” We were sitting in a restaurant. She was highly observant of the people at the next table. She could tell me what each person was wearing, how they spoke and what they did. I, on the other hand, was scarcely aware that they were even there. [The reason for her conclusion about my powers of observation.] I guess I perceived that there were bodies at that table, but I had not paid much attention.

“Why not?” she asked.

In my own defence, I argued that I was not oblivious, but merely looking at other things.

“Such as?” she asked.

There is was stumped. Truth was, I had been having one of my introspective moments—probably ruminating [processing] something that had happened ten minutes ago. Trying to knit the world together one moment at a time!

So there you have it—a simple distinction between the introvert and the extrovert. As an introvert, I take time to mull things over matching things up with past, present and future events, times and places.

Does that help or hinder the writer? If challenged, how would my friend write about that evening at the restaurant? I do not doubt that she would include many details of the meals served, what we both were wearing, the waiter, and the people at the other table.

If I were to write about the same dinner, I would probably fasten on entirely different aspects. Yes, I might well include something about the food—especially if it were important in other ways. If it were a dinner of fish, rice and vegetables, I might work that into a meal I had in the Far East, which might lead me to cultural comparisons. I would very likely write about our conversation. How did it fit together with other conversations we’ve had? How did the conversations reflect our personalities? Maybe it would remind me of something another person had said in similar circumstances and I would work that in.

And so you can see, that I’m always trying to relate one thing to another to create an overall view or impression. It’s the difference between reporting on something and telling a story. The writer has to pick and choose relevant details to use in description and try to keep an eye on the bigger picture you want to create and its significance. At least that’s my excuse or rather defence to charge of being oblivious.

So, to sum it all up? I think I’d rather try to select the detail to use rather than report the detail. Many years ago, I was in a writing seminar of the Canadian writer, Wayson Choy. I’ll always remember his admonition—to avoid adding one too many rhinestones in your writing. Good advice! Don’t go over the top and swamp the reader with a barrage of irrelevant [although stunningly beautiful] detail. Better to select just a few and work them into a cohesive “whole”.. It’s tempting to put in tons of description especially in a place you love—Venice. But I tried to avoid overpowering both A Trial of One and The Drawing Lesson, with too much of my favourite city. At least that’s what I try to do!

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About Mary E. Martin

Mary E. Martin grew up in Toronto, Canada. After earning an Honors Degree in History at the University of Toronto, she graduated with her law degree from Queens University, Kingston, Ontario. In 1973, she was called to the Bar of Ontario and began the general practice of law in Toronto, with emphasis on real estate, wills and estates and elder-care law. This law practice of more than 30 years was a great inspiration for The Osgoode Trilogy ("Conduct in Question," "Final Paradox" and "A Trial of One.") Her fourth novel, “The Drawing Lesson,” will be the first in the next trilogy, provisionally entitled “The Trilogy of Rmembrance.” She is also a photographer particularly with respect to her travels. She has had two commercial photography shows. Married in 1973, she and her husband live in Toronto. They have three adult children.
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