Battlefield of Details

There’s been a discussion on a message board about if you would research the weather for a particular day in history at a particular location for your story.  Not because there was a major historical storm in that time frame, but just for “accuracy” or for that one reader who would fact check it.  Since I’m not detail-oriented, that’s the bottom level of details that I’m most likely to get wrong because I don’t always know the right questions to ask once I find the information.  I’m just looking at the fact and going, “Okay, X happened here” and I’m done.  Meanwhile, I’ve missed asking an important question that would make how I’m using the detail wrong.

Since details are such a weak point for me, fighting with them will be unproductive.  What details do I have the most trouble with (aside from all of them)?  The worst are the ones everyone refers to when they talk details — looking up a date in history for the weather;  finding the exact real location in a city where a scene takes place; showing a character’s personality by how he touches his hat.  The smaller the detail, the worse it is for me.

So what I did was pick my battles.  I made my cutoff point on details at those small ones that give me so much trouble.  Take the example of the weather on a specific date.  I’d start out by making the time setting more generic.  It isn’t Memorial Day Weekend –it’s late spring.  That means I could hit a tourist book and get general research on the weather for spring in that area.   Then I would connect it into the bigger picture of the story.  It’s part of the setting, probably part of the world building, and can I do anything to aggravate the characters in the story with it?

A couple of examples:

I had a scene I was writing where a character uses some of her magic.  As part of it, I weighed in on a detail — soil layers, of all things — that I was planning to do quick research on.  This one made me wary, because it’s the kind I tend to really get into trouble on.  I end up with too many, lose control of the story, and things get really ugly.  This is the process I went through:

1.  Is it necessary?  If no, the detail is gone.  If yes, next question.  That gets rid of things like looking up trees to give a street a name.

2.  What else does it accomplish?  It cannot be in there for the sake of being a neat detail.  It has to have other purposes.  In this case, the detail helped forshadow a major complication in the story.  It also contained an important piece of world building (yes, soil layers!) on how a specific character’s magic worked.

I did keep it more generalized, since it wasn’t a science lesson on soil but simply showing the character working her magic.

With another piece of the story, the same questions yielded a different result.  The scene was one that had come from the original draft and was being reused with revisions.  It included the fire department — I’d decided at that point I was going to keep one of the firemen characters.  But I had a problem.  The story had changed substantially that I now needed to do research for this scene.  I could already see that trying to get the details about firemen right for this one scene would require fairly significant revision of the scenes around it — and possibly parts of the story because there was something in there that was now broken by the way the story changed.

So when I asked if it was necessary for these details, I weighed in on whether I needed firemen in the story.  Maybe not.  But that meant there had to be a reason they weren’t there.  Connected it up into the big picture.  Ah ha!  Country doesn’t have a whole lot of money, so small fire department.  Country has a tuna factory for industry.  A lot of worker houses are near the factory.  Big fire at the tuna factory takes away the fire department.  And it was far less revision than fixing everything to accomodate the fire department details.  I’m adding a small scene near the factory which does other things, plus a couple of references.  Plus one of the minor characters is freaking out because he wanted the fire department to come, not the main character.

It’s important to pick your battles.  Spending time wrestling with a weakness is not productive, but finding a different way to do things is.