How to find details for a story when you’re not good at them

Sunlight showing through the trees
The trees hadn’t quite bloomed when I visited Mason Neck Park for research.

I admit it.  I’m terrible with details. 

I can look at a place, see all the details, come back, and not remember a single one of them.  They all merge with the big picture.  So all the things I see at the beach turns into beach, sand, and water, and I forget about a bunch of stuff I did see.

So I’ve learned these three work arounds:

1. Ask questions about the place

No matter the location, I ask questions about specifics.  If we’re in the woods, then the questions might be:

  • What kind of trees are here?
  • What kind of birds live in these woods?
  • What sounds do they make?

Which leads to the second workaround:

2. Take notes live at the site

Visit the location with a notebook and write down everything.  I went to Mason Neck Park, which is located on Pohick Bay and noted all kinds of things:

  • Flies buzzing past.
  • Warmth of sun
  • Long ago fallen tree being gnawed away

Mason Neck Park was a substitution.  I couldn’t go to the actual location of the setting, which is in Hawaii, so I had to make do.  Woods are pretty universal in how to they operate.  I’m planning on going to Virginia Beach for the beach experience (yes, pictures!).

After I get back, I pretty them up in notes.  I plan to do these trips at different times of the year, since Spring is different than Winter.

3. Research

The library is my friend for looking up specific names of plants.  I usually just make a note in the manuscript with something like:

(Name of tree) towered overhead.

Then I can hit the library once I have enough details to research, preferably ones in the same detail family.

I’ve mentioned some of the things I do in passing and have had people pop up in surprise and say, “That’s what I do!”  So we’re not alone.  If you have trouble with details, what do you do?

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