I have just been writing about shoes for one of my day jobs. And, I confess, enjoying it. I drooled over a pair of red Naturalizer clogs I couldn't afford and pondered with amazement the many physiological aids built into one athletic shoe that caught my eye mainly because it was colorful and looked just so cool. A pity I don't run enough to justify such a purchase. Well, it was like window shopping. Sometimes one simply needs an excuse to look at nice things that one can resist the urge to buy.
I also looked up pictures of bedrooms and wedding outfits in between reading about shoes. This was for the story that I'm currently working on. I have the plot down and am still considering whether I'll still add to to it. In the meantime, though, I can fill in details that I merely set down most cursorily and have fun doing it. I chose colors for two principal characters' bedrooms and am now filling in the details, all the way up to the pictures on the wall. I have to confess I once started a story about an interior decorator. The trouble was, I got so caught up describing the bedrooms she decorated that I failed to develop the plot.
There was some danger of that happening here when I got to the weddings. I had to hold myself back from dreaming up every last detail, to the invitations and favors. This is not Griffin and Sabine, and sadly I have no excuse to put an actual custom-designed wedding invitation in the pages of the book, though I wish I could. I'm quite fond of designing invitations; I take a lot of trouble over the ones for my daughter's birthday parties.
But though every writer is aware that little things mean a lot in characterization, there is a limit to what you can actually include and still keep the reader--not to mention the writer!--focused on the story. There was this Sidney Sheldon novel, Rage of Angels, I think, where right in the middle the high-powered lawyer decides to decorate a nursery. Would you believe I was irritated by that chapter? I could accept she should decorate, and it was nice of her and it brought out her feminine side and all that, but I thought it took too much time from the plot. It was more the length of time devoted to it that I objected to. I might feel differently now, though if I were to reread it, since I now have children myself.
Partly how much of these little details that proves to be useful without being distracting is relative. Laurie R. King, in commenting about the way she depicts the relationship between Holmes and his wife in her series says that she finds it fun, of course, to put in personal details about their relationship. And certainly it is necessary to some extent because it would seem strange if they did not show their intimacy. But to put in too much of that, she said, " would be like having a meal made up almost entirely of desserts."
That's the question, really. How much dessert is too much? I admit to having a sweet tooth, and last night I had a caramel bar, a chocolate-chip cookie (or two) and a slice of cake for dessert--washed down with my requisite milk. And I'm the kind of person who must try as wide a selection of desserts as possible at a party buffet. But healthy substantial food before, and along with, the desserts.
Unlike at meals, the "desserts" in writing are usually spread out in between the meaty parts. Perhaps dessert is not as suitable a term (begging your pardon, Laurie) as garnish. Garnish is usually not necessary, but it makes the meal more attractive, giving you an appetite for it. And it can make the food taste better sometimes, but you don't lose much by discarding it. Of course, some garnish can really be showstoppers, like those fancy flowers carved from vegetables. But they're still just decorations, enhancements, related to and coordinating with your food but not an essential part of it.
For the writer, though, they may also help in motivating one to keep writing, just as kids like to make food that looks fun, like shaped sandwiches and such. I do know some people whose writings start out mostly with the fun parts. But after reading all the descriptions of fascinating characters and places you feel like someone who's spent his meal just picking at the garnish. You feel dissatisfied, asking for the meat because the sprigs of parsely and the carrot curlicues simply did not fill you up. This cannot go on too long.
I think I'm fairly safe with my story now because the basic structure is there already. What I might be in danger of doing is obscuring that good plain meal with elaborate vegetable carvings. Or even be focused on contemplating pictures of fancy garnish and forget or take overly long to actually work on the meal.