I recently read a book where a character was learning to fly a small jet. The character was already an experienced pilot, but hadn't been trained on this type of aircraft. The author is also a pilot, and as I read the scene—pages and pages of it—it was clear enough to me that the author was simply showing his readers how much he knew about the topic.
To me, it was a hair-pulling couple of chapters. Maybe pilots enjoy it, but to me, it would be like showing a person learning how to drive a car, and following the along as they learned where to put the key, how to turn it, where the brakes were, and then followed along every inch of driveway and road on their first excursion. Had absolutely nothing to do with the story other than getting the character qualified so he could drive the company plane.
The trick to showing details is not to show the reader how much research you've done, but to use only what the POV character needs to show in the scene. If it's a naïve character, then they're likely to be thinking more about the details, either a how-to, or a more detailed description as they absorb new surroundings. But if they're experienced, then they're probably barely going to think about things. How often do you walk into your bedroom and notice the color of paint on the wall, or the precise shade of blue of your bedspread?
In DANGER IN DEER RIDGE, a character shows up at the heroine's door with a plant as a gift. He's trying to establish a landscaping business, and it seemed like an appropriate offering—especially since he wants to plant it in her yard with a small sign advertising his company.
Since I set the book in the area where I live, and I haven't lived here long, I didn't really know what kind of a plant my guy would be giving her. I know we can't do any serious landscaping where we live—between the deer and the watering restrictions, nothing would survive. When I was ready to replace the XXX research plants notation in my manuscript, I searched for information on xeriscaping in the Colorado mountains, and came up with some possible plants. I didn't need to know much more about them than what they looked like—did they have flowers, and if so, what color—and that they'd grow where my scene was set. As long as the scene wasn't about the heroine trying to landscape her yard, there was no reason to go into detail.
This is the final scene. In it I hope I've given the reader enough information without pontificating or slowing the story.“Hi,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind me stopping by unannounced, but I wanted to give you this. Consider it a housewarming gift.” She fingered the oval green leaves and tiny yellow flowers. “What is it?”
“A Siberian peashrub. Caragana arborescen, if you want to get technical.” “It’s lovely, but a gift isn’t necessary.” “My pleasure, although I’ll confess to an ulterior motive.” What motive? Her heart jumped. She shifted into what she considered her social mode. How many dreary events had she endured as the loving wife of Victor? She knew how to be polite, how to pretend to listen to boring conversation, and how to excuse herself when she couldn’t tolerate any more. Not that there was anywhere to go with Mr. Logan on her porch. She gave him a polite smile. “What would that be?” “If you’ll let me plant it—and a few more—it’ll be good advertising for my business.” “I’m not sure that’s a smart idea. I’m not much of a gardener. I’m afraid dead plants won’t have customers seeking your services.” He chuckled. “That’s not a problem. I specialize in xeriscaping.” “What’s xeriscaping? Sounds complicated.” “Not in the least. Means I use plants that grow in this climate, without you having to water them, or do much of anything.”
In another scene, in my current WIP, I have two detectives trying to solve what is probably a homicide. As I mentioned in last week's post, I listen in as they discuss the case, and write what they're saying. But as I wrote, I realized I wasn't sure what the proper cop 'lingo' would be when they're talking about the deceased woman.
I emailed a cop contact (if you write any kind of crime fiction and haven't found Lee Lofland's blog, The Graveyard Shift, get over there!) and asked him whether they'd refer to her as 1) Felicity; 2) Felicity Markham; 3) Markham; or 4) Miss Markham. Then, on a whim, I stuck in a #5 – 'the victim'
He answered almost immediately: We never call them by name, We'd refer to her as the victim (note: not, 'vic' as in television). Coincidentally, I ran into a local retired homicide detective while I was waiting for my car to get new tires. I asked him the same question. He said, "Either d.b. (for dead body) or "Victim." And, since the third time's the charm, while we were having breakfast at our usual Sunday haunt, we started chatting with another couple who's there regularly. We were talking about books and reading tastes, and turns out he's retired from law enforcement and fire fighting. So, of course, I asked him, and he also said, 'victim' because they don't like to personalize the victims when they're working a case.
In the manuscript, I'll use these bits of "reality" although I won't stop the story to explain. The goal is for the scene to sound like two cops talking, and why in the world would they stop to tell each other why they're using the term "victim" instead of "Felicity Markham?"
And one more thing to note: People are almost always happy to talk to you about their jobs. The best research is the first-hand sort, so cultivate those contacts.
Causes Terry Odell Supports
Pro Literacy Worldwide, The Nature Conservancy, The Adult Literacy League, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society