I'm not talking about using heaps of description. Let's face it, your reader is most likely to skim right over endless paragraphs of flowery, adjective-laden prose.
I'm talking about those small, concrete details that make a scene ring true to life. A character feel real. A setting come alive so you can practically touch, smell and taste it.
These details are often simple, but the most powerful examples never feel clichéd. The author finds a way to describe something ordinary in a way that feels fresh, yet also deeply familiar.
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"She was a big rawboned plain person, tall and unlikely, with a ragged haircut and a white tee-shirt coming unstitched along the shoulder." - The Idea of Perfection, Kate Grenville
"The coffee was so strong it didn't change color when she poured the milk in. 'You look different,' she said. We sat down at her dining room table, gilded chairs with harp backs. She pulled out small mats with Dutch tulips for our cups." - White Oleander, Janet Fitch
"The guy's wearing a khaki uniform, maybe he's come up from the engine room. He kneels, sets up some kind of monitor, and positions two things with black cords coming out of them on Mr. Stone's battered chest. He has short, blunt fingers with black hairs on them." - The Last Girls, Lee Smith.
"It was 1948 and the countryside, now that I think back on it, was as peaceful and well-ordered as an illustration from a Dick-and-Jane book. Lone gasoline pumps, fields flowered over like bedspreads. Trees turning perfectly red and perfectly yellow. At the entrance to the fairgrounds, a billboard showed a lipsticked, finger-waved housewife holding up a jar of homemade preserves."
In each of these examples, notice that the choice of detail is quite precise and deliberate. What do you think the author is trying to say about the character or setting she is describing?
In these next examples, the authors engage our senses in unexpected ways.
"The horses were behind them, still harnessed but unhitched from the plough, cropping grass with a sound like tearing bed sheets. The tea came out of a thermos but was still hot enough to take the roof off your mouth." - The Other Side of the Bridge, Mary Lawson
"Her hair, the color of caramel straw, was very straight and tattered at the ends; she was chewing gum and a strong smell of Juicy Fruit was coming off her."- The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
"There was the barbecue with the men around it poking at the cooking meat, and a big table in the shade under a tree, the food all covered with little domes of fly-wire, and a square of bright blue swimming-pool where children were jumping in, splashing up water that was like chips of glass in the sun." - The Idea of Perfection, Kate Grenville
Which of these examples says something to you as a reader? What feelings or associations or ideas do they conjure?
Your turn. Would you share with us a sentence or two from your WIP where you've used a concrete detail to illuminate a character or setting?
Karen Schravemade lives in Australia, where she mothers by day and transforms into a fearless blogger by night. She's a Genesis finalist for women's fiction and is represented by Rachel Kent of Books & Such. Find her on Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, and getting creative on her home-making blog, A house full of sunshine.