Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Secret's in the Details...and a GIVEAWAY of GRAND CENTRAL

Jenna Blum, Alyson Richman, Kristina McMorris, Julia, Sarah McCoy, Karen White...
Just half of the authors of one of my favorite reads of the year.
I love being a reviewer because I am able to discover hidden gems, books that might not have been on my radar but become some of my treasured keepsakes.

So it was gravy to get to meet the authors of one of my favorite reads of the year.

Melanie Benjamin, Jenna Blum, Amanda Hodgkinson, Pam Jenoff, Sarah Jio, Sarah McCoy, Kristina McMorris, Alyson Richman, Erika Robuck, and Karen White are all bestselling authors who have tackled the tough subjects of the Holocaust and World War II in Grand Central, a heartwarming and kleenex-worthy anthology. 

Listening to these authors and reading this collection, I was struck again by the importance of details and how the right ones turn an ordinary book into an exceptional one. In this case the reader falls head over heels for the characters of these stories because of the breathtaking detail.

Alyson Richman's main character plays piano in Grand Central Terminal. As he sees the woman of his dreams across the room, it is impossible not to feel the vibrations of love in the air.

"She had just come up from the subway, her green silk dress fluttering like the ruffled edge of tulip leaves...But her movements were somehow old-fashioned and slightly tentative, the way a person who wasn't born in America might search for the right coins in her purse, or how someone new to Manhattan might pull slightly away when someone's sleeve brushed against their own." (Alyson Richman, "Going Home")

In a moment I'm transported into Gregori's world. I, too, am captivated by this beautiful girl and cheering him on in his journey to get her to notice him. Coming up from the train, I see her as a Marilyn Monroe type creature, vivacious and daring, yet a minute later my view is tempered as I see the contrast in her character through Gregori's eyes. Richman has created an intriguing girl in Liesel, before I even know her name I am enthralled.

What details can you add that might show even more shades of your main characters, supporting characters, and even antagonist?

Sometimes we only know a character by a single small detail. I haven't seen the movie Schindler's List since eighth grade but will never forget the girl in the red coat who seems to signify Oskar Schindler finally taking note of the tragedy around him and finding a determination to make a difference. 

"It was a large bloodstain [the Holocaust], a primary color on everyone's radar, but no one did anything about it. And that's why I wanted to bring the red in," according to Steven Spielberg.

Likewise, a scarf defines an otherwise unknown character in Jenna Blum's "The Lucky One." Peter flashbacks to a key moment in his life as he searches for a scarf for his daughter at his wife's bequest, hoping to prevent illness in his beloved child.

"He spotted an elderly woman nearby, as bulky with the furs as a racoon...His father would have taken it, Peter was sure...But what if the old lady had spores in her lungs, like Peter's mother, and his snatching the shawl was her death warrant?" (Jenna Blum, "The Lucky One")

One tiny detail captures the reader's attention and with timing takes on epic importance. During this single moment of contemplation, Peter is pushed on to a train bound for Terezin work camp. 

How can you change your story by allowing sensory detail to play even more of a key role during critical junctures of your story as Blum does expertly here?

In "I'll Walk Alone" by Erika Robuck the main character is watchful as she sits with her son at the Oyster Bar, waiting with dread for the return of a loved one. 

"Seated across from us are another set of lovers--a soldier and a young woman who is as primped and pressed as I am but altogether different. She is fair with brown eyes. She wears a pale blue dress with sleeves that puff at the top, and a matching headband. Light radiates from her, and her beau is basking in it. She reaches up and runs her hand over his face." (Erika Robuck, "I'll Walk Alone)

In an instant the reader is struck by the contrast between the two women. Watching the lovestruck couple is an emotional barometer into Josie and Mitch's own tumultuous relationship. 

How can you use observations about one character to reflect the inner world of another character?

A flower is used as contrasting symbolism in two stories of Grand Central. It is intriguing to watch details take on a fresh meaning for each character. The authors have connected the stories into a seemless whole, though each is an entirely different take on love and reunion. 

Reading Grand Central, I fell in love with the beautiful details of one of my favorite eras of history. As a writer I was struck anew by the importance of these little pieces to make our own novels sing.

Interested in reading this book? 




Glynis said...

I've never written a piece set in a different time period but I enjoy reading lots of setting like medieval, Victorian, or turn-of-the-century.

Mary Vee Writer said...

This is a fantastic post. You bring out the issue that setting, images are not enough. Purposefully choosing a color or item to connect the story to an image stored in the reader's mind is key.

Have I put these clues in mine? Yes. Not intentionally at first. In later chapters I saw it there, tucked in the text and used it to weave a thread.

Thanks, Julia!!

Rachelle O'Neil said...

Symbolic details can be one of the most beautiful parts of stories, in my opinion. That being said, I haven't come anywhere close to mastering the use of them yet! Still, it's definitely something I want to strive toward getting better at!

My all-time favorite period to read about is WW2, which puts this anthology right up my alley. It's hard to pinpoint exactly why that's my favorite period, but I think the sheer potential for story really draws me in. So much was going on at that time, on the world stage and the on the home front. People were called to face extraordinary circumstances, and I love seeing them rise to meet the challenges. So, I'd love the chance to win this giveaway! Thanks, Julia! My email is rachelloneilwriter@gmail.com

Ashley Clark said...

Sounds like such an interesting story, Julia, and I love that picture of you! Great suggestions on the blog today! Coming up with really specific, unique descriptors is something I have to do in my editing process, because I've found in my first draft, the characters tend to smile and cross their arms a lot! HA! Great post!

Julia M. Reffner said...

It seems my comments went into the great google abyss, so here it goes.


I'm pretty new to historical as well. I love reading Victorian and turn of the century, too. My all-time favorite Victorian author to read probably being the ever popular Mr. Dickens. Thanks for stopping by, you're entered for this great read!


We really remember that single smell or color don't we, sometimes it can be more powerful than a whole batch of details, IMO. I must confess to the same thing, I don't realize the symbolism I do use until I read it later. Then I become more intentional.

Julia M. Reffner said...


I love that moniker. WWII is my favorite period to read about and if you don't win, I totally recommend getting ahold of this book through Amazon or your local library.

As I write this the UPS man just rang the bell with another WWII novel, Kristy Cambron's The Butterfly & The Violin. Can't wait to give this debut author a try!


I totally get that. We all have different "go to" descriptors don't we. I've found my main characters tend to touch their face an awful lot. I always end up having to edit that out. :)

Michelle said...

I love to read about civil war times or current day in romantic suspense. There are so many great books though, I hate to narrow it down to one time period.

Rachelle O'Neil said...


Aw, thanks! I'll definitely keep my eyes open for it! The Butterfly and the Violin looks really interesting! I've got in on my To Read list now!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Those details you shared take my breath away! The first one in particular creates such a vivid picture - love it!

Julia M. Reffner said...


I love the Civil War, too. Definitely one of my favorite eras.


What's neat is the author's husband is a musician. I love the little details as the musician watches (and falls in love) with the dancer.