You hear a lot in writing circles about “the Telling Detail” that nifty little thing that clinches the scene or the character, making it all just right. Choosing the right well-observed detail can fix the image in the reader’s mind–revealing much more: showing, rather than telling. Only sometimes what the detail tells me is the author doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about!
For instance, the mystery novel where a character with wilderness survival training spends a chapter kidnapped on an island in New Hampshire, teaching his captors how to hunt hedgehogs. Hedgehogs? Now, some folks have different names for the woodchuck, and “hedge pig” is one of them. But no matter what you call them, woodchucks don’t have spikes. This author described in elaborate detail how to trap and kill the hedgehogs without hurting yourself on the spikes. And hedgehogs don’t live in New England.
Or the one whose fictional business suffered a loss because a warehouse fire burned 3000 yards of thread! Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? The author probably picked a random, large number. But you can buy a single spool with that much thread on it. Hardly a setback.
You know the old saw about how it’s not what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you think you know that just ain’t so? The same holds true for details in fiction. We want to be specific–we know that’s important. As I said, the right detail can make the scene pop to life. And the wrong detail can pop the reader right out of your world.
What’s a poor author to do? Start with some solid research. If you want to write about a weaving business, learn the basics. If you can afford the time, choose a setting or subject you already know intimately. Don’t write about the New Hampshire wilderness in detail if you’re not intimately familiar with it! Find a first reader who knows the stuff you don’t. I asked a medical friend to vet the more specific scenes in the first book of my series. I also benefit from two levels of editors who were raised in medical families.
A good detail is a wonderful thing. Find them, use them! But use them with deliberation, ’cause the wrong detail can sink the book for the knowledgeable reader.