One of the things I wrestle with (okay, regular readers will know I wrestle with everything) is how much of the everyday to put into my books. By that, I mean cooking, eating, going to the loo, having a period*, shaving, washing up, having a bath, squeezing zits…you get the picture. For example, the opening scene to the pretty-okay Roman military historical novel Under The Eagle by Simon Scarrow is set in the official centurions’ latrines and I wonder whether the whole point of the scene is to enable Scarrow to drop in the ever-so-important historical detail of a ‘sponge-on-a-stick‘ (warning! Link goes to a clip from a popular UK children’s TV show. It doesn’t pull any punches). The detail certainly grounds you in a very different time and place but it also sets up an expectation for a similar level of grit and (dirty) realism that isn’t necessarily met. You could probably classify it as a ‘token detail’, the kind of little touches that stick out because they have to carry too heavy a load in terms of grounding a text in a different kind of reality. And I suppose the other problem Scarrow has is that there simply isn’t a sufficiently colloquial English term for ‘sponge on a stick’.
Science fiction writers have long had a list of accepted conventions dealing with the everyday ‘realities’ for hardcore readers. Everyone knew what a blaster or hyperspace was by the mid-forties – for all of the modish accoutrements of sex, explicit violence and swearing, the average reader of E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith in 1925 would have very little difficulty diving into the latest Iain M. Banks. Toilets, however, seldom feature. Nor bad hair days. Detective novels have a different set of ‘everyday living’ conventions – Sara Paretsky’s (marvellous, by the way) V.I. Warshawski is forever taking showers, going for runs or eating (detectives eat a lot, don’t they? Is that why they do so much running?) and the ‘real life’ element is something that seems to transition into a lot of urban thrillers.
How does this appear in my own writing, particularly with regard to the YA ‘parallelish-world-urban-rural-steampunk-fantasy’ I’m working on?
I suppose constantly ask myself how far I should go. For example, I had a long, coma-inducing scene of vegetable peeling and cooking until I encountered the Venerable Diana Wynne Jones’ skewering of ‘ colourful canal folk who make you cook’ in her Tough Guide To Fantasyland. In retrospect, the whole purpose of the scene was to have a male character pushed into cooking by a female character, an ideological trope parachuted in from another context altogether and probably saying more about my own guilty conscience than the state of mind of the characters. Plus, it was a very boring scene and the forward momentum was better off without it.
So when should I use domestic detail or otherwise? It can be a powerful tool for embedding you into a foreign or fantastic context, for ‘making things strange’ but can be equally distracting. I suppose it comes down to the usual craft cliché of “Does it advance the story?” I have a number of odd little details which aren’t just there to provide scenery – they progress the story or our understanding of the characters and the world they live a degree and that progression is hopefully what people will take away with them. The ultimate example of this could be Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy in Ulysses. At one level, it’s nothing more than a river(run) of tiny details but the cumulative effect is one of total immersion in Molly’s inner life. In Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games, Haymitch’s vomit isn’t just a comedy moment, it also tells us a lot about that characters inner nihilism and despair.
And there you have it – the detail has to serve the story or get ruthlessly cut out. Does anyone else struggle with this?
* The politics of men writing about periods is a whole other post but it always smacks of a “Look at me! I’m a man and I’m secure enough to write normatively about periods!” kind of desperation.
** “…picked up a potato and began to clumsily wrestle with…” and on and on. You really don’t want to know.