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Descriptive Detail in HF

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Julianne Douglas
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Descriptive Detail in HF

Post by Julianne Douglas » Tue August 26th, 2008, 9:34 pm

Okay, here's a question I hope isn't too vague. As a writer, I'm curious to know what kind of descriptive detail you like to find in the historical novels you read. What makes a scene come alive for you? Visual details, smells, textures, sounds? Obviously all are important--I suppose what I'm getting at is how "historical" do you want these details to be? Do you like descriptions of obsolete items? Clothing? Architecture? Feel free to discuss anything that has to do with "scene-setting" in a historical novel. How much detail is too much?
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Post by Misfit » Tue August 26th, 2008, 9:48 pm

Interesting question. I love small (and large) historical details, but the catch is to make them effortless so it doesn't drag the story down. EC's books are the best example I can come up with, the details are so seamless you don't even realize how quickly she's sucked you in to another century. From small details of food/clothing, etc. to smells and sounds.

On the flipside, I had a very hard time with Mistress of the Sun (I know, I'm in the minority) -- the details were so over done and over bearing to the point of distraction from the story.

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Post by Rowan » Tue August 26th, 2008, 9:49 pm

I guess for me, I don't need that much descriptive detail of things, because I can generally find info about them online. Be historically accurate even for the little things. I would expect soldiers to use the proper weapons for their time, etc. What makes things come alive for me is simply the accessibility of the people I'm reading about. Don't sound boring and overly factual or you begin to sound too much like a text book.

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Post by Tanzanite » Tue August 26th, 2008, 9:53 pm

I just finished reading a book that I think is guilty of way too much detail (Colleen McCullough's The October Horse - 1047 pages). I do like the kind of details that you describe - but they don't have to appear in every single scene and they don't need to be repetitive (how many times do I have to be told the Romans ate a particular kind of food!). I'm sure that it's difficult to find the right balance. I've read plenty of books that I accuse of lacking any sort of detail. But for me, too many of those details can bog the story down making it a chore to read and not an enjoyable experience. And even though I remember enjoying reading McCullough's The Thorn Birds in high school, I'm sure that I won't read any of the other books in her Roman series - I've been turned off by the thought of having to plod through all those details.

I appreciate descriptions of obsolete or little known items/words or some kind of context in which you can tell what the thing is or what it was used for. I like descriptions of architecture - especially if the structure is no longer whole or has been dramatically changed. But a three page description might be a little much!

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Post by michellemoran » Tue August 26th, 2008, 10:04 pm

I love descriptions of landscape and food! A close third and fourth would be clothing and jewelry.
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Post by Susan » Tue August 26th, 2008, 10:07 pm

I like description that makes me feel as if I am there. I want to know what the characters are seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, and tasting.
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Post by Leyland » Tue August 26th, 2008, 10:18 pm

I would prefer the same types of details that would be included in a well written contemporary set novel. In other words, just enough to set the scene in the best way possible to make me feel in the moment with the character.

Since what I wrote above might not get my thoughts across all that well, think Mary Stewart. Fans of her books, The Moonspinners, might be able to bear with me. At the beginning of the book, Nicola sees a white bird and a goat path and since it's such a lovely, sunny, dusty day, she takes off after the bird to explore. Every sight, sound, texture, and emotion is so superbly described that it wouldn't matter what century Nicola is living in, I'm there and feel it all.

Many of you know that Mary Stewart paints with words like no other and it seems that quantity just doesn't make up for quality. If I want more information about some particular historical details, I'll look them up, but I don't want to feel dragged out of the moment with a run of lecture material.
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Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Tue August 26th, 2008, 10:30 pm

It all depends on how interested I am in knowing those details. For instance, I can wade through an awful lot of renaissance detail that I would consider poor writing, because I speak at a renaissance symposium and these facts might be gist for some part of my talk. I will put up with a tremendous amount of detail that helps me understand my Muslim friends.

But Colleen McCullough often bores me to tears with her Roman details. For one thing, I already know what she's telling me. And it slows down the story. Her Australian books didn't do that -- maybe because I don't know that much about Australia?

I don't see any reason why HF should be different from contemporary fiction in this regard. You don't stop to describe the kind of car James Bond is driving unless it has something to do with the scene.
Otherwise, what's important is that it gets him from here to there. Now if the passenger seat has a secret 'launch the bad guy into space' mechanism, it would be important to know that it was a sports car with a sun roof. And if some readers didn't know that a certain make/model had a sun roof, you might mention that ol' 007 casually slid it open before pressing the eject-bad-guy button.

Far better to make the details part of the story. If they don't further the plot or the characterizations, leave them out, or figure a way to weave that in. So if the roads are unpaved and muddy, have the lady dirty her dress, and make that play into something important coming up.

I'm trying to think of examples that were done really well. MM Kaye can do that, but she also beats you over the head with an excess of plot-clogging history in places. It is one of the best things about Clavell's Shogun, that his whole story involves the minutiae of an alien culture, and each detail is important, often life-or-death. So the reader is as fascinated by them as the protagonist is.

Geraldine Brooks did a nice job in Year of Wonders (disclaimer: stupid ending) when she made lead-mining an important sub-plot and forced the protagonist to endure all the dangerous processes involved.

The Thrall's Tale had TOO MUCH INFORMATION. I do not need to hear in detail about how excreta piled up inside the house in a Greenland winter, and how long it took to clean it out. Not unless it had something to do with the plot, which it didn't.

Cecelia Holland makes her details part of the plot. You learn a lot, although it makes her novels rather slow-paced. But they are very seamless in that regard. In fact, the more detail included, the slower the plot, on average. On the other hand, the novel Pompeii did a nice job of making every detail part of tightening the screws as you waited for Vesuvius to explode.

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Post by LCW » Tue August 26th, 2008, 10:58 pm

I like to picture a scene in my mind like a movie. I want enough detail to get an accurate picture in my mind but not too much that it overshadows the plot. It should enhance, not detract from what is actually occuring in the scene.

So I guess I like a balance of the description of the architecture, furniture, lighting, clothing, etc. Oh, and food! I love descriptions of the food!

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Post by boswellbaxter » Tue August 26th, 2008, 11:01 pm

A little goes a long way with me. I like the occasional "telling detail," but when description goes on for a while, the writer had better be very, very good or I start skimming.
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