Wednesday, June 21, 2006

JK: Last Chance Detail, Part 3

Once I know what the story is really about, then each scene and each detail is evaluated for whether it helps move the story along or just gets in the reader’s way. In the second book of the series that I just completed called A Tendering in the Storm, Emma waits for letters from home and her younger sister tells her much about what’s happening in the colony she left behind. She may learn through her sister how the roles there are changing now that a quarter of the colony has moved west with the charismatic leader, while three quarters of the colony remains behind, planning to come out “sometime” just not when. Through her sister’s letters, I’m hoping the reader will see what Emma might have faced if she’d remained behind.

Yet the mere mention of such letters can set me thinking for hours about the details. How often would Emma have responded to her sister? How much would she have shared about the struggles going on in this newer colony in the West? How long did it take for a letter to arrive from a lonely Pacific Coast community back to a family member in Missouri? Who carried it? (That is, when did the Pony Express first bring letters from Sacramento to St. Louis and would Emma’s missive have traveled that way or some other route?) With what did Emma write (lead, blackberry juice ink?). What kind of paper: vellum or parchment or the backs of delivery labels? Was the supply short? Did each woman write “between the lines” or diagonally to make more room, or with a pencil so it could be erased and the paper used again?

The answers to those questions might result in a single comment from one sister to another about how the blackberry juice ink fades, and so Emma’s sister couldn’t understand everything Emma wrote to her. Or perhaps she complains that Emma doesn’t write often enough even though now the “Pony Express would deliver a letter in less than a month,” with her reference telling us about their relationship more than the Pony Express.

Alas, it’s in revision where I find a detail I was certain a reader would want to know must be cut because it fails to show the reader anything about the relationships, the characters' work, their spiritual journey or the landscape. It was just an intriguing fact and it must be cut. That’s the worst.

Lately though I’ve been saved by the inclusion of an Author’s note or reader’s guide sections of the book! It’s a great new place to add a detail that can help the reader stay inside the story.
What matters about revision and detail and history is how a reader is invited into one’s story. Part of a prayer I have attached to my computer says “Help me enter and live my story” so a reader will enter and live there too. A mention of an inappropriate writing tool for the time period can take the reader back out to present day life, the laundry that needs doing, or the dishes that should be washed. That’s the last thing we writers want them to do. We want readers to stay in the story, and the kind of detail we fashion, shape and feign through our fiction helps do just that.

Jane Kirkpatrick's award-winning historical novels can be found at


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