5 Minor Details that Can Enhance Your Story

August 8, 2019

Research can be a hassle. Still, most of us writers agree that we need to understand the facts to portray different places and times authentically.

 

But sometimes we’re so focused on wars and revolutions, architecture, and major landmarks that we forget the smaller details. The elements in a character’s immediate environment have the power to either distract readers or plunge them into a vibrant setting. If we put care into those areas, our stories will feel real.

 

1. Food

Your characters will likely eat during the story, and whether it’s a brief action or an entire scene around the kitchen table, the items on their plates must be believable. The culture, time period, technology, and the availability of ingredients all need to be considered.

 

During the first draft of my dystopian novel, I looked up pioneer rations in the 1800s, since my society had fallen to similar conditions. I gave the characters a diet of bread, meats, and vegetables. However, in my most recent rewrite, I realized that the isolated community would be unable to buy supplies for bread baking and seeds for planting. Wild game with little seasoning wouldn’t taste like five-star steak dinners either. So I had to simplify their provisions, which I think will make the final product more convincing.

 

As another example, I beta read a fantasy novel with a Roman-inspired setting a few years ago. The weapons, clothing, and architecture were all consistent. Then the characters sat down to a meal of cornbread and beans, and I screeched to a halt. The stereotypical cowboy grub conflicted with all the other fantastic worldbuilding. I still enjoyed and finished the story, but authors risk losing readers when a piece of the backdrop is incongruent.

 

2. Clothes

Speculative fiction authors have a slight advantage. Earthly customs and trends don’t influence their worlds. Or so they argue.

 

Regardless of your genre, you should keep stereotypes and preconceptions in mind. Readers can distinguish a medieval doublet from a Victorian waistcoat, and a cowhand’s getup from a space walker’s uniform. Straying beyond those boundaries will ruin the suspension of disbelief rather than spice up the story. People appreciate the unique but also gravitate to the familiar.

 

Though you don’t need to describe every outfit stitch by stitch, you should allow for limitations that could affect the story. I recently discovered that lavender dye didn’t exist in medieval days, so my princess’s gown couldn’t be that color. Only a history buff would notice, but changing the fabric wasn’t a big deal.

 

Have you ever seen one of those cop shows where a woman goes undercover to bust a gang? She maneuvers with ease in stilettos, her makeup never smears, and her wig remains flawless. Cue the eye roll. Your scenes will be more relatable and tense if the hero struggles under the weight of his armor, or the maiden trips while running in hoop skirts. 

 

3. Settings

Any object or societal structure that fills a character’s surroundings has the potential to either disorient or ground readers. When I received a critique on the first chapter of my dystopian, the hodgepodge of modern, historic, and futuristic elements prevented my reader from identifying the time period. If a book is more confusing than captivating, it’s in danger of being shelved, so I knew I needed to revise. 

 

The Selection by Kiera Cass suffers from this issue. The opening chapters introduce a monarchy, social classes, and a war between the United States and China. If the author had clearly established the time period sooner, the blend of old-fashioned traditions and futuristic problems would have been interesting instead of baffling.

 

In another manuscript I was beta reading, soldiers carried swords, houses had parlors and Victorian style furniture, and trains were the primary mode of transportation. When the hero finally confronted the villain, he spun around in a swivel chair. The story featured technology—even computers. But the author had painstakingly shown the Victorian overlay, and the swivel chair clashed with what I had been trained to picture for this world. 

 

Though the above scenarios are from speculative fiction, the concepts apply to all genres. If you write about a Nebraskan pioneer family living in a four-bedroom log cabin, you didn’t do your research. Nebraskan prairie homes were usually one room and constructed with sod or dug into a hillside due to trees being sparse. Depicting the struggles of that lifestyle will humanize the characters so that readers root for their survival.

 

4. Language

The year is 1850 in a dusty cowtown. The hero dismounts and wipes the sweat off his face before jerking the rigging loose on his saddle. “I’m pulling out early. I promised Mary I’d take her to the dance in town tonight.”

 

“Okay, cool,” says his partner. “See you tomorrow.”

 

“Cool?” The hero raises an eyebrow. “I thought it was hot.”

 

The wrong terminology can derail a conversation between characters and date your work. If a character shouts “YOLO!” before leaping from a plane with a parachute, readers will assume the story is happening (or was written) a few years ago because no one says that anymore. Be sure to research the common slang for the era you’re writing in—and check that the meanings haven’t become offensive.

 

The words you choose set the tone for the whole story. In my latest WIP about a Viking girl, the scenery, clothing, weapons, and narrative all fit the culture. Except the warriors sounded like modern American teenagers. Though I didn’t insert any words like yeet, mood, or meme, their dialogue lacked a distinct flavor. So I archived the file until I can research how Vikings talked. I might need a translator.

 

5. Animal Behavior

This one is my personal pet peeve. I rarely close a book without finishing it. I’m just that stubborn. But if a horse, dog, or earthworm gazes at its owner and nods encouragingly, I will. Writing like that is lazy and cringe-inducing.

 

I’ve grown close to many of my pets. Animals are smart and can sense people’s moods. But they can’t reason. They don’t have souls, so their reactions and bonds are based on instinct. A horse won’t carry a wounded soldier five hundred miles in a single night because she’s worried he’ll die. At best, she’ll wander to a nearby town or farm. Again, if you stay true to what’s real, your story will be more gripping.

 

If you’ve never owned the animal you’re writing about, speak to someone who has. Even boring creatures like cows have quirks that often get misrepresented in fiction. You may also need to learn how far saddle animals can travel in a day and the appropriate tack to use. If your English queen is astride a western saddle with a horn, you’re going to raise eyebrows.

 

Read Books, Take Trips, and Make Calls

Now that I’ve told you what to watch for, where do you dig up the facts?

 

For anything historical, I love the Writer’s Guides to Everyday Life series. The books cover multiple eras and contain extensive lists of resources. Google is also your friend. It’s not 100 percent reliable, but with patience you can usually find the information you need. For a modern setting, you can’t beat experiencing it yourself, or interviewing someone who has.

 

While we hope an agent or reader will overlook small inaccuracies or generic worldbuilding, good enough isn’t our goal. We’ll leave a stronger impression if we add layers to our characters and universe with consistent details.

13 Comments

  1. Skye

    Yes to all of this! The smaller elements can make or break a story.
    Great tips!

    Reply
  2. Rachel Rogers

    These are great points!

    One thing I would add, as someone who writes a lot of stories either featuring animals or written from various animal POVs… Unless you’re writing purely historical fiction, it’s possible to give animals some fun abilities that further the plot and deepen the characterization *as long as you explain it*. If some random horse literally nods understandingly, it jolts the reader out of the story. That’s no good. BUT, if I were to read a story about a horse that SEEMS to nod understandingly, which strikes the main character as weird, and then I were to find out the horse actually DID nod understandingly because he’s a member of a rare, ancient breed of horses originating in the Floof mountains and possessing human-like emotions due to a natural compound in the snowflakes there… That would probably pique my interest as a reader instead of making me squint and put the book down.

    Also…where do I get one of these encouraging earthworms? I could keep him in one of my potted houseplants. It would be awesome. 😂

    Reply
    • Maddie Morrow

      That’s an excellent point! I think the horses in the Green Rider books were enchanted to be smarter and faster, and it worked really well with the explanation.

      Lol, that’s a secret I’ll never tell 😉

  3. Kassie

    This. Was. Good!! I write contemporary (thankfully!) in settings and storylines I’m super familiar with, so some of these things I don’t have to worry about as much, but my Arizona boys still aren’t going to talk or think exactly like my Texan family. 😝 AND YES!! Animal behavior!! Now there’s where I get really nitpicky with random library books. 😂 Although it goes the other way too…I may know a breed of dog is really intuitive when random writers make it just a pet who doesn’t care what’s happening. 🙃
    Great post!!

    Reply
    • Maddie Morrow

      Oh yes! It’s crazy how different states can be in their language and culture, even though they’re in the same country.

      Agreed!

  4. Savannah Grace

    SUCH a great article, Maddie – I love everything you mentioned! (especially language, because that really does make or break a story)

    Reply
  5. Sarah Inkdragon

    That last reason just cracked me up. XD It always annoys me to no end in novels when animals that are supposed to be regular animals act oddly, or with human-like characteristics. (Especially horses, because I own two horses and they never act in such ways nor have I ever seen a horse act in such a way.) But it’s definitely jolting to read such a thing. The correct language usage is also a big deal for me, because I hate reading a book and getting super into it, then being totally misplaced by a Victorian character saying something like, “Oh, cool, see you tomorrow then!”
    XD

    Reply
    • Maddie Morrow

      Yes! If the animal is supposed to be magical than fine, but if someone thinks that’s how to portray a regular animal, it drives me crazy. Lol, the only and only reason my horse even tolerated me is because I bring him snacks 😂

      YES

    • Sarah Inkdragon

      Lol yes, the snacks are always the win. My horse prefers if I just let her go as fast as she likes…. we do endurance racing, so she likes to go XD. My pony also loves to run but he’s more about barrels lol.

      But yes, the language thing is sooooooo annoying. It drives me nuts. XD

  6. Selah CJW

    Ah, so true, Maddie! Excellent article. Little things like this get me all the time when reading other fiction.
    It can be a lot of work when you’re writing highly-accurate historical fiction, but it is so worth it! It’s like a whole different genre level if you ask me. One of them makes me frustrated, and the other I fall in love with. 🙂
    Thanks for writing this awesome post!

    Reply
    • Maddie Morrow

      Thank you!! Oh yes, all genres take work, but historical is a whole different ball game.

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