Details, details

One of the hardest things to get right in historical fiction is the level of detail in your world-building. It’s true for most forms of writing – an abundance of detail can create immediacy, or a sense of accuracy, or make the world come alive for the reader. Or it can kill the book stone dead.

I’m always telling myself and my students to be more specific. And then I read a book or story that’s so full of specific detail in great slabs that I want to gouge my own eyes out with a teaspoon.

The other week I picked up a massive historical novel (set in Ireland) at the Little Library near the station, sat on the train and opened it randomly, said something like ‘Kill me now’ out loud, and dropped it off at the next Little Library ten minutes later.

No. No, no, no. We do love our research, but one of the biggest traps (we’ve all done it) is trying to include too many of our fascinating facts. Do not put everything in. Ever.  But that’s another story.

That said, I am spending much of my time at Falls Creek collecting details. I walk and I fossick around, and I take a million photos. Sometimes I am looking for a specific thing/place/artefact, and with others I’ll decide later whether or not it needs to appear on the page.

I have been a bit frantic for the past two days of this residency, and I think that’s partly because I didn’t know where in the Ovens Goldfields certain scenes in my bushranger stories would take place. I knew roughly. But I couldn’t place them. I couldn’t ground them. So yesterday, after a great deal of desk research, I took all my maps and re-visited Beechworth and Yackandandah, and decided on the very spot where my imaginary friends are now camping. So now I’m OK.

I have a few details I need to know (uncontaminated water supply, pasture for the horses?) . But they are the kind of detail nobody needs to know but me. They will probably never appear on the page. Or maybe – you never know – it will matter that the horses are hobbled well out of sight, or that the water is undrinkable. Dunno yet.

Here are just some of the little things I’ve been “collecting” – sometimes literally, sometimes on camera, sometimes just as a note. Sometimes I just wonder.

How did they build the early High Country huts?

Wire Fastening, Wallace Hut, Falls Creek

Fastening, Wallace Hut, Falls Creek

What’s it like to walk through clouds?

Snow gums, Falls Creek Village

Snow gums, Falls Creek Village

You know all that dirt they dug out and sluiced when looking for gold? What colour was it in each place? And where did it all go?

Tailings, Lake Sambell, Beechworth

Tailings, Lake Sambell, Beechworth

If I was living here with 3000 other people,  all engaged in digging up the river banks to look for gold, how would it feel? Can I see the mountains from down here, or just foothills?

Buckland River - diggings overgrown

Buckland River – diggings now overgrown

If I walk around the site of the Chinese camp, can I see any traces of the miners’ lives?

Fragments of Chinese crockery and (maybe) part of an old bucket.

Fragments of Chinese crockery and (maybe) part of an old bucket. Beechworth.

How secure, really, were those old timber slab police lock-ups?

Lock on the old lock-up, Bright

Old lock-up, Bright

What’s it like, crossing the High Plains when all the wildflowers are out? (And ooh, what’s all that purple stuff?)

Hovea montana, overlooking the Kiewa Valley

Hovea montana, from Falls Creek’s Aqueduct trail, looking back towards Ropers lookout.

Some details are essential to plot. Some help explain or develop character. Some details allow us to create atmosphere or ground the reader in a realist world. Some are embroidery.

It’s the balance between specificity and embellishment that’s the tricky part.

Lately I’ve been…

Walking. And thinking about walking. And reading about walking.

Writing about walking seems to be a major preoccupation nowadays, as it has been at different times in the past.  Interestingly, a lot of the current writing about walking is also about the literature of walking – the mapping of places and movement with words.

Of course, writing about walking is also writing about place and particularly landscape, and is a form of memoir, and so it is often about the intersections of self and landscape (or cityscape) and movement and memory.

I’ve been thinking about all this as part of my eternal Sublime project on travel, pilgrimage and place. But it’s all still very misty in my mind. You know that feeling when there are outlines just visible in the distance and you’re not quite sure how to draw them together? Just me?

Oh well.

Luckily, it also some of the best writing around at the moment.

Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Wanderlust, by Rebecca Solnit, whose A Field Guide to Getting Lost is also brilliant. A blend of memoir, reflection, politics, literary studies and the history of walking for recreation and well-being – that is, walking by choice rather than as the only means of transport.

When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities. Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains.

– Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust

 

The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot and Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane – beautiful, lyrical and thoughtful writing on landscape, language and the paths we create.

The Moor: Lives, Landscape and Literature, by William Atkins, which I bought one day walking around London and thinking about the English landscape in particular, and the culture of walking in the countryside. (After I’d just walked along Hadrian’s Wall.)

Right now, I’m reading Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place by Philip Marsden, which is about exploring the sacred nature of places, mostly on foot and through story.

The compact between writing and walking is almost as old as literature – a walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells.

– Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways

Mist over Lake Windermere: where the Wordsworths walked.

Mist over Lake Windermere: where the Wordsworths walked.