It’s the small details that add authenticity to your story
For a story to come alive, allowing the reader to vividly picture and feel the experiences of your characters, you need to create a rich world of small details. Every detail you weave into the narrative helps to create the time, place and mood of the story. This includes the physical world as well as the mores of society at the time.
By accurately portraying what your characters experience, wear, use, own, say and think, you immediately earn the reader’s trust, allowing them to confidently immerse themselves in the world you’re creating. This applies to all genres from historical fiction to sci-fi.
However, this doesn’t mean you have to provide constant intricate descriptions or lengthy explanations of tools, architecture or technology (unless you’re writing, say, hard sci-fi), but the language you use, the descriptions you provide – using the senses: sight, sound, touch, smell and taste – all form the building blocks of a rich and vivid world.
The small details – what type of time device a character keeps on their bedside table (an analogue watch, iPhone, digital clock, an hourglass or candle); the feel and smell of travelling in a horse and buggy as opposed to a supersonic jet; the particles between their toes on a beach (volcanic or sedimentary) compared to acid rain; the atmospheric composition of a planet – all add authenticity to your story and show you have done your research and planning.
The utensils your characters use, and their everyday lifestyle, must match the times: transportation; forms of heating, cooling and lighting; sources of air and water; cleansing, health and healing; meal sourcing and preparation. All these details form the world your characters function in.
If they own transport, what type and make is it? What form of fuel does it use and where does that fuel come from? If there are photographs or images, are they printed, sepia, digital, holographic? If a character has a trade, what tools do they use, what does their workplace look, sound or smell like? Is the cooking of food in a continuously bubbling cast-iron pot over a woodfire or delivered in a tube at the press of a button?
Language and phrasing depends on the point of view (POV) you are using for your novel. For an omniscient POV, the narrator will have a consistent, even voice throughout the entire manuscript – whether that’s an invisible or involved narrator. However, if your novel is in limited (close) third POV, the voice will reflect that of the character narrating the story in that particular chapter or scene.
When choosing your vocabulary and phrasing, keep in mind that language used by different levels of society’s hierarchy can vary. A highly trained hyperspace pilot would have a different vocabulary to a character who runs an underground gambling den on an uncivilised planet. A Victorian aristocrat’s vocabulary would differ from the scruffian selling vegetables at a local market.
You certainly shouldn’t attempt to write your whole manuscript in the language or dialect of the period or place – for many readers this becomes wearing or annoying – but keeping your language simple, with perhaps an occasional subtle nod to a character’s accent, dialect or status, is sufficient.
Be careful to avoid terms that don’t exist in the time and place your story takes place in. This includes slang and colloquialisms. For example:
- automobile vs wheels
- fringe vs bangs
- bloomers vs panties
- governess vs tutor
- heavens, child vs dang, girl
- with child vs preggers
You know yourself how the clothing you wear impacts your everyday movement, comfort and perhaps self-esteem. The same goes for your characters.
Consider the availability, trends and function of materials of the time. The fashion and practicality. How long did it take a person to get dressed: did they need assistance with layers and laces, pull on a grimy leather jerkin or zip up a nanotech suit? Did clothing impede going to the toilet, climbing stairs, running, sitting? Did it indicate a character’s status?
Did society care about recyclable materials? Did characters only own one set of clothing that stank from months of use? Or did they throw away their scrunched-up overalls at the end of each day?
Unless you’re deliberately writing an alternative history (a genre of its own), don’t mess with the timeline of history. Portray events in their time and place, even if they’re only used as background material. If a reader notices something awry in the timing of well-known historic events (and avid readers delight in this), you’ll lose their trust and likely end up with a negative review.
It’s also important to keep track of the timeline of your story. Consider using an excel spreadsheet or a Word table to map out the ongoing developments and sequence of events: the place, date, time and setting of each scene; the movement of seasons and their related events; how long it takes characters to travel from one place to another; to realistically achieve goals; which characters are present, dead or away.
It’s easy for readers to get lost or confused without sufficient time markers within the narrative. An easy solution is to use subheadings to announce the time, date and place, but a better alternative is to work the markers into the narrative itself.
Jenny drew the curtains against the clear, cold evening, then sat in her father’s easy chair. She rocked it back and forth a couple of times and ran her hand over the worn embroidery of the armrest. A little niggle of guilt shamed her; she’d never been allowed to sit in it as a child. Now, twelve years on since his passing, the chair and this house belonged to her.
Here, the narrative shows us: Jenny is in her father’s house, it’s night, her father died twelve years ago.
Names tend to go through cycles of popularity, so research what was popular at the time of your story. Note that spellings of names can vary from region to region.
The right names can also help readers picture the character’s personality. For example “Poppy” a small, bright and fragile flower vs “Magnolia” a large, prominent and sturdy flower. They can also notate status or formality, e.g. “Frederick” vs “Fred”.
If appropriate, try varying the names of your characters to accommodate regional areas or different parts of the world (or other planets if you’re writing sci-fi). In a believable world – no matter where it is – there is always a mix of nationalities or races.
Although you need to be mindful of sensitively portraying minority or disadvantaged groups, i.e. avoiding stereotyping characters for how society saw them, rather than who they were as people, that doesn’t mean you should be inauthentic in portraying attitudes and hierarchical statuses of the time.
Consider whether a character would be permitted to enter a premises through the front door, whether they could only shop in certain areas, what sort of jobs they held, attitudes of their peers if the character stepped outside the norms. Could a character own property? Was it safe for them to travel alone? If they were a baker, did they make intricate pastries for the rich, or basic breads for the middle-class or poor? If they were a space traveller, did they have to defer to special protocols to enter certain spaces?
Having your characters interact with their world and everything in it is a clever way of allowing you to describe the world without information dumping (exposition). It also adds colour and movement to the story, as well as aiding in setting a scene, rather than just presenting dialogue or action.
Example: two people are meeting for a chat.
Damien takes a seat. “So what’s this all about?”
Aria blinks. “Well, hello to you too,” she says, swallowing her irritation..
Damien looks over her shoulder and squints, the sun in his eyes. Aria sips her coffee, a distraction from what she needs to say.
Rewrite with interaction:
Damien pulls out a chair, it’s metal legs scraping on the linoleum. “So what’s this all about?”
Aria blinks. “Well, hello to you too.” She puts down the plastic spoon she’s been flipping between her fingers and swallows her irritation.
Damien looks over her shoulder and squints, the retreating sun catching gold flecks in his eyes. Flakes of dandruff sit on the collar of his overly long coat. Aria pulls her beanie down over her forehead and back of her neck, then sniffs, grabbing a paper napkin from the silver holder with rust eating at its edges. The sugar dispenser has rice grains amongst the sugar crystals – supposedly to absorb moisture. So she’s been told. It makes sense with the wash and hiss of waves only a few steps away.
So here, we have a scene, rather than just dialogue. We know the following: Aria and Damien are at a cafe that’s likely not upmarket (metal chair legs, linoleum, plastic spoons, paper napkins); it’s likely cold (Damien is wearing a long coat and Aria a beanie); it’s late in the day (retreating sun in Damien’s eyes)’ they’re near the beach (hiss of waves, rice in sugar dispenser, rusted napkin holder).
See how, by including the small details of their surroundings, you now have a more vivid picture of their world? This is called setting a scene, creating the visuals and mood to ground the reader in the characters’ place and time. This allows the reader to fully immerse themselves in the story, understanding exactly when and where the action takes place.
Tip: Make sure that all the details you include have relevance to the character’s themselves. Don’t just write a list of things that are in the cafe or on the beach. For further ideas on how to introduce descriptions, read my blog on How to Introduce Character Descriptions within a Narrative.
The more accurate and convincing the details you can weave into your story, without it feeling like exposition, the more credibility you earn as a writer. Yes, this might mean a lot of research and information gathering – of which you may only use a portion – but it’s a necessary and worthwhile part of writing authentically. One of my favourite things to do is sit in a public place and watch people interact with their surroundings. It teaches you how to naturally associate people with their environment.