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Details Matter!: Why You Shouldn’t Skip the Nitty-Gritty

We’ve all got reasons why we put down bad books. And as a writer, it’s your job to make sure readers love your work. But sometimes no matter how good the book is, it will still fail.

This week, I spotted a complaint from a reader. He’d gotten frustrated with a book that took place in a location very near where he grew up, but the author described the place as being 3 hours away from his hometown. He’d gotten so frustrated by this inaccuracy that he posted on social media about it and put the book down. When I read his post, he hadn’t decided whether he was going to try reading more or not. But there’s a lesson here for writers—don’t skip on the details.

When you’re crafting a story, the details matter. This could be adding the colour and style of a character’s dress or hat, describing the wallpaper and pieces of furniture in a room, or stating what day and time it is. Authors may have insightful characters and a brilliant plot. But without hammering out the little details of the world that the characters move in, at best this can leave readers confused and at worst, frustrate them to the point that they stop reading.

Here are some details to think about:

Who? What? When? Where?

You’re crafting a story. Be it a novel, novella, short story, flash fiction, a play, or a poem, you’ve got to keep track of what is happening when, where, who, and with what. If you’re plotting out your novel, think about where it takes place. Is it set in a park, one room, or a village? Are the characters exploring different towns and cities like in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, or are they interacting largely in a school, like Perfect on Paper by Sophie Gonzales?

If you like maps, why not sketch out a map of where your story takes place? This really works for fantasy novels, and even if you’re setting your tale in a small town, old maps really add rich detail to the work. If you’re writing a story with a historical setting like me, go bother your local historical society and check out the old maps of the town.

For instance, in my second book, The Poisoned Clergyman, I set it in an English market town, Hertford. I have my characters walk through Panshanger Park, which has a massive old tree allegedly planted by Queen Elizabeth back in the 1500s. That park is still here today, along with the tree. But without a bit of research, I wouldn’t have known that when my story is set, that park was still being developed by a landscape architect.

Teeny tiny details to keep track of (in every scene)

What are your characters doing? If you have more than two in a scene, what are they wearing? Are they talking, sitting, or standing? Keep track of what they're doing. For example, if they’re drinking tea and then greeting guests, be sure to mention they’ve put down their teacups. Otherwise, errors like this will be confusing.

Why you need a story bible

Whether you’re writing a 70,000-word historical mystery or crafting a beautiful swords-and-sorcery fantasy epic that’s clocking in at 180,000 words, all the details are easy to forget. Try setting up a new blank document that is your story bible. This will contain the physical and personality traits of your characters, descriptions of the rooms they move in, and the outfits they wear, including the fabric, style, and colours of their clothing, from the top hats down to the shiny black boots.

Forgetting points like this can go very wrong—I’ve mentioned a character in one scene wearing a purple dress and in the next, a grey one, simply because I forgot. Don’t make the same mistake!

Create a timeline

If your story’s events take place over the course of a week, create a timeline and make sure you note what happens in your plot on which days. If it’s historical fiction, you can easily look up whether June 18th, 1812 was a Thursday or a Wednesday. Unless it’s vital to the story this might not matter, but if that’s the day that a major battle or war starts (like the war of 1812), it’s important.

Is your murder victim killed on Thursday and then the culprit revealed on Sunday, or a week later? If you don’t mention the days, weeks, seasons, and time in your writing, it can confuse readers and leave them guessing as to what is happening when.

Believability is important

As a very smart writer (Theresa Green) told me, “Believability is important.” She’s so right. If your readers don’t get a sense of what is happening in the story, down to the nitty-gritty details, it will be easy for them to feel disconnected from the work and put it down.

So don’t frustrate your readers. Do your research. Keep a story bible or a timeline. If you don’t hammer out the details, you can frustrate and alienate your audience, and that’s the last thing you want to do. Your readers are there for you. They want to dive in and love your work, so it’s up to you to give them the best story possible.


About the Author: E.L. Johnson is a historical mystery writer. Her novel, The Poisoned Clergyman, is out for pre-order and comes out 24 June. You can follow her exploits on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.


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