Saturday, 14 April 2012

Small Details / Big Picture

00:21:00 Posted by Ashley Lister , , 6 comments

By Ashley Lister

My current work in progress, as I constantly tell everyone who listens, is set in a pre-medieval Britain. I’m trying to be as historically accurate as I can with the world I’m building, although I have to admit there is a magical element to the content that allows me to fudge some truths when they don’t quite work within the narrative. This is sometimes called ‘artistic licence.’

However, the attention to the small things is relevant to this week’s theme. To make this particular story work I’ve realised it’s all in the details: the micro completing the macro.

The story takes place in Britain before the Middle Ages. To be (vaguely) specific I’m working in a story world that exists somewhere between 0 and 500 AD. That means I have the huge expanse of half a millennia in which to set my story. I’ve got the massive breadth of a sparsely populated British Isles in which my characters may blunder around. And I’m writing about the enormous emotions of love, lust and desire.

Yet it’s the micro details that enrich the image.

Details such as clothing and common fabrics. Details such as fiscal currencies (if they existed). Details such as lighting in any area that did not contain natural light.

In our contemporary age these matters are addressed in such a commonplace fashion it’s difficult to think of them as ever being issues. I’m writing this whilst wearing leather boots, denim jeans and a black cotton T-shirt. It’s an outfit so unremarkable it barely merits mentioning. I’ve got sterling in my pockets but there are a smattering of Euros on my desk and some dollars in my wallet. My office is lit by a single 150 watt bulb.

Each of these details is so micro in our contemporary day and age it barely merits being mentioned. Yet these small details are the points that will make the completed fiction seem credible and allow readers to maintain the suspension of disbelief as they follow the narrative.

Obviously it takes a macro amount of time to thoroughly research each of these details. But that’s another whine for another day. Below is a page from one of the opening chapters of the current work in progress. It’s surprising how much research went into these 257 words.

The deadbolt slammed home with deafening force. The clang of metal sang against metal. The sound reverberated through unyielding oak doors set in solid stone walls. Tavia knew the thick silence that came afterwards was locked in the dungeon with her. She swallowed as she studied her surroundings. She struggled not to be afraid. And she wished she hadn’t paid two gold pfennigs for this dubious privilege.

Blazing torches hung from sconces on the walls. The flames splashed shadows and a glaring orange light onto the cobbled stones of the dungeon floor. Spirals of black smoke spewed upward toward the faraway roof. Sulphuric smells and unearthly stinks crept from the shadowy corners.

“This is not a waste of time,” Tavia muttered the words like a mystical chant. “It was not a waste of money. It is not a waste of time.”

She said the words softly but with determination, trying to convince herself that they held some truth. She had entered the dungeons against the advice of her twin and without the knowledge of her father. It had cost her dearly to bribe guards and keykeepers to get this far. And she wouldn’t let herself believe that it could all be for nothing. She brushed a stray lock of blonde tresses from her brow and stepped nervously from one foot to the other. She wore wooden pattens with leather straps and the heels tripped loudly against the stone floor.

“F**k off,” a voice called. “I’ve got a hangover and I’m in no mood for visitors.”

She stiffened.



Lindsay said...

It's great to see how you research these things as a writer, it all sounds fascinating. I loved the snippet of your novel too. Put me on the list for a copy when it's published :)

Great post Ash


Ashley R Lister said...

I've had a lot of fun researching pre-medieval boats and ships for this one. I'm now trying to pinpoint a couple of things about food and drink and religious ceremonies for paganism in that era.

As soon as this one's out I shall let you know.


Anonymous said...

It takes a certain degree of skill to obsess over the smallest of details without losing your mind :).

Ash, you took the words literally out of my mouth here. The micro details construct the picture and we as writers have a duty to the reader to obsess over these smallest of details. After all, there would be no point in constructing of such imagery if one cannot escape into the scenery and become lost for those few moments.

I say embrace the madness, embrace the obsession and forgive me for sounding cliche but become the image that you wish to construct.



vicky ellis said...

Well I could smell that dungeon so you must be doing something right. Or maybe it's the cats...

Please pop me on the list beside Lindsay for a copy when it's finished. (I hope the setting is a precursor for something rude)

Great post Ash :)

Ashley R Lister said...


I certainly obsess over small details. However, I'm fairly sure my mind was a lost cause many years ago :-)

- and I don't think embracing the obsession is a cliche.


Ashley R Lister said...


As soon as this title is released you and Lindsay will be at the top of my list as readers. I think you'll both get a giggle from this title.