Noticing Small Details by Kimberly Willis Holt
Sometimes when I sign one of my books, I’ll write, See the things that others don’t see. Observation is an important tool for writers, especially when you notice the small things. I suppose I learned that skill from my mother. She’s a natural observer. Throughout my childhood, I remember her noticing a detail about someone and tagging that detail with something she imagined may have happened to them.
Small details can make an impact on big events. Let’s say a child drowns in their family swimming pool. That is a very big event. The paramedics show up and pull the child out of the water. If you were writing that, it would be a guaranteed emotional scene, but the little details attached to it will claw at your heart.
Look closely as the child is removed from the water. His arm dangles like a ragdoll’s. Look at what is happening around the main event. The father is screaming at the mother that he never wanted a swimming pool. She did. The older sister who was supposed to be babysitting her little brother is sitting in the yard, plucking grass blades until a bald spot of dirt remains. Among the neighbors gathered around is a little girl who played daily with the boy. They even skated together earlier that day. Now her hands cover her eyes and stay that way even after her mother guides her out of the neighbors’ yard.
Without the small details, a year later I might remember the drowning. But the images of the child’s dangling arm, the sister plucking the grass blades and the young girl with her hands fixed over her eyes will make that scene forever unforgettable to me.
Noticing little details doesn’t have to always be for the sake of an emotional scene. Tiny particulars can reveal character. Someone quietly moving into the back of the room when a public talk has already begun might hint at a shy or gentle personality opposed to someone who prances to the front of the room (even though they are late), suggesting confidence or a show-stealer.
In my new book, Dear Hank Williams, I tried to include small details that would reveal character. The main character Tate, shows us some in her letters to Hank Williams–Frog wearing his dad’s big boots to try and be close to Big Pete who’s long since gone, Uncle Jolly tilting his hat when he’s flirting with a potential girlfriend, and Aunt Patty Cake’s quick swipe of lipstick, the only makeup she wears even though she’s a cosmetic saleslady. I’d love to claim that these details came from my imagination, but I know better. They are observations finely woven into the texture of my life.
Noticing matters. It should be a part of every writer’s toolbox. By giving small details in the real world a close up look, we can add layers of truth to the worlds we create in our stories.
Kimberly Willis Holt is the author of the Piper Reed series, including Piper Reed, Navy Brat, Piper Reed, Clubhouse Queen, and Piper Reed, Rodeo Star. She has written many award-winning novels, including The Water Seeker and My Louisiana Sky, as well as the picture books Waiting for Gregory and Skinny Brown Dog. A former Navy brat herself, Holt was born in Pensacola, Florida, and lived all over the U.S. and the world—from Paris to Norfolk to Guam to New Orleans. Holt long dreamed of being a writer, but first worked as a radio news director, marketed a water park, and was an interior decorator, among other jobs. A few years after she started writing, her third book, When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, won a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. She resides in West Texas with her family. Her newest book Dear Hank Williams comes out today. You can find her online at www.kimberlywillisholt.com or on Twitter as @KimberlyWHolt.