Details, details

Every writer faces the question of how much detail to provide about characters and settings. Am I describing enough? Too little? Too much? How much do my readers need, or want, to know in order to understand the character I’m describing or the room in which the murder takes place? Reviewers criticized me, albeit gently, for not giving enough physical description of the main character in my first mystery. I tried to respond by adding more details in subsequent novels, though I confess I didn’t think that mentioning hair color or nose shape added much of value since what a character thinks or says seems to me more important. I’m still wrestling with how descriptive I should be.

This question came to mind again recently when I read Rick Atkinson’s The British are Coming, the first volume of his projected three-volume history of the American Revolutionary War. I’m an early American history fanatic, though military history as such isn’t of great interest. Still, I was inspired to read Atkinson’s history because Joseph Ellis, an early American historian I respect greatly, gave it a superlative review in the New York Times. It’s an impressive piece of work, drawing on practically every secondary source on the Revolution and a great deal of primary material, including letters and diaries of combatants and especially newly public writings of George III about his rebellious subjects in America. And Atkinson is a facile writer of clear, easily read prose.

The Battle of Trenton

But he drove me crazy because of his, for my taste, vast overuse of details and unnecessary description. For both the rebels and the British he catalogs every pound of saltpeter and gunpowder, counts every rifle and canon, and names every ship. As I said, military history has little appeal to me, so I was willing to skim through such lists on the assumption that his primary audience wants them. What really bothered me is his description of people. When a new soldier enters the scene, we get a detailed picture. Colonel John Glover is “a short, burly, forty-three year old with a high forehead and a jutting jaw.” What’s important here is Glover’s age: at 43 he was toward the upper age of militiamen. But what’s really important about Glover isn’t captured in the physical description. He led a militia of Marblehead fishermen who saved Washington’s army when they evacuated troops by boats from Brooklyn to Manhattan in rain and dense fog. And Glover’s men were there again to ferry troops and horses across the Delaware for Washington’s surprise attack on Trenton

>Why did Glover, at his age, give up his comfortable life in Marblehead, raise a militia of fishermen, and serve the American cause so valiantly? And why did those men join him? Answers to those questions don’t come from knowing he was short and burly and had a high forehead and jutting jaw.

Here’s another example. Going into the battle for Charlestown,

“the column was led by a sinewy, azure-eyed colonel wearing a blue coat with a single row of buttons and a tricorne hat>So what? What motivated this colonel to risk life and limb to roust the British? Why should I care about the color of his eyes or coat? One answer, of course, is that Atkinson makes the scene vivid, painting with words to make the reader feel she’s present. But for me, the description is not just unneeded but intrusive.

General Henry Knox

Henry Knox is a great figure in American, and ultimately Maine, history, but I don’t think it helps us to understand how he became so to know that the bookstore he kept in Boston before he joined the cause was “an emporium offering stationary, wallpaper, quills, flutes, Keyser’s pills, telescopes, ‘cordial cephalic snuff,’ reading glasses, and Hill’s ‘never-fading cure for the bite of a mad dog.’” Do those words create images that make his bookstore vivid for us? Not for me

The British are Coming is a good read, especially for folks who like to know about wars, but it’s a fair criticism to say it’s overwritten, dense with irrelevant details, and badly in need of a sharp editorial pencil. Atkinson is a highly successful author who makes a mint from his writing, and his latest will add to that. Hats (tricornes?) off to him for that. I should be so successful. But his style raises a serious question for me as both writer and reader. Just as every writer has to decide how much to describe, every reader has to decide when enough’s enough already. Obviously the answer is the usual: it depends—on purpose, taste, genre, and so forth. Cop mysteries around violent murders need bloody details. Cozies can prioritize inner to outer description. And so forth. I’ve had my say on this and would be interested to know what other writers and readers think, understanding that choices are at the heart of the writing enterprise.

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2 Responses to Details, details

  1. Anonymous says:

    I agree that writers can over describe, but I do like a sense of the person, so perhaps the azure-eyes are valuable for some readers, ditto the contents of the shop. That being said, one reason we have editors is to help us strike the right balance. If a reader–you–feels like the description detracts from the purpose of the book–it may be an editor should be summoned.


  2. Chris Knopf says:

    I love Atkinson for his WWII trilogy, and am halfway through The British Are Coming. I agree he provides too much detail, especially numbers killed and wounded, provisions shipped, saved or lost, all the quantitative stuff that only historians care about. I do like the personal descriptions of principal players. As to the kind of books we write, less is almost always more, in my opinion. Just enough to keep the story afloat. Remember Elmore Leonard’s advice to leave out the content readers skip over.

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