The writing process: getting stuck on the detals

As we know, writers are frequently asked where they get their ideas. As we also know, and have discussed extensively on this blog, the answer is varied and endless. After years of being asked it, I have a fairly concise answer  about overall themes, plots and characeters that seems to satisfy the askers.

Where I get stuck, though, is when I get asked about specific details. The questions about any of the thousands of tiny details that make up the fabric of a book. You’d think it’d be easy. It’s not that I don’t want to talk about the details of the book, and it’s gratifying people read the book and are curious about details. I love the fact they were paying attention and care.

I spent some time trying to figure out why I have so much trouble with these questons after a very enjoyable author talk this week about Bad News Travels Fast, the third book in my Bernadette “Bernie” O’Dea mystery series.

People were curious about very specific details. As I talked about why I chose the detail I did, I felt like I was describing a book that was put together out of stuff I just grabbed from other places. “I was reading a book by a Czech refugee, and his story struck me.” Or, “I was watching a TV show about blah blah blah and it struck me that’s the detail I needed in the book.”

I was horrified that I sounded like I was just grabbing stuff from other places and plopping it in my books. Hopefully, that wasn’t the audience’s takeaway. It’s not that I don’t have a more accurate answer, it’s just that I’m not sure, for the sake of the person asking the question, it’s a better answer.

It’s not that I’m lying when I pinpoint where a detail came from, but very few details in my books are choices. Details ranging from character names to what someone’s eating is something I think about. It feels false to choose something randomly and then just toss it in. I’m not saying it’s a rule I have to not do that, I’m saying it’s how I feel. I frequently have to chew over a detail until I find something that works.

This may seem like a tangent, but it’s not. About 15 years ago, I was stopped at a red light right next to a little boy, about 10, holding a tray of cupcakes, that plastic see-through kind of package you get in the bakery section of the grocery store. He was crying. Not sobbing, just upset looking, with a tear on his cheek. He was Black, which I mention because it added to the poignancy. It made him seem more alone.

By the time I got to work, that moment had become a thing in my head. I didn’t build a story around it — who knows what was going on there? If life is decent at all, I’ve spent a lot more time thinking about it than he has. But I’d built a feeling around it. That’s not the only one of those I have, just one that comes to mind. I have dozens. Hundreds probably. Things strike me all the time. Every day.

They’re all part of a swirling, constantly moving dimension that’s been formed by all sorts of things, big and little. Details may come from some outside source, but they only feel right if get sucked into that dimension and come into focus.

Sure, yes, of course I have to sit down and work at writing, figuring out sentence structure and how the narrative will work and all that stuff. But surrounding it is that dimension. It’s not in my brain, not contained. It’s more like I’m in it than it’s in  me.

This may make me sound unbalanced in more ways than one. “Geez, no wonder that book she’s been ‘writing’ for four years isn’t done yet.” You’re imagining me sitting there for hours typing “He was eating pizza.” No, wait, “He was eating a sub.” No wait, pizza is better. What kind of sub? Not roast beef. Maybe tuna? No, definitely pizza. No, wait…

That’s why I’m not sure how much I want readers to be let in how how the sausages are made in my factory.

I don’t want to dismiss questions from readers, particularly ones who have done me the great honor of reading one of my books. I try to answer questions honestly, but I also want to answer in a way that doesn’t get us both tangled up in the weeds. And that doesn’t have my loved ones planning some kind of intervention. So, as incomplete as it feels, I’ll probably stick with “Yeah, that was something I saw on TV and stole it for my book.”

About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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3 Responses to The writing process: getting stuck on the detals

  1. Of course, reading this, I immediately started thinking about details in my WIP, which I’m very unsatisfied with. I need to go back and dwell on some of them, because each chosen detail helps to illuminate the characters, the scenes, the underlying emotions, etc. So thank you for this post today.


  2. jselbo says:

    Maureen – loved reading this post because I am sitting in a coffee shop writing down ideas for my 3rd book in my DEE ROMMEL MYSTERY series. The list is long – I get an idea – then go on the “net” and see what’s happening today in the “crime” I am thinking of exploring. Looking for something that I will enjoy exploring – that I will learn something too. And then I think of my recurring characters and ask myself – how can I make something PERSONAL so it affects Dee Rommel in a personal way too. This morning my list is LONG LONG LONG and I hope in the next few days I’ll be able to zero in on something that grabs me – gets me excited to start exploring.
    THANKS! Jule Selbo

  3. Pingback: The writing process: getting stuck on the detals – Maine Reportings

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