The Precise Names of Things

Yesterday evening, Cathy and I drove down to the lake in Fryer Park, which is located off Orders Road about a mile from our home. It was a pleasant evening—humid, but overcast and with enough of a breeze to make things comfortable. We sat awhile on a bench overlooking the lake and then decided to walk around it. Along our way, we stopped to read the plates that identified various trees—tulip, gingko, sweet gum, black gum. We ended our walk by sitting awhile on another bench and watching the spray of the fountain at that end of the lake. Nothing much happened on our visit to the lake—nothing story-worthy. In fact, our only interaction with anyone else came when Cathy told a woman that she had the cutest dog. It was a corgi. To be precise, it was a Pembroke Welsh corgi, the short-legged cattle herding breed that originated in Pembrokeshire, Wales.

I start with these details—the tulip tree, the gingko tree, the sweet gum, the black gum, the Pembroke Welsh corgi—as a reminder to writers that the exact names of things matter. If one of our first obligations to the readers is to convince them that the world we’re creating on the page actually exists, then we have to be precise. For instance, people just don’t drive cars; they drive specific makes and models of cars. If you think such a detail doesn’t matter all that much, try putting your main character in a Mustang GT instead of a Toyota Camry and see how your impression of that character changes. Furthermore, people don’t just live in houses. They live in bungalows, ranch homes, shotgun houses, Cape Cods, and on and on. You get the idea. The more precise you can be with your characters’ details, the richer your development of those characters will be.

Sometimes a precise detail fits perfectly with what the readers have been led to expect from a certain character. The quiet, modest schoolteacher drives a Volkswagen Beetle, for example, and we think, how appropriate. Sometimes, though, a precise detail seems anomalous. This same quiet, modest schoolteacher drives that Mustang GT. All of a sudden, an aspect of this character opens up to us, and the character becomes rounder. Precision is everything when it comes to making our characters persuasive.

Our settings must be precise as well. A town doesn’t nestle itself into the crook of a river. That river has a name, as do all the streets and the stores and the parks. Clovis Ottwell, for example, lives in a bungalow at the end of Locust Street not far from the banks of the White River and a block from the Save A Lot Food Store. Each Monday, he walks that block to buy a pouch of Beech-Nut Chewing Tobacco, and then, if the mood strikes him, he takes up his Zebco rod and reel and his tackle box and goes down to the White to wet a hook. One day, while he’s fishing. . . (you fill in the blank with something that makes Clovis and his fishing story-worthy).

You get the idea. Precise details not only make a world convincing, they help create round characters. I could put Clovis Ottwell in a different sort of house in a different location, and I could give him a different hobby and a different habit, and the story would change. Our stories and their characters are always made richer by the specific details. That’s why the names of things matter. They’re taking us places only that character in that place can go. Try it sometime. Take a story that you’ve already written and change the details of the place and the character. See what avenues that closes off in the plot and what other possibilities open up for you.




  1. Ellen on June 30, 2020 at 5:01 pm

    Good reminder!

  2. Bonnie Friedman on July 1, 2020 at 11:36 am

    Thank you for this, Lee. On the first day of creative nonfiction writing classes, I often bring in copies of “Goodbye to All That” so students can see how Didion says “Idlewild Temporary Terminal” twice and that the a-c is set to 36 degrees, and that where she came from in California is Sacramento and that what she’s seeing is the Triboro not the Brooklyn Bridge. (It’s true that in Didion’s case she makes almost a fetish of the world’s names and data.) I think in creative nonfiction the details work a little bit differently than in fiction: they give the writer extra bits of information about what the story means. They are bits of feedback like radar echoes and help guide the story. Those of us who stumble through the world in bleary fashion, not noting the names of trees and cars and stars and composers are at a disadvantage in terms of writing, and this guidance of yours helps remind me to wake us up to the world. I need that reminder. Thank you! (And, I love your blog posts. LOVE them.)

    • Lee Martin on July 2, 2020 at 10:48 am

      Thanks so much, Bonnie. I’m intrigued by your thoughts on details in cnf as transmitters of meaning. Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave this comment.

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