In the opening of the 1984 film, Country, starring Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange, there’s a shot of a kitchen table, and on that table is a set of waffle glass salt and pepper shakers with aluminum tops. I still remember the chill of recognition I got right there in the movie theater when I saw them. I could have closed my eyes at that point and pretty much guessed the other items in that farm house, the landscape outside, and the customs and values of the people who lived there. Country was one of the first films I saw that seriously tried to depict the rural Midwest in the midst of a farm crisis. It was one of the first films I saw that treated the people and the place from where I came with authenticity. Those salt and pepper shakers hooked me from the beginning, and as soon as I saw them I knew I’d trust the filmmaker to take me wherever he wanted me to go.
In our writing, the small, authentic details are everything. They create the world and its people. They procure the trust of the reader. They say, here’s a very particular world, won’t you please come in?
So here are a few questions for you:
- Are you writing about the worlds you know best? I know when I first started out, I didn’t trust that anyone would be interested in my small towns and farming communities. What I learned was if I couldn’t make those places interesting on the page, I’d never come close to portraying places I knew less well. We have to write the places and the people with whom we’re the most intimate.
- Are you taking the time to paint your worlds with the smallest of details? If you don’t know the small details, like waffle glass salt and pepper shakers, you’ll never be able to notice the truths of character and place and situation that those small details contain.
- Do your landscapes express your characters? The contour and shape of a landscape often connects with the type of people who occupy it. My farming community in the Midwest, for instance, is comprised of gravel roads that run at right angles, creating a grid that can be as rigid as the people often are. The flat land underneath an endless sky, though, can stretch to the horizon, and represent the open hearts of hard-working people who would do anything they could to help someone in need.
We need to take care with our stage settings. Like any good theatrical set dresser, we have to get all the details right so we can fulfill the first obligation of all writing, to convince the readers that the world on the page is an authentic one. When you think of each thing you write, can you think of a single object that creates this authenticity, the object that persuades readers that all you have to tell them is true? Remember, an object like a waffle glass salt and pepper shaker isn’t a small thing. It’s everything.