Details. Telling details. (You have to use your "Bond. James Bond" voice. Otherwise it's no good.)
Really, though, I find that to be an apt little wording: telling details. Details that tell something, that show something. I think that's one of the keys to good writing, finding those details that help tell the story. Details that reveal meaning and character. Yet it's not always easy to find those details. Too prosaic a detail and it's unrevealing, too cliched and it's boring or seems superfluous. Yet if it's too innocuous it can seem forced, too much of a stretch, as if the writer is drawing attention to all the crazy little things in life, to the zaniness of their own perceptions.
I think looking at real details has helped me craft fictional ones of my own. Falling in love with my father's area of expertise was part of this. My father was a History Professor. I wasn't really into history when I was young. My father's endless books were more decoration than opportunity. Yet the older I've gotten the more I've been drawn into history and memoir - for what is a memoir except an exploration of personal history?
History, too, is about the details. What do you select from the vast array of facts? What makes the story? For history and memoir are about story, too, about drawing the reader into a set of experiences. A memoir, for example, is a set of experiential details arranged to tell a story, and I find it fascinating to see how writers select details to tell their own stories. What do they share? And what do they avoid sharing? What are the details that give meaning to their own lives? What are the details that they see as representative of them, of the journey they've been on?
There are interesting patterns here for fiction writers to study. Sort of like primers for the creation of characters... and the same goes for events, too. The details of events, of a causal chain, of how action and reaction play against each other... History, I think, can show you the pattern of real events. Cause and effect have a sudden veracity and truth, they convince, and this, I think, is something that's invaluable for fiction writers. How do things tie together? The synchronicity of events?
Increasingly I find the backdrop of my fictional stories to be history, as if my father's walls of books have crept into my consciousness. If my camera-eye focuses on a fictional character then just beyond, half-hidden in the blurred background, lie the walls of history. If I hear characters speaking, it is always over the drone of real voices that gift a pattern of reality.
Some gifts are long in being appreciated, and my father's gift of history is one of these. And yet I do appreciate it, and hope now that I can pass a wall of books to my own children.