Guest Post from Nancy Holzner: The Telling Detail

Today I'm joined by very special guest, Nancy Holzner, author of the Deadtown novels. If you've been following this blog for a while, you probably recognize Nancy's name and series from a post I wrote several months ago on hooking the reader with the first line.  Nancy's first book, DEADTOWN, is a personal favorite of mine, and I'm anxiously awaiting the release of her second novel, HELLFORGED. (It will be out December 28th!)

So, it is with great pleasure that I share this amazing guest post with you. Take it away, Nancy!

The Telling Detail

When I talk to readers about urban fantasy, one thing I hear a lot is that people enjoy this genre because it feels like the story could really happen. The settings are recognizable—you can walk the streets and see the landmarks of magical Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, or San Francisco, and even fictional cities have a real, gritty feel to them. The characters interact with people who could be our coworkers or our neighbors. In addition to their otherworldly battles, characters have problems we can relate to, like how to pay the rent or get over a fight with a boyfriend or deal with an annoying boss. The urban-fantastical world of magic, ghosts, demons, and monsters feels adjacent to ours, like you could turn the wrong corner some dark night and suddenly be there.

I don’t think I’m giving away any trade secrets when I say that authors accomplish this sense of realism-in-fantasy by sprinkling telling details through their stories. A telling detail is an image that packs an emotional wallop and makes the scene feel “true.” It brings the scene to life. The telling detail gives readers a tug on the heartstrings, a shiver along the spine, or a kick in the gut. It’s something we understand and relate to, even when what’s happening is far outside our everyday experience.

Here’s an example from Magic Bites, the first book in Ilona Andrews’s terrific (and phenomenally popular) Kate Daniels series. Kate is about to meet Atlanta’s Beast Lord, a werelion, for the first time; she’s alone in a dangerous part of town and expecting violence. And what does she do in this situation? She calls out, “Here, kitty, kitty.” For many readers, this telling detail is a favorite moment in the book. It cracks the scene wide open and gives us insight into Kate’s character. This detail, along with Curran’s reaction, shows us a hint of what their relationship will be like. And it’s something we can relate to. Maybe you’ve never clutched a sword on your way to meet a werelion, but I bet you’ve blurted out something even when you knew it probably wasn’t the wisest thing to say. The telling detail is a point of connection between reader and story.

Kalayna’s novel Grave Witch has a great telling detail in its opening sentences:

The first time I encountered Death, I hurled my mother's medical chart at him. As far as impressions went, I blew it, but I was five at the time, so he eventually forgave me.

Those two sentences pull us into Alex’s world very quickly, and the image of five-year-old Alex throwing her mother’s medical chart at Death shows us a lot about her temperament. Even before I know a thing about her, I admire Alex for her bravery in the face (literally) of death.

My Deadtown series is set in Boston, where a zombie plague has revealed the existence of paranormals (who were immune to the virus) and forced the norms and the monsters to live uneasily side-by-side. Deadtown’s protagonist, Victory Vaughn, is a shapeshifter who kills other people’s personal demons for a living. Those things are pretty far removed from most people’s experience, so I try to bring Vicky and her world to life through recognizable, relatable, telling details, such as the checkpoints residents must pass through to get into or out of Deadtown; the no-man’s-land between Deadtown and human-controlled Boston (called the New Combat Zone in honor of Boston’s former red-light district); and the kinds of personal demons Vicky exterminates: Drudes (dream-demons that feed on fear), Eidolons (guilt demons), and Harpies (revenge demons).

I also use telling details to give insight into Vicky’s character and emotional landscape. In one scene, Vicky recalls the night her father died, ten years earlier:

I sat on the bed, numb. The world was divided into Before and After, as completely as if someone had split it with a butcher’s cleaver. Before, I’d woken up in this bed, and Dad had been alive. Before, I’d gone down to breakfast, and Dad had been alive. Before, I’d run up here to change out of the sweats I wore for sword practice, and Dad had been alive. The clothes still draped the chair where I’d tossed them.

I told myself I should put them away, but I couldn’t bear to touch them, as if moving them would make it real.

A glass of water sat on my nightstand. Thirsty, I reached for it. Before, I thought, when I’d filled up that glass . . . My hand dropped to my lap.

The clothes on the chair, the untouched glass of water are telling details. As Vicky reaches for that glass, the enormity of what’s happened—the permanence of her loss—sinks in.

Sometimes, a telling detail can show a writer something about the characters as she creates them. In my forthcoming novel Hellforged, Vicky’s protégé Tina, a good-natured teenage zombie who manages to across as obnoxious and self-centered at times, gets a gig as a backup singer for a zombie rock star. Vicky, believing that Tina is in danger, looks for her in her dressing room before a big concert:

I went up the stairs. Tacked to the door was a piece of paper with Tina Terror printed in bold black letters. Tina’s last name was Zawadzki, so I could see why she’d want a stage name. But “Tina Terror”? That was as bad as Monster Paul. Below the name was a lopsided star, hand-drawn in yellow highlighter. It looked like something a preschooler’s mom would hang on the fridge.

In Deadtown, zombies don’t have dreams. They stay in their restricted area and do manual labor. When I “saw” Tina’s hand-drawn star in that scene, I understood it as her declaration that she’s not settling for less. It symbolizes her hopes, but also her fears. Zombies don’t get stars; Tina knows that. So she’s going to make her own. Even if it looks kind of lame, it’s hers.

Telling details can be large or small. They stay with us because they’re vivid and they give us insight. When you think back to your favorite scenes—those that made you laugh or cry or moved you in some way—what you probably remember are the telling details. What are some of your favorites?

Nancy Holzner is the author of the Deadtown urban fantasy series, featuring shapeshifting demon slayer Vicky Vaughn. Deadtown is out now; its sequel, Hellforged, hit bookstore shelves on 12/28/10. You can read Deadtown’s first chapter here. 

Thank you so much for joining us today, Nancy! Great post.
I hope everyone is having a good Wednesday, and don't forget to check out today's stop on the blog tour over at The Qwillery.


Unknown said…
Great post, Nancy! The first scene that comes to mind for me is probably the only urban fantasy scene that's actually made me cry. (Quite a few make me laugh). It's from Patricia Briggs' second Mercy Thompson novel. Mercy has been raped and has shifted into her coyote form so she doesn't have to talk to anyone--the description of how she's cowering in the shadows, shaking and whimpering, as she watches her friends search for her, is one of the most moving I've ever read. Thanks for a great post!
Nancy Holzner said…
Hi Suzanne,

That's a great example. Just reading your description of it created such a strong image. And it shows exactly how that kind of detail is central to a scene. Thanks for reminding me of that one!
Tyhitia Green said…
Okay, Nancy, I am totally buying your books. :-D

Awesome. Can't wait to read it.
Nancy Holzner said…
Wow, thanks, Demon Hunter. There's quite a bit of demon hunting going on in Deadtown... :-D

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