Little Things and Eating the Elephant

Writing and independently publishing your books can seem like a daunting proposition. The writing aspect alone is enough to freeze a person in her or his metaphorical tracks. But, as one of my favorite sayings goes, “You don’t eat an elephant all at once.” (And for some reason, I always picture a full-sized elephant made of chocolate, like an enormous Easter bunny.)

The little details are what make up any seemingly insurmountable task. Conquer those systematically, and you’re on your way to completing that novel, short story or publishing project.

What got me thinking about the little things was a recent writing experience.

First, a little background. I’ve published two novels (The Source of Lightning and Second Death) and a collection (The Color of Darkness and Other Stories), but the novels were written about ten years ago. I became involved in other things, and didn’t get back to serious writing until a year ago, after a personal shake-up. I participated in the 2011 NaNoWriMo, and completed a novel that’s been skittering around in my head for several years.

The novel is called Revival. It stems from my feeling that, when it comes to monster-hunting, Catholics traditionally have all the fun. I wanted a Baptist preacher hero who derives his monster-hunting abilities from non-Catholic sources–no holy water or priestly vestments. Thus was born Elijah Bishop Grayson, a Baptist pastor with a dark past who confronts ancient Sumerian forces threatening his rural Alabama church.

“They” always tell you to write what you know (a friend once told me “they” are those who’ve not stood where you’ve stood nor sat where you’ve sat), and while I’ve attended church all my life and a Christian since I was 12, I’m not a pastor nor am I Baptist. Okay, I’m a worship leader in a tiny rural Baptist church in central Alabama. But I was raised Church of Christ.

If  you’re not of a fairly conservative religious background, or Southern, these distinctions don’t mean much. But I believe the details are what really sell a story to the reader. Granted, Baptists are, by definition, a diverse bunch, but if I write things a member of the Church of Christ would do and ascribe them to a Baptist preacher, I lose one bit of credibility with a reader who knows the difference. If I continue to get the details wrong, the reader will give up, saying, “That just didn’t seem real to me,” or “Real people don’t do that.” Or maybe not even know why the story didn’t work for them. It’s like reducing the resolution on a photo too far–you lose focus and definition and are left with a fuzzy image.

My go-to guy for Baptist preacher details is my dear friend, pastor and writing collaborator Scott Carter (difficult to know whether to link him here for his weekend job or here for his gaming credentials). He’s the one I ask, “Do you have elders or deacons or what?” or “What’s a good definition for spiritual gifts?” He’s also a good source for rural central Alabama culture. I was born and raised in Alabama, but in Huntsville, which (ask anyone) is a completely different cultural experience from the more truly Southern Birmingham area. He’s told me great nuggets of information like moonshine being sold in Coca-Cola bottles.

The other day I asked him on Facebook about the authenticity of a particular scene, and then asked him about spiritual healing. It’s a Biblical concept, but not one I’ve had any experience with. (The Church of Christ is a rather rational bunch of people, philosophically speaking.) He proceeded to enlighten me, sharing his experiences. And then he said (or typed, actually), “now, if it’s a ‘faith healer’ there could be more to it than that, more show. She might not consider it ‘show,’ she would consider it ritual.” He went on to explain, “In several folk traditions, cleansing the space is done, you might make noise to drive out spirits, light candles, medicine bags. Basically a degree of syncretism.”

Bingo. It wasn’t what he said, although that was very helpful. It was the ideas it sparked. I was rewriting a particular pivotal scene, and had been struggling with it, and there was the answer. I won’t spoil things by saying specifically what it is, as I’m still writing it, but with that one comment, he solved some difficulties I was dealing with in the plot, and helped me integrate a character into the setting in an important way. All because I asked him about details that might not matter to some people.

Keep your eyes open for the little things. And really, you don’t have to eat the elephant all at once. Enjoy the tasty bits of chocolate for what they are.

Have little details helped your writing? Have insight for me on Southern folk medicine? Share in the comments below.

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