In estate-agent speak, ‘the particulars’ of properties for sale or rent are anything but particular. ‘Compact’, means a flat the size of a cupboard, ‘deceptively spacious’, means there may be a cupboard in the flat somewhere.
At the wonderful Stinging Fly summer workshop I attended in Dublin this June, we were given an article by tutor, Sean O’Reilly, during a session on the use of detail. I don’t know who wrote the piece, but the author says “it’s not just detail that distinguishes good writing (fiction or non-fiction) ; it is detail that individualises. I call it particularity. Once you’re used to spotting it–and spotting its absence–you will have the best possible means of improving your writing markedly.” There’s some great examples of particularity in this article – for example, the first line of Graham Green’s The Heart of the Matter.
” Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the iron work”.
The author of the article points out that if the words ‘bald pink knees’ were removed, the sentence would be ordinary, not memorable. Those three words do a great deal to suggest character and bring the other details into focus. It’s a brilliant example of how to begin a novel or short story.
I’ve been reading and enjoying Alison Moore’s story collection, ‘The Pre-War House’. She often particularises characters by their actions. I like this example from the story ‘Over night stop’. The protaganist is a woman going on her honeymoon. The plane is delayed and she and her new husband are put up in a hotel. Alone in the hotel bar, she suddenly recognises someone – a man from her past, called Stanley.
“She shared a house with a friend of his and never knew if she would return from work to find Stanley on the sofa, drinking milk from the carton, resting it between his thighs after swigs, looking at her in her uniform and saying, ‘Hello nursey.'”
For me, there’s something about Stanley swigging the milk, resting the carton between his thighs then saying ‘Hello nursey’, that makes him distinctively creepy. Without Alison writing anything else, I imagine Stanley has a mustache of milk, can see the beige of his trousers, hear the wheedling tone of his voice. This story gets much more creepy – it’s very good. I recommend reading it and the rest of the collection.