Saturday, July 11, 2009

Tasting the Moment: the seduction of detail

by Anneke Jacob

I can’t find the link. Someone – I think it was Barbara Kingsolver – mentioned the importance of getting the details right. She said that when the second full moon appeared in the sky two weeks after the first, it was time to put the book down.

At least, I think that’s what she said. I can’t find the quote. And my urge for accuracy is playing me up, nagging at me like weeds in my neglected garden. I’ve now spent way longer looking for that quote than actually writing this piece about research. Which just might have something to do with why it took me five years to write my latest novel. It’s always easier to rummage through six pages of Google returns for an obscure factual detail than it is to grapple with your plot.

But it’s those perfect details – the right object, the genuine street corner – that draw us into the narrative. Sound and speech rhythms fall just so. Thick frost covers the Creamsicles at the corner store, and scrapes and burns our questing fingers. The texture of flesh fits our hand; we inhale its odours of secret sweat, sunscreen, a faint hint of cardamom.

A whole world can be imagined or hinted at with the right touches here and there. Language and sex are closely related: sound and rhythm, engaging both the tongue and the brain. It’s the sensory feasts, those moments I can taste, that I’ll go back and read again and again.

And just like bad grammar and typos, factual errors make readers stumble and fall out of the world into which we’ve carefully coaxed them. “Oh, yeah, right!” I hear them saying. “Nobody talks like that!” “No one’s body does that unless they work for Cirque du Soleil!” “Why, that equipment would be ruined if you treated it like that!”

Where was that site on leather care…?

Of course when the web isn’t enough you have to search for other sources. Expert readers are like gold. It was actually Dee Luvbight who pointed out that I was letting the leather get wet.

But try getting expert advice when you can’t explain why you’re asking. I write bdsm erotica. The dom in my latest novel, As She’s Told, is a builder. This meant our renovator neighbour answered an oh-so-casual question or two. Anders, the dom, is a Dane (okay, I have a thing for tall, rangy blond guys; can you blame me?) and getting the odd Danish phrase just right took some doing. I put out SOS cries for Danes on kinky newsgroups. Then I discovered a multiple language-help site, where I had to attribute my search for the plural of “thrall” to the writing of a historical novel. They also provided the truth about Danish sea shanties, free of charge.

Now, you might suggest that I was going overboard for the sake of an unlikely audience of a few Danes. Just a tad obsessive? You bet. “Enough!” I sometimes told myself. “How many readers from that small European nation do you think will come across your book?” But within a month of publication I heard from two Danish readers, and they weren’t complaining about word usage! Whew!

I wish Dick Francis had had at least one Canadian reader/editor before he published The Edge. (And by the way, I googled that title instead of walking upstairs to find the book. Is that research or what?) The book’s largely set in Canada, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s a character whose every phrase ends in “eh.” But Englishisms like “plait” and “chap” just slide off Canadian tongues. It’s pretty funny. The book is still a fine one, but it would have been even better if Francis had done his homework.

A short turnaround time for prose must be hell for errors. Okay, I’ll admit it; five years working on a book is too long. But at least I had time to fix things. Visualize Maia, my poor frustrated heroine, teased to distraction, dreaming in a Toronto streetcar. She wakes up to find that the streetcar has short-turned down Bay and has taken her all the way to City Hall. She’s heading the wrong way! And she’s not allowed to be late! In a panic she gets off and runs north again.

Wait a minute. Do streetcars run on Bay? The next time I was in the neighbourhood I checked it out. No streetcars. It turns out they stopped running them on that part of Bay Street in 1975. Oops. I shifted the short-turn to Dundas and all its traffic, and instead of dodging suits on Bay, Maia dodges excruciatingly slow elderly shoppers on Spadina. In the end, an even better scene. And Toronto Transit aficionados are not pulled from the narrative to check the publication date and shake their heads.

In five years the quiet nighttime negotiation scene shifted locations three times, as the street I thought would be a fine space for private conversation filled up with rowdy clubs. City politics changed its flavour, so my background details changed, too. And I know far more about Danish Christmas traditions than anyone but a Dane should know.

Construction details can carry their own allure. Here’s an early scene from As She’s Told in which Anders gives Maia a tour of the work he’s doing on his own house:

The house all looked pretty deconstructed; I had a hard time visualizing the surfaces freed of their layers of old paint and linoleum and construction debris. His long, self-assured body kept distracting me, moving ahead through the splintery shadows, leading me with a hard hand on my wrist. The resinous smells of cut wood were powerfully like the smell he carried about with him, and made me want very badly to get under his clothes. There was a fireplace, or at least the outer portion, in amongst the lumber in the basement, a rather beautiful art deco design in honey-coloured wood. But the mantelpiece was missing.

“It’s by Roberts, out of a series of midtown apartments from the early thirties. Which were taken down in the seventies when they were flattening anything with character. Sooner or later I’ll find the mantelpiece, and then I’ll put it in. Look at this carving.” He ran his fingers through symmetrical grooves. Suddenly I could feel those fingers in my own grooves. He gave me a long look over his shoulder, and his smile stripped me bare. Slowly he stepped over to me and ran his hands down my body. I leaned my head on his chest, and let the moan loose. “You’ll be installed yourself, soon enough, girl,” he murmured. A glance at his watch. “You have work to do; let’s get you back.”

There really was a Roberts creating Art Deco in the early 30’s in Toronto. But not all my research reflects reality. Some of it is mined out of my head. My first book was set on another planet; if I needed technology I made it so. And according to one reader, doms are surely searching Home Depot even as we speak, in vain for the hardware that arose from my evil and inventive brain. Details can be so seductive.


Anneke Jacob is the author of As She’s Told, winner of the National Leather Association’s Pauline Réage Novel Award (Pink Flamingo, 2008), and Owned and Owner (republished by Pink Flamingo in 2009). Visit her website:


  1. Hi Anneke,

    Excellent post.

    As She's Told is one of my favourite erotic titles and I still get blown away by the wealth of detail you've managed to include in the novel to make it 100% believable and credible.

    Congratulations on your deserved awards.


  2. Hi Anneke!

    Good post! As I was reading I was struck with your command of language. It really drew me in. I was also rather consoled by your taking five years to writye a novel. I'm always a little intimidated by people who can crank them out every month like burgers.

    I think details are important. Its true no one will know if you have your Danish right, but they can get a feel for the authenticity of a thing and it gives it emotional power.

    Very good!


  3. Anneke,

    What a lovely post and I chuckled at the opening. A tad obsessive comes to mind, but in a good way.

    Garce said something that really fits with this weeks topic. The attention to detail is a must, but how it's presented is huge. Woven in betwixt and between has the reader eagerly following along, wanting more. Presented as a laundry list of details will leave them cold.

    Congratulations on many successes and here's to many more in the future.


  4. Thanks, everyone; and thanks especially to Ash for inviting me. Jude, I agree with Garce about the details needing to be woven in just so; a touch here and there is usually plenty.

    My husband had a look before I forwarded the piece, and as he read, frowned and informed me that there were no streetcars on Bay. "Wait for it, can't you?" I said. Don't you love it when they try to get ahead of you and wreck your timing?

  5. Hello, Anneke,

    Welcome to the Grip, and thanks for an inspiring, and deliciously written, post.

    I was intrigued by your comments about changing the location of a scene three times as the city morphed around you. A serious problem. My first novel, Raw Silk, was set in Thailand in the 1990s. I've considered writing a sequel, but realized that so much has changed, readers would know that a decade had passed, instead of the year that I intended.

    Thanks for joining us, and sharing your obsessions.


  6. Hi Anneke,

    On of the ways I handle the detail problem is to investigate what is actually there first and adapt the story to suit. Like you, I greatly fear that critical e-mail that asks, "What idiot told you that?". I love detail and it is my nature to "write to three decimal places", but that carries with it huge pressure to research correctly. By nature, I also wonder how authors can crank out books on schedule in 6 weeks or 6 months. For me, it takes what it takes. Maybe that's a luxury that others don't have.

    Best wishes.

    Randall Lang

  7. Lisabet, thanks for the welcome and the kind words. Trying to keep up with a changing city is a losing battle; no matter how up to the minute the thing is when you send it in, it'll be out of date before the binding's on the book. But it's well worth trying.

    Randall, I love that phrase, "write to three decimal places." Boy, does that express it well! As for the length of time it takes to write a book, day jobs and babies can have a lot to do with it. Even when the time is available, it's easy to lose the momentum (or remember whatever great ideas you forgot to write down).

    Thanks again, everyone, for all the great feedback and the welcome!



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