Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Dish on Details

She exited the Interstate and turned onto the two-lane highway. Despite the years, nothing had changed. Longleaf pines still bordered the shoulder on one side of the road, and on the other, a dozen men dressed in jeans and wide-brimmed hats roamed through tobacco plants harvesting the bottom leaves.

It took some time, but a writing instructor finally helped me understand the importance of details in a story. Not just information on what a character looks like, what they're wearing, or a description of the setting, though all can be essential. She was talking about details unique to the character’s environment within a given scene.

These details are crucial, and a recent Sunday morning service provided me with prime examples of details that could be used to add authenticity to a story. Every autumn, churches in our area celebrate Homecoming. Before we moved here, our concept of this event involved a school dance or football game. But this version of Homecoming is a call for members whose attendance has tapered off to reclaim their place in the pew.

She turned right, into the parking lot. A sea of battered pickups and old sedans clustered around the little brick church, but she drove behind the building and parked in the scraggly grass of what they once called the overflow lot. She stepped out of the car. The scent of chicken and hot bread carried from cars to the fellowship hall filled the air, and bells in the tiered steeple played, urging those who were weary to come home.

More local flavor is found in the meals that take place after Homecoming and other special services. After partaking of the fellowship table, any author can walk away with a full stomach and a notebook filled with details on regional dishes. Then, instead of using a nondescript “dishes overflowed with…” a typical food found anywhere in the country, an author whose story is set in eastern North Carolina could instead make readers’ mouths water with an image of favorites such as sweet potato casserole, chicken pastry (a dish similar to chicken and dumplings, but made with thin strips of pasta instead of clumps of dough) and Bright Leaf’s signature red hotdogs.

Once the picture is painted, anchoring readers in the culture of the region, those details can be “snapped” to the character’s journey.

She climbed the steps toward the front doors. The pews would be filled now. Overflowing like the table in the fellowship hall. She reached for the doorknob. The sleeve of her blouse slipped back revealing the butterfly etched into her arm. Come home, ye who are weary, come home, the bells rang. She wanted to, but would they make room for her or for the child she carried?

So while researching a setting, don’t forget to check newspapers and church calendars for annual events and celebrations, and local restaurants for regional food favorites.

Interested in trying Chicken Pastry? Here's a recipe I found:

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