Writing is in a lot of things, but it sure is in the details. Little things that can make a moment memorable, make a scene pop. Make your work stand out.
Here are a couple… they all have to do with being a houseguest. An interesting situation, because there’s a slight element of tension there… you want to be invited back!
When I was in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago, I was staying in an old house with old furniture. The chest of drawers in the bedroom had eight drawers with thin brass drawer pulls that you had to pull up and pull… and when you let them go, they flopped down… and rattled, just a little bit. Every time I walked across the room they’d rattle. Just a little. But I could hear it. It drove me nuts. Nuts, I tell ya! A little tinkly rattle with every step I took.
So, I had to flip up each handle so it wouldn’t rattle. Which meant every time I pulled open a drawer, I had to remember to flip up the handle so it wouldn’t shiver when I walked across the room. It was enough to make a guy (less calm than myself, naturally) go up in a tower with a rifle.
I’ve never had that happen before and I instantly thought “What a cool detail for a story…” I felt terrible for the next houseguest, who might not be as un-excitable as myself… who knows what rattling handles might lead to!
Here are two other details that are a tad more dramatic… not as dramatic as elves with machine guns bursting in the front door and eating my hosts’ whippets… but something that would make it more difficult, say, if my hostess was a real ball buster and didn’t want me there in the first place…
This past weekend, I was in Atlanta. Doing my mini-book tour. Staying with a friend. I was taking a shower. She and her boyfriend were hanging around. It was a one bedroom house. Tiny. You could hear everything. Imagine I was the boyfriend’s pal, and the girlfriend, who owned the house, hated all of her boyfriends’ buddies… add some drama if you can!
So you know how women have all those damn “products” all over the shower? Bottles of stuff, dozens of them, like a picket fence that you have to negotiate… naked… all probably in some arcane order that, once disturbed, will never be put back right… She had a wire rack hanging from the shower head, or at least up against the wall hanging on the pipe that connects to the shower head. It was all chrome and lovely.
It was packed with stuff. Eau de this and bizarre feminine ointment and loofah goop that. I was just looking for soap, hoping for soap with no hair on it. Vain hope. Then I searched, my face right up next to the stuff so I could read it…
Imagine the woman outside, irritated I’m using so much hot water…
I finally think I see what I want, behind a bottle of conditioner or vaginal wash or something… I reach out to touch it, do, gently… and BLAMMO, the whole thing falls and half the shit explodes out of it, landing all over the tub with the most horrific noise. Bottles everywhere.
I barely touched it and it blew like shrapnel. It was actually pretty funny.
The angry hostess part didn’t happen, but if you had an actor who didn’t mind getting waterlogged, you could really make a good short film about trying to take a shower under duress. Make one! Send it to me!
The last houseguest detail, also true, happened a long time ago. I was about twenty, in Rome, and had landed with a girl and her mother, a big waisted, Wagnerain, shelf-bosomed contessa. She had short gray hair and a piercing gaze. That I had not met the daughter two hours before she asked me to stay as a guest in their apartment adds to the backstory, but I don’t have time for it here.
In this apartment, they had huge windows, like sliding doors, and to close off the light and burglars, they had heavy steel shutters up in the wall, like on the front of a deli in New York…
I was bunking in in the living room, on a fold out bed. I woke up in the night, melting hot, a lake of sweat… and thought, if I can just open the shutter, I’ll get some air in here and I won’t die.
Because I had zero extra money, it was crucial that these people continue to like me… I had to have a place to stay.
I got up. Walked across the dim living room, avoiding king’s ransom knicknack tables… reached the wall and grabbed the inch wide nylon strap that came out of a slot in the wall… and began to pull the shutter up. It was heavy. Very heavy. Pull once on the strap, it went up about five inches. With a death-rattling noise. Pull again. And I had to PULL because it weighed so much. Cool air beginning to come in now…
I got it 7/8ths of the way to the top and pulled the last time and the strap broke inside the wall, shot out like a snake and the whole shutter, fifteen feet wide, CRASHED TO THE GROUND sounding like Krakatoa.
Thank God I was young. If this happened to me today, I’d have a heart attack… my last thought as I hit the floor being, “I’ll never be invited back here…”