This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Too Much Information

            A while back I wrote about the vexing question of how to handle background detail in a book, more specifically a mystery. The question the author has to decide is whether such material slows down the book and annoys the reader or whether it adds verisimilitude and atmosphere to the mystery.
            As with anything else in writing, a lot depends on the execution. A good writer can pull off things that would send a lesser one crashing to the pavement. Still, some of the reaction is bound to be reader-specific. Certain people just want to get on with the story and really don’t want to pause for a digression, no matter how witty or erudite.
            In the earlier piece I raised the issue because of feedback I’d received on my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance. The story involves a man who goes on a fly-fishing vacation and winds up getting involved in some serious local intrigue, which results in a murder and a murder investigation.

Had to Be There for a Reason

            As I tried to put that book together, I reasoned that since the protagonist was on a fishing trip, I should have a couple of fishing scenes in the book, and that they should be detailed enough to be real. It was also the case that the victim was fly-fishing when killed, and the two key witnesses were fishing downstream and out of sight when it happened.
            Therefore, I reasoned, fishing scenes would be as much a part of the book as wetness is a part of water. And certainly if my character had been mountain-climbing or bird-watching, I would expect to include descriptions of those activities. So I put the scenes in and took considerable care in writing them and making them as real and richly detailed as possible.
            Reader reaction, at least the reaction I’ve heard, was divided. Some people said they really enjoyed the scenes and were intrigued to learn about something they’d known little if anything about. Others said they got bogged down in them, and some older readers in particular seemed to suffer because they felt they had to understand those scenes before they could continue with the reading of the book.

Try Harder and Punt

            Aside from trying harder to make sure the scenes would be as clear and understandable as possible, I didn’t, until last week, have any ideas about how to handle this issue in the second book featuring the same fishing character. Then it occurred to me that a note to the reader might be in order.
            Any writer considering such a device has to contend with the reality of being unable to top the note Mark Twain put at the beginning of Huckleberry Finn:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

            Still, you can’t shy away from a necessary task because someone else once did it so much better. With that in mind, I’ve decided to put this note to the reader at the beginning of my second mystery novel:

This book contains several descriptive and detailed passages about fly-fishing. They are there for the benefit of those who fish, those who enjoy the outdoors, and those who might want to learn more about this pastime. These passages are not germane to the solution of the mystery, and readers who fall into none of the categories above may feel free to skip past them, if so desired, without missing out on a vital clue.