Yesterday I went shopping.
At the door of the store sat a man ringing a bell.
Next to the man ringing the bell was a red bucket with a sign over it that read "Salvation Army."
Since this is my first Christmas in America in many years, I'd forgotten about those Salvation Army guys taking donations outside of stores during the Christmas season.
I hadn't actively thought about them in at least seven years.
And isn't it strange that when I imagined them all those years -- if I ever did imagine them -- I saw the Hollywood version: the Santa outfit, the active, hearty donation collector, standing at the curbside ringing the bell with gusto, shouting, "Merry Christmas!"?
But no. The volunteers I saw yesterday looked tired and cold. They sat hunched over in metal, fold-out chairs. They wore baseball caps.
The experience changed my mental image. If I ever write a book set at Christmastime and I write about the Salvation Army donation collector, I won't have a fat, jolly Santa Clause on a street corner ringing a bell. He'll be a small, tired, hunched-over man in a squeaky chair.
Experience altered the details.
And sure, they're details. Big deal, right? Somewhere in the United States there is a probably an over-achieving Salvation Army donations collector who stands out in front of Walmart in full regalia and collects more donations than anyone else. It could happen. Still, my mental image is different now. It's the details, these small experiences, that can change our writing -- take us from shiny, happy cliches to real life.
Another example: Last night I drove home from the paint store to see a police car across the street from our house, lights flashing almost blindingly in the darkness. Someone had been speeding and the policeman was issuing a ticket.
I pulled into the driveway and noticed how the police car lights flashed against the house, not in streaks of blue and red as I would have imagined, but in an undulating indigo light that threw the black shadow of the ornamental maple in a gorgeous pattern against the house.
I didn't know police lights looked that way against a house. I never would have guessed it.
Experience changed my mental image. Now I can describe that in a book. Just a little detail. At different times of day I'm sure the lights look different. Maybe the fog last night had something to do with the indigo wash of light. Saying a character looked at a flash of red and blue lights against a house wouldn't be wrong. But adding that bit of detail -- the indigo light -- adds richness and depth. And makes the whole scene more interesting.
I love noticing details. What does a tree really look like against a winter sky? What kinds of noises do birds really make? What does the heat of the stove really feel like against your face when you open the oven door?
Details like this help pull our writing out of cliche and into awesomeness (in my humble opinion).