A Writer’s Notebook: Work details

There’s this story I’ve been aching to finish for a long, long time now, but the details just aren’t coming. Or, weren’t until this week. But thanks to Tom Franklin, things seem to be rolling again.

More on that in a minute. First, some writing:

Val dropped the ramps and unchained the big yellow Walker mower from the rail, then he hopped into the trailer and backed the mower down where Randal waited with the sled.  His other employee Jesús was sorting the lines and checking the gas and oil levels in the weedeaters.  Behind them the lawn stretched wide and green, only the frayed tips of the Augustine going brown in the summer sun, and Val surveyed the slopes and shallows as he always did though he knew by heart the route he would take.  The huge house skinned in white Austin stone sat atop a small hill like a magistrate, watching them.  Val stared at it a moment.

He let Randal hitch the sled to the back of the Walker as he lifted out the little Snapper push mower, checked the gas and oil in it.  The three men gathered at the rear of the trailer, Jesús with the big Troy-Bilt slung over one narrow shoulder.

“Hace calor,” Jesús said to neither man, but more between them.

Randal nodded without looking at him and said “Si,” then to Val he said, “So, boss, I can take a look at those flower beds if you want.  Ain’t done much to them since the summer started.”

Val glanced up toward the house where the little shrubs and a narrow strip of wilting marigolds and zinnias flashed in the morning light.  “Sure,” he said.  “But get them edges first, out along the fence, you and Jesús both.  Entiende, Jesús?  Los bordes?”  Jesús nodded.  “Then let Jesús take the little mower up behind the house while you check the beds.”

The men broke, Randal and Jesús walking apart like duelists in opposite directions to trim the fringe along the fence until they met behind the house.  Val watched them a moment then slipped on his heavy headphones over his ball cap and stepped into the sled, adjusted his feet, then switched on the key and set the choke and fired the big mower.  It lurched and tugged at his grip but he rode behind it easily, the little wheels of his sled bouncing lightly through the grass and the engine growling before him as he glided out to the edge of the property.  He clenched one handle and released the other, spun a tight arc while with his free hand he slapped the blades into gear and then he was lost to the world, rolling over the sprawling lawn and thinking about anything but work.  The sandwiches his wife had made him, the orange Gatorade drum full of water lashed to the truck, the crazy preacher he’d met the other day, the crazy girl he’d met those many years ago.  At the end of the lawn he spun a half circle and rode back the opposite direction, all his lawns cut in ordered stripes to follow the contours of the land instead of awkward spirals like the kids would do.  Like he would have done back then.

He dipped and rose along the rolls of the vast lawn, his knees bending and unbending with the motion like a sailor aboard a rocking vessel, which is how he often felt out here alone in the bright sun, like a captain on some great green sea that he alone knew how to navigate.  His feet floating above the grass as though above the water.  And he coasted on, the mower snarling but steady in his grip.

When he’d striped the lawn and cut a few tight circles around the trees up near the house, he raised the blades and rumbled back over to the truck.  Jesús and Randal stood there waiting, a cup of water each, and when he killed the engine and stepped down from the sled they handed him a cup as well.  He looked into the water and watched it shiver, the vibrations of the mower grips still trembling in his hands.  He downed it and poured himself another and they all took out their paper sacks of lunches and stood leaning against the bed of the truck as they ate.  They compared sandwiches like schoolboys: Randal had baloney, Jesús some unidentified loosemeat that they could not translate from his description, Val a thick chicken salad on light wheat bread with the lettuce still dripping dew from when his wife had washed it.  The other men shook their heads.

Randal said as he always said, “Man, your wife needs to teach my wife how to make a sandwich.  I’d prefer a good chopped barbecue myself, but shit, what you got always looks better than what I got.”

Val only nodded and ate in silence.

“Hey Jesús, I never ask you, do I.  Your woman make good sandwiches?  You like them there she gives you?”

“No estoy casado.”

“I don’t know what that means, amigo.”

“Sin esposa,” Jesús said.

“I think he’s saying he ain’t married,” Val said.

“Well maybe that’s a good thing, hey, Jesús?”

So, the other day, Tom Franklin was in Portland to promote the paperback of his bestselling, award-nominated novel Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, and I attended the reading. Afterward, we hung out for a bit, had some dinner, debated Cormac McCarthy (Franklin is the one who turned me onto McCarthy), and talked shop. And during that evening, I remembered what is probably the most important lesson I picked up from Franklin while writing my masters thesis on him ten years ago: the story is in the details.

During the Q&A after Franklin’s reading, he explained this same lesson to the audience, telling his story of the Sears Catalogue that I related in my post series on historical research. Someone had asked about his novel Smonk and the appearance there of a gatling gun, and Franklin explained that it wasn’t really a gatling gun, it was “1908 Model Hiram Maxim water-cooled machine gun” (this is quoted from the book, but Franklin rattled it off from memory). “Those are the sorts of details that make a story,” she said.

So Franklin’s fiction is riddled with concrete, specific details: Not a soda, but a Coke. Not beer, but Budweiser. Not a rifle, but a Winchester 45-70 over and under. In his latest novel, the bulk of the first chapter is dedicated to a farmer/mechanic’s daily routine, which sounds strangely mundane for the opening of a novel but which Franklin brings to vivid and poetic life with the rich professional details of the work — what kind of tractor, what mix of feed, how his shop doors open.

So I revisit the grossly unfinished draft of my story in progress, and I add to it as much detail as I can manage. My character owns a small lawn mowing business, so I get to describe not just the routine of cutting lawns but the equipment, by name and by procedure.

The tricky part about details like this is knowing with it’s right, though. In many cases, you can add too much, thinking to over-explain a process. In other cases, you can skimp, tossing in just enough to refresh your own memory but not enough to give a vivid idea to your readers. For that, you need access to a reader. Share the work with people who are familiar with the details and people who aren’t, and see who gets what.

I did mow lawns professionally, though only briefly and a very long time ago; still, I paid attention and remember a lot of what I learned, so I add those details here. Whether I used too much or too little, though, is unclear to me. So if you’ve ever mowed a lawn professionally, or if you’ve never mowed a lawn at all, I’d love your feedback. How much of this is working? And how much isn’t?

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