Yesterday my four-year-old daughter discovered my old digital camera sitting on my desk and asked if she could have it. Since we’ve replaced it with a newer camera and our son already has a camera, I said, “Sure.” She immediately went off and started snapping pictures.
What caught my attention wasn’t the fact that she wanted to take pictures. Both of my kids have had a fascination with taking pictures from an early age. It was what she took pictures of: my desk, my hand on the mouse next to the computer screen, Legos, the dog. Then, when we went to pick my son up from the bus stop, she took pictures of flowers, trees, the sewer cover, a red mark on the sidewalk, her boot as she was walking, a neighbor working in her yard, cars driving by, the bus arriving, her brother getting off the bus, and a lion statue at the end of a driveway. When we came home and she’d earned her iPad time, she took about fifteen (very blurry) pictures of the scenes on the iPad. There are now 82 pictures on the camera and only about three are pictures I would have taken. Since I won’t show you pictures of my kids, here are a few of the best ones:
I clicked back through the pictures this morning, and what fascinated me is how close in she got for so many of them, like she really wanted to see the details. (And some things are completely unidentifiable.)
Maybe that’s just the nature of a four-year-old, wanting to explore the world and understand how it’s put together. But as I was driving home this morning after dropping my kids off at daycare and looking around at the gorgeous fall morning, thinking about those pictures she’d taken, I started focusing on details, too. The way the rising sun glinted off the tops of orange and red-tipped leaves. The cloud of fog lifting away over the river in the distance. A single solid gold tree rising from a still-green lawn.
Can you tell I like fall? Well, there were these four years I spent in Texas (college, you know), where I missed fall completely. It happened in Missouri while I was there, and what passed for fall in Texas happened while I was home for winter break. The first year I was back in Missouri for fall, I remember spending an afternoon sitting on my parents’ porch (they live out in the woods) staring at the trees and writing about it in a notebook. I should probably pull that out … The point is, these are the details I notice because they have meaning for me.
And as writers, it’s important for us to capture that wonder in the details. The details are what set our writing apart and give voice to our characters. We probably don’t want to give it the voice of my four-year-old’s boot, but maybe the character would identify with the lion at the end of the neighbor’s driveway. Maybe they have an inner lion just waiting to roar at the world. Who knows? Looking through the character’s eyes is like carrying around a camera and taking snapshots of his/her life. So remember to take note of those details!
I think what you said about capturing the details that are meaningful for you is such a key point. Last weekend I went to a workshop on using details with the amazing writer Erin Bow and she talked about how as a writer, you can use details deliberately to draw attention to something in the story.
I’ve seen some writers who do this very well to really draw out voice. One I read recently that comes to mind is Jen Malone with AT YOUR SERVICE. The character’s love of New York is so intrinsic to her voice in every detail.
Beautifully written; I love the point about texture. I think kids are so kinesthetic-minded that they really relate to sensory description and ideas. Great point!
Thank you! Yes, kids see the world differently, and it’s good to step inside their shoes–or boots–for a while and learn from them.