I am handicapped. Might as well admit it. It’s a fact well known to my dogs.
The walk down our driveway to the barn is one I take every morning to feed the horses. Pugsly and Glenny always go with me, and every morning they bounce with excitement, as if they have never been the route before.
Glenny is off on a mad dash, tracking something he has no hope of catching and wouldn’t have a clue what to do with if he did. A clump of grass arrests Pugsly’s attention. He freezes to digest the story about an intriguing creature that, perhaps, passed by in the night. I’ve no idea what he smells, but urine (I understand) has a rich tale to tell—what particular animal, its sex, its health, what it has eaten . . . for all I know, what it was thinking at the time! To my dogs, I am a pitiful, handicapped being, ignorant of the ever-changing world of scent . . . and hearing impaired as well.
But observing the fascination with which they explore the world of our driveway, I am determined to open my own senses to this path I walk daily. It is the same everyday, but it is different—different wildflowers bloom, changing out the colors. Last night’s rain and the morning sunlight string dew pearls on pine needles and halo a spider’s silk design.
A suggestion of movement catches my eye—a slug on a wet fence pole. The intricate pattern on its back mimics the variations of wood, making it almost impossible to see. I never knew slugs came in anything besides basic black. Also, for the first time, I note the forest of devil’s matchstick lichens that inhabit the top of another rough-hewn post, making a tiny world of deep crevasses and red-topped spires that exists right under my nose.
I get some satisfaction that my dogs missed these things.
As a writer, I know it is important to note the small as well as the large. It is my job to make a scene real, so the reader can imagine it and be there in the story with the characters. With the possible exception of people on the autistic spectrum, our brains screen out an enormous amount of detail, focusing the limited capacity of our attention on what it determines is important. This process is enhanced in moments of tension—hence, the phenomena of perceiving only a narrow field of vision (like the end of a gun barrel) in an emergency.
Directors do the same thing with film, choosing certain angles or shots of facial expressions, telling details that give us much more than what we are actually seeing. Even the music that plays gives us subliminal hints about how to interpret the information pouring into our brains. We have evolved to attend to specific details and populate the rest of the world around it. A skillful writer will often direct the reader’s attention to a small detail, describing it in a way that makes the whole environs pop into the reader’s reality.
The lantern bobbed with the ship, leaking a shifting orb of pale light into the dark corridor.
Did you hear the creak of the ship; the slap of waves on the hull? Did you smell the sea? Feel the sense of mystery or suspense? If you did, all of that was created by your own mind, the most powerful tool in a writer’s arsenal. Every moment is comprised of thousands of bits of information. A writer cannot possibly describe them all and does not need to. Sometimes a whiff is all it takes….
T.K. Thorne is a retired police captain (Birmingham, Alabama), director of City Action Partnership, and an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction.