Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Telling Detail

I stop-- as if discovering a catbird's nest thrust deep within a hedgerow-- stiller than stone, unbreathing, transfixed by the nestlings, whose feathers are dewed, whose tiny mewing beaks are hard scrims of yellow against their grey selves, perfectly outlined by a morning sun.

That's how I feel when I come across the perfect, telling detail in a novel or short story, the seemingly casual effect that captures an entire world in a single gesture. Like this one from the prologue in According to Queeney by Beryl Bainbridge:

"The conveyance turning into Fleet Street, a gaggle of urchins ran in pursuit and leapt for the tail-board, at which the driver flicked backwards with his whip."

...flicked backwards with his whip... With that image, I am in London in December, 1784, trundling along with a box-cart...

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