Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Dish on Details by Kimberli Buffaloe

They say the "devil is in the details," but wouldn't it be better to say that "God was in the details?" In the same way, we, as writers, need to make sure our descriptions hold details that can transport our readers into our imaginary places. Kimberli Buffaloe, talented writer and photographer, tells us how we can use details to improve our writing.
~ Angie

She exited the Interstate and turned onto the two-lane highway. Despite the years, nothing had changed. Longleaf pines still bordered the shoulder on one side of the road, and on the other, a dozen men dressed in jeans and wide-brimmed hats roamed through tobacco plants harvesting the bottom leaves.

It took some time, but a writing instructor finally helped me understand the importance of details in a story. Not just information on what a character looks like, what they're wearing, or a description of the setting, though all can be essential. She was talking about details unique to the character’s environment within a given scene.

These details are crucial, and a recent Sunday morning service provided me with prime examples of details that could be used to add authenticity to a story. Every autumn, churches in our area celebrate Homecoming. Before we moved here, our concept of this event involved a school dance or football game. But this version of Homecoming is a call for members whose attendance has tapered off to reclaim their place in the pew.

She turned right, into the parking lot. A sea of battered pickups and old sedans clustered around the little brick church, but she drove behind the building and parked in the scraggly grass of what they once called the overflow lot. She stepped out of the car. The scent of chicken and hot bread carried from cars to the fellowship hall filled the air, and bells in the tiered steeple played, urging those who were willing to come home.

More local flavor is found in the meals that take place after Homecoming and other special services. After partaking of the fellowship table, any author can walk away with a full stomach and a notebook filled with details on regional fare. Then, instead of using a nondescript “dishes overflowed with…” a typical food found anywhere in the country, an author whose story is set in eastern North Carolina could instead make readers’ mouths water with an image of favorites such as sweet potato casserole, chicken pastry (a dish similar to chicken and dumplings, but made with thin strips of pasta instead of clumps of dough) and Bright Leaf’s signature red hotdogs.

Once the picture is painted, anchoring readers in the culture of the region, those details can be “snapped” to the character’s journey.

She climbed the steps toward the front doors. The pews would be filled now. Overflowing like the table in the fellowship hall. She reached for the doorknob. The sleeve of her blouse slipped back revealing the butterfly etched into her arm. Come home, ye who are willing, come home, the bells rang. She was willing, but would the congregation welcome her back, or accept the child she carried?

So while researching a setting, don’t forget to check newspapers and church calendars for annual events and celebrations, and local restaurants for regional food favorites.

Kimberli Buffaloe is a pastor's wife, Penwright, and creator of Front Porch Fiction, and Carolina Towns and Trails, a blog featuring outdoor destinations around the Carolinas. Her contemporary novella, Eternal Weight of Glory, won first place at the 2011 Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference, and her short stories have appeared on Christian Fiction Online Magazine. She lives in eastern North Carolina with her husband and two terriers.


  1. Love this! Now I'm starving! :)

  2. I enjoyed this post and agree that adding some detail can help our readers become more engaged in the story. In one of my manuscripts, my heroine visits a Filipino restaurant owned by her best friend’s family. I did some research on Filipino food and included some details. My critique partners all enjoyed learning about the dishes. Their feeling was that the details added a lot to the scene.

  3. Kimberli asked me to post this for her because she was having trouble:

    I apologize for the delayed response. I tried to post a comment earlier today but my Internet went down and then Blogger gobbled up my pearls of wisdom!

    Bren, thanks for the kind words and for making another point. The details I spoke of in the post not only establish regional and cultural settings, they can also engage the reader's senses.

    Dawn, I agree with your crit partners. Exposing your readers to a culture or foods they may not be familiar with expands their knowledge base and adds flavor to the story. An unexpected spice to the dish, like cinnamon to a meat mixture. Good job!

    Thanks for stopping by and for taking time to comment. And thanks to the ladies of Seriously Write for allowing me to share a bit of what I've gleaned during my writing journey!


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