In his 1970 Travis McGee novel The Long Lavender Look, John D. MacDonald wrote about taking a single object from childhood and fitting it into the context of its use.
“You take an object. Roller skate. The kind from way back, that fastened to the shoes instead of coming with the shoes attached. Look and feel and design of the skate key. With old worn shoes you turn the key too much and you start to buckle the sole of the shoe. Spin one wheel and listen to the ball bearinged whir, and feel the gritty texture of the metal abraded by sidewalks. Remember how slow and strange and awkward it felt to walk again, after all the long Saturday on skates, after going way to the other end of town. Remember the soreness where the strap hit the top of your ankle. When it got too sore, you could stop and undo the strap and run it through the top laces of your shoe. Thick dark scab on the abraded knee. The sick-making smack of skull against sidewalk. Something about the other end of the skate key…Of course! A hex wrench orifice that fit the nut on the bottom of the skate so you could expand or contract it to fit the shoe. If you didn’t tighten it enough, or if it worked loose, then the skate would stealthily lengthen, the clamps no longer fitting the edge of the shoe sole, and at some startling moment the next thrust would spin the skate around, and you either took one very nasty spill, or ended up coasting on the good skate, holding the other foot with dangling skate up in the air until you came to a place to sit down and get the key out and tighten everything again. Roller skate or sandbox or apple tree or cellar door.”
Mind you, this was in a detective story. It had no bearing on the plot. It was a little jewel passed on to anyone interested by a gifted, prolific, and successful writer. I have often used this technique to go back and notice small details that can often show more than exposition ever could.
I discovered John D. MacDonald when I was 14. Mom had a paperback of A Tan and Sandy Silence. I had never been so captivated by a book before. The anti-hero Travis McGee was so goddamned cool. Houseboat in Florida, cool friends, a great stereo, gin all the time. What’s not to love? Plus, he didn’t take shit off anyone. He had no job, and in fact was proud of his laziness. He was fond of saying that he took his retirement in chunks before he was too old to enjoy it, amassing a kitty of thousands that he hid away in his super secret hidey hole in his boat’s bilge and spending almost all of it until it was time to go back to work. He was snide, cynical, tortured, smart, and funny as hell. In short, everything I wanted to be. Never mind that he was fictional. That didn’t seem to matter.
I read every one of these books, buying them in thrift stores and book stores, devouring the adventures, the settings, and the dialogue. I took on many of the attitudes and ideas from these stories, some of them pretty raunchy. In fact, my first drunk was based on Travis McGee’s penchant for Plymouth gin. In my case it was an entire fifth of Gilbey’s drunk warm, straight out of the bottle. Not exactly McGee’s Hemingway cocktail, but I was fifteen.
As I started to write myself, I went back to MacDonald and McGee to see what he did that was so effective at conveying the raw emotion. How was able to paint such a vivid picture of life in Lauderdale in the early 60s? How did he write such thrilling action scenes?
The novels weren’t perfect. There was a lot of exposition, usually in the form of one of the characters essentially breaking the fourth wall and saying, “You know…” and then delivering a long, cynical lecture of some kind or other. MacDonald was anti-corporate and pro-environment, so he had a lot to say. His female characters could be shallow and even simpering, but after a while he got the swing of it.
Above all, he was keenly aware of tension and release in every scene. He gave character cues without a lot of messy explanation. He used names like you already knew the people. He had a breezy, familiar style that was inclusive and easy to read. And above all, he strove to emotionally connect to the reader.
I think many of today’s writers can take a lesson from that.