cheese is in the details

details writing craft Nov 26, 2020

Today I had an adventure, and it was all about cheese. (I promise this will end up being about writing, so just bear with me for a minute.)

Call me the hero of the tale. My mission was to grocery shop for Thanksgiving. My partner and I are safely COVID-bubbled, and my son and his partner will be coming for an outdoor meal, to be served at opposite ends of my ample-sized terrace. As far as I was concerned, I was cooking for a regiment.

Now, I grew up in an Italian family, and I spent the first 53 years of my existence as a New Yorker. On holidays, I want Italian specialty items — I’m talking prosciutto, olives, really good imported cheese — and I was not raised to purchase them from a supermarket, uninterestingly wrapped in plastic!

No! You go to Little Italy! You head to the Italian market and elbow your way to the counter and you get the good stuff. (Here’s where I used to shop, in case you’re curious.)

But life has changed. Now I live in Southern California, more than an hour’s drive from the nearest Eataly. Where was I supposed to get the cheese?

It was a difficult quest, but I was all in. The Googling commenced. Imagine my delight to find that Murray’s Cheese, a New York institution, had an outpost in a nearby Ralph’s!

It wasn’t Arthur Avenue, but it would have to do. I grabbed my mask and car keys and off I went. I’ll spare you my disappointment at the blank looks when I asked where to find the imported provolone (no offense, Boars Head, but you ain’t it). In story terms, you could call that the moment of death and rebirth. 

Now I’m home, groceries put away, and what I did manage to find seems promising (yes, I tasted!). It will do. The antepasto is saved!

So now let’s talk about writing.

If I say to you I went shopping for cheese today, that is an accurate statement. But you learn nothing about me. Why is it so important to me to get the cheese I want? What kind of cheese do I crave, and why? 

Good writing is specific. It’s rich with concrete, sensory details, fully-imagined particulars that are heavily inflected with character and story.

A generic detail—cheese—is merely a category, an abstraction, as bland as a slice of domestic deli provolone. 

A specific, sensory detail is as unmistakable as the imported provolone I grew with, with a flavor so sharp it tickles the tongue, and a texture both firm and flaky.

There is no cheese in fiction. There are only milky lumps of mozzarella smoked in metal barrels on the streets of the Lower East Side, and soft brie served on a slab of black slate in a dim Parisian cafe. 

There’s the grilled cheese sandwich your mom made just the way you liked it, and no one’s ever made it better in all the years since.  

Don’t settle for generics. Write to make your reader’s mouth water. See what emotions you can convey just by taking the time to invent specific details that matter.

TIP: Fill your writing with specific details that reveal character, offer backstory, and appeal to the senses. 

Yours in storytelling,

p.s. — How are you enjoying these tips? Any questions you’d like to have me answer in future installments? Leave a comment and let me know!

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