Editing my first novel after receiving some much-needed feedback, I was happily scribbling with red ink until I came to page 73 and my character entered a kitchen for a first time. What is it with kitchens? I ground to a halt. Suddenly, my vague descriptions of enamelware stove and tin sink seemed scanty. It seemed more judgmental than descriptive; it got in my way and I just couldn’t picture it. I can see my own mother’s avocado green kitchen from the early 70s with no problem, even though it’s cream now; it’s a real place in history I can describe that would tell you something about my mother or about me. But what was I trying to say about this kitchen in this book, 21st century Oklahoma in an old house still on propane? Because when an appliance is bought, is says something about how and what the characters are doing, and that means charting their financial history as much as anything.
The family in the Panhandle has been in this house since before the Dust Bowl. So, the appliances could be as old as the mid-Twenties, say, bought on credit when banks finally started financing farming in “no man’s land”. But an old stove would have been expensive to maintain, if I still wanted it in the kitchen and working, and what the family doesn’t have is money. So, when did they have enough money to re-do their kitchen? And why? Back to flow charts of wheat prices. Good rain in the Panhandle meant wheat prices went up in the 40s, but drought in the 50s saw them plummet. So, there’s a stove-buying window there, but it feels too early – the stove from the 20s would have been fine. But it can’t be too recently, certainly not after the matriarch died, because the male characters wouldn’t have changed any appliance, even after it stopped working. So, another decision to make, and a stove is now making me decide how young my male character is when he lost his mother.
Does any of this really matter when you’re writing? Is it just some excuse to stop editing and start googling? Well, yes and no. When I first started writing fiction I had this fear of wallpaper. Did I really have to send a character into the room and describe the wallpaper? As a playwright, you described wallpaper – or any less than crucial scenic element – at your peril. (And for goodness sake, don’t put anybody in a bed or a car! In my book, characters are lucky to get out of their beds or their cars, or their kitchens…) But make characters keep wandering into empty black boxes of locations and the reading experience is less than rich. So, what’s the important detail when you’re writing fiction? How do you know when to take a closer look – and when you’re just stalling for time?
Ironically, my first book is stuffed full of wallpaper, as well as linens and tapestries and cloths of different textures. Because textiles are important to my main character, a practical woman who comes from a handmade community, but is very sensual. She “feels” things. There is a difference between cheesecloth and kettle cloth and she would notice it. Likewise, domestic details are ones she would notice: surfaces, trimmings, how things are put together and treated. And she notices appliances because she needs to use them – she needs to get the best out of everything that she can while she can. So, she would notice the state and the age of the stove, not commenting on whether it’s clean or chipped particularly, but whether it’s being used – whether it can be used – whether she can use it. Because her need makes her sharp and desperate.
On page 73 I have her in 3 kitchens in her head: the Oklahoma kitchen she is seeing for the first time, her mother’s old kitchen which she hasn’t seen for 20-some-odd years, and the kitchen she has just fled from. So, again, the details matter. How are these kitchens alike? In what ways do they differ? Which feels most like “home” and why? And does it matter?
Yes, because it is how you can reveal memory. It is how you can give insight into a character who might seem difficult to like. It’s how you can punctuate all the places that have made her her. And it all goes back to a stove. Similarly, making decisions such as these can lead to new scenes, to help you dig deeper. Because if the family has been there since the 20s and replaced their stove in, say, the late 60s, then the old stove is sitting somewhere on the land, and I haven’t written it in. It should be there, discarded, and perhaps another character interacts with it in a way that is meaningful – or maybe it’s just a potent details that says something about a family that never gets rid of anything, in case it’s needed again. And it’s those details that make the whole thing feel somehow more authentic – for the reader, hopefully – but mostly for me – to test the limits of this world I am making, one image, one decision at a time. If the stove is right, it serves the story. And hopefully the stove, the wallpaper won’t mind too much when a character gets right close up and has a good old look at them.