In the first novel of the Crossroads Trilogy, Spirit Gate, I introduce Captain Anji who with his company of about two hundred soldiers is traveling toward the imperial frontier where war has broken out. He is on his way to take up an important command. Circumstances force him to journey entirely elsewhere, but for the purposes of this post let me discuss a salient detail.
Anji is called a “captain” because I did not want to make up words for ranks that the reader would have to learn. There was enough detail about this fantasy world that it seemed reasonable to me to go with basic terms like “captain,” “chief” (in its military usage), and so on. What I did know and needed to get across was that Anji is not only traveling to take up a major command more like that of a general but that he has significant status and rank in his own person regardless of his military rank.
As it happened my archaeologist spouse has since 2002 been employed under the umbrella of the Department of Defense working for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (the “joint” in the title refers to a joint civilian/military unit). Because of this I have had a glimpse into the military that I might not otherwise have done.
While I was writing Spirit Gate I happened to be involved (at that time) in the unit’s Family Readiness Group, which is basically a support service network for the families of servicemen and women. During my time of FRG involvement, the general who was then commander of JPAC considered the FRG important enough that he made sure to be personally involved. Therefore I was able to observe him at a number of meetings.
I was much struck by a detail I would have never myself have thought to include (even though it is obvious once you stop to think about it): He had a young officer in attendance at all times. Obviously he had staff officers and a command structure, but this young man (who had the loveliest blue eyes, not that that is germane to anything) was in essence his “body man.”
Observing this I realized the presence of this “body man” was a telling detail that was missing from my depiction. I immediately gave Anji two “body men” (Sengel and Toughid) who are one or the other in attendance on him and on watch at all times.
There’s a lot you can know from this detail: Anji is an important enough man to warrant constant attendance, as well as needing a man at hand he can use to relay orders or run errands if need be, at any moment of the day or night. As well, Anji regards himself (with good reason, given his complicated history) as someone who needs to be guarded day and night. The presence of Sengel and Toughid, who rarely speak but who matter in the plot, also creates an expectation of constant military readiness, which can be seen as a good thing or as an ill thing, depending on your perspective — and it is exactly that perspective changing which matters in the larger thematic plot of the Crossroads Trilogy.
It is easy to fish up generic details as you write. I do it all the time, especially in first drafts when I may be paying less attention to the details than to the forward motion of the characters across the plot. At times not worrying about the details in the first draft may be the way to go; it can be easy to get bogged down and lose momentum. At other times it is crucial to slow down to seek out the specificity and even intimacy of those details within the setting that allow the deepest level of plot and theme to bubble up within their framework. Sometimes you cannot known the texture and look of such details without a serendipitous observation (such as the one described above). At other times it takes a concerted effort to research or experience an element pivotal to the setting or characters.
Whether in the first draft or in a later revising draft, I try to stop and think about what the details are telling me. I ask myself whether I am grabbing at facile answers rather than really digging for that small detail that by its existence unfolds a much bigger story.