It's the telling detail, some little thing that pulls the reader into the scene, making it real, giving them a visceral reaction.
The character doesn't wear tennis shoes, he wears black Keds high tops, and when you read that you can see them. The kitchen doesn't smell of cleaner, it smells of ammonia, or Fels-Naptha, and the acrid odor bites your nose as you read. He doesn't smoke a cigar, he smokes an Upman, or chews on a cheap stogie, and depending on which the author chose, it colors how you see the character.
It's a dozen little things like that that carry a scene, a chapter, a book. Not necessarily your brilliant writing, but your attention to details, the little things.
And just as importantly, your lack of attention can cripple a scene.
Just finished reading a mostly delightful mystery – Mr. Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal. Besides being a decent mystery story with the sort of plucky heroine it's hard not to like, it's set in wartime London, the homefront during the Battle of Britain and Churchill gives some of the most famous speeches ever. I'm a sucker for that kind of stuff, especially from that era.
The book is a mystery involving a young woman who becomes a typist and private secretary to Churchill right after he becomes prime minister. The story has all the requisite twists and turns and a denouement that doesn't strain credulity too hard. It's loaded with all the color and detail of life in war time London as the Luftwaffe fills the skies over England and the bombs begin to fall. Loads and loads of detail, maybe even a little too much. Descriptions of the rooms, of the neighborhoods, of the weather, of the gardens. Even with my love of the period I found myself skimming, especially when invited to look at yet another room with dark paneling and thick Persian carpets and large walnut desks and ... you get the point.
It's not the mass of details – it"s the right details.
But I was reading along and enjoying it until I came to this sentence at the beginning of chapter 33. "As the Moonbeam Orchestra played a cover of Duke Ellington's 'In the Mood,' Frain ordered champagne."
Duke Ellington's "In the Mood?" Is the lady high? OK, that's the sort of mistake anyone could make, I suppose, although how anyone could mistake Glenn Miller for Duke Ellington is beyond me. Yes, Ellington's was one of many bands that recorded the Glenn Miller hit, but it was Miller's song, and that's so obvious that it's hard to see how anyone could have missed it.
Am I taking this WAY too seriously? Probably. But it's a good thing the howling error occurred with only three chapters to go. I stewed over it all the way to the end, as the book came to its satisfying if somewhat predictable conclusion. If it had been part of the first time they went out drinking and dancing, in the early part of the book, I'm pretty sure it would have colored my enjoyment of the whole book. And it's the kind of thing that makes you think, "If she got something as simple as that wrong, what else in this mass of details and description did she get wrong?" I'll probably read the sequel, but I'll be watching more closely. I'm not sure I trust the author.
I'm probably an atypical case, but I'd be willing to bet that anyone who actually sought out the book because it's about wartime London would have known that and been as put off as I was.
So when you look for those telling moments, those critical details, it's probably a good idea to get them right.