A Killer Detail: You Don’t Belong Here

You don’t need to be an immigrant or a minority to know what it feels like to be rejected by a desirable group, or any group for that matter, even a group that didn’t seem to exist until you walked up to it and the circle closed to exclude you. You just need to remember high school, or that sickening feeling you had walking down the street after a breakup and looking at all those couples holding hands as if they were touched by divine grace and you by plague. I do have this feeling of not belonging now and then, but I didn’t think I was going to revisit it when I picked up The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli. Continue reading

A Killer Detail: The Art of War

The Art of War - CoverI don’t remember when I bought my copy of The Art of War, but whenever I did, that copy must have been the last one in the store because the front cover is scuffed, yet I bought it anyway. It’s a beautiful book, with dark hardcovers sewn together with red, glossy thread. The words—both in traditional Chinese and English—are printed on cream-colored sheets of paper folded in half with the writing on the outside. From the note on the second page I learned that the book is bound in traditional Chinese style. To turn a page, I slip my finger underneath the thick edge where the sheet is folded. This is the kind of detail that matters if I ever wrote a story about China before the  20th century CE. Continue reading

A Killer Detail: Breaking Eggs

When a character in a historical novel looks out the window—well, what kind of window is that? Does it have shutters or panes, is it transparent or opaque, is there a window at all? Soon after I began to work on my historical novel, questions like this sent me on days-long quests before I could move my characters forward. Sometimes I just had to make an educated guess and move on, hoping I’d find the exact answer later, during rewrite. Many of those vital details were lost throughout history because contemporary people didn’t think it was worth recording such minutia, the way we don’t paint detailed pictures of the subway in today’s novels. But those are the details that make all the difference now between a realistic historical setting and a staged one. Continue reading