Details – A Key to the Story

Post written and copyrighted by Doris McCraw







We write stories, we tell tales, our imagination runs wild. Well, even when we write non-fiction, the stories are still there. But what makes a story one that keeps the reader engaged? My thought- details.

As most of you know, I have researched and been writing about the early women doctors in Colorado prior to 1900.  I can write about when they were born, where they lived and where they died. Basic information. But will that keep the reader engaged? To ‘create’ the story of their lives it would be the details that add the joy and sorrow to what these women did.

Alida Avery

When Alida Avery left Vassar to move to Denver, Colorado in 1874  she probably came by train. To add details to her trip I could talk about train travel at that time.  Fortunately for me, Helen (Hunt) Jackson wrote about just such a trip.  Below is an excerpt from her essay, in Bits of Travel at Home called ” Chicago to Ogden”.

Next morning, more prairie,-unfenced now, undivided, unmeasured, unmarked, save by the different tints of different growths of grass or grain’ great droves of cattle grazing here and there; acres of willow saplings pale yellowish green and solitary trees, which look like ‘hermits’ in a wilderness. These, and now and then a shapeless village, which looks even lonelier than the empty loneliness by which it is surrounded,- these are all for hours and hours. We think,”now we are getting out into the great spaces.” “This is what the word “West” has sounded like.”

Karol Smith day 094

Would I use all of the above when telling Alida’s story? No, but the details of the endless miles of prairie, the solitary towns, that is a commonality that everyone traveling west would have seen. There are such wonderful resources to add the details to your story, you just have to find and use them. By adding the details the reader can see what your character sees. The details help them understand how your character may have felt. To me it helps make them human and relatable.  It brings their journeys into a sharper focus.

9-10-2011 end of season trip 054

How do you find details for your work? What does your character see? Does their environment play a major role in their story. One of my favorite stories, and it was a children’s story by Helen, is “Nellie’s Silver Mine”. This story was one of the first, if not the first children’s book to have setting be a character in the story.

If you wish to read the Guttenburg projects ‘Nellie’s Silver Mine’, below is the link:

Here is to story, both fiction and non-fiction and the details that bring it to life! Happy writing!

Follow my haiku post five days a week at:

Below is the link to my non-fiction piece on the first state film commissioner in the United States included in this book.

“Film & Photography on the Front Range” : the stories of the people who made film and photograph history on the Colorado Front Range. You can purchase online at:





20 thoughts on “Details – A Key to the Story

  1. So true, and I remember details stuck into the experience of a story rather than just told or listed to me. History came alive for me when a story was involved. Details woven into the story help place me in the setting/story. I downloaded Nelly’s Silver Mine to read too. Thanks for the reference. Neva


  2. I agree about the details making a story interesting. I’m doing some research right now and the writers drone on and on about the subject without really getting me involved in the story. Of course, I’m just there for the facts, but even in non-fiction I enjoy a little more of who the person is and his/her backstory. Thanks for this informational post. I’ve also downloaded Nelly’s Silver Mine to read.


    1. Linda,

      Thank you. I agree, non-fiction can get a bit boring, and adding details that are not from the time is a no-no, but a bit of work will add to the story as you say. Hope you enjoy Nellie’s story. They style is fro the 1800’s but I still enjoyed it. Doris


    1. Cher’ley,

      Thank you! I also find Alida so interesting. Still working on her and what she did in Denver in addition to the suffrage movement. Of course Helen is a passion, which goes without saying. Hope you enjoy the story. Doris


  3. Doris, I so enjoyed this post! You hit the nail on the head about details, which you use so well in your work. Must be all that running around cloaked in HHJ’s persona. 😉 (In all seriousness, Helen (Hunt) Jackson had such a talent for relating vivid details combined with emotional response, didn’t she?)

    HUGS, sweetness!!!!


    1. Kathleen,

      I do believe you may have hit upon the key, she (Helen) does run around in my head a lot, Plus all the reading I’ve done to keep her real. She was an amazing writer. When Emerson was asked if she was the greatest women poet on this continent he replied “i think we can leave off the women” (or something close)

      Thank you for the compliment about my own writing. It means a lot to me.

      Love that you stopped by. Here’s to continued and detailed writing. GRIN



  4. I loved her description of the loneliness and bareness of the land she crossed. You are so right about details. It takes just the right amount of details to show the reader the roots, trunk and leaves that make the story whole. A wonderful blog, Doris and I liked the comments that followed.


  5. Sarah,

    Thank you so much for your kind words. I don’t think it takes much, but those little pieces just seem to me to make a story or piece of non-fiction a little more complete, like I am there.

    Have a wonderful day and thank you again. Doris


  6. Wonderful post as always, Doris! I love making setting a character, which I do a lot with my dog stories since there is little dialogue in my dog books — something, other than the dog, must come to life, and it’s usually the settings. The devil may be in the details, but our readers appreciate those little fiends! LOL Thanks for another inspiring post!


    1. Gayle,
      I can understand how setting would be so important with non-speaking characters. You are right, the devil is in the details.

      I appreciate your kind words and glad you enjoyed what I wrote. Doris


  7. I agree about the details and the personalities, Doris. They make story and history come to life. Thanks so much for the quote from Helen Hunt Jackson–lovely–and the link to her story. I’ve downloaded it too.


    1. Stephanie,

      Helen did have a way with words. I do hope you enjoy Nellie’s story.

      To me, I have always enjoyed the personal side of history.

      Thank You. Doris


  8. Abbie,

    I am glad you are enjoying the women doctors. They are so fascinating and I believe it is the details that their stories will come to life.



  9. Yes, Doris, I agree, you have to transport them back to the America of the 1870s, both the East where your woman doctor came from and the Wild West, her destination. Your train trip is a great example. When I was writing my Civil War feature, The Day the War Came to Kenansville, I couldn’t just rely on the dry basic history of the Kenan family and the three sons who became Confederate soldiers. I had to transport my readers back to 1863 and let them wander the landscape. I worked to recreate the tiny Kenansville of July 1863, describe the battlefield at Gettysburg, and bring to life Lake Erie’s Johnson Island POW camp. The Internet resources sure help nowadays. It was much harder being a reporter in the 1980s.


    1. Mike,

      Thank you. Youa are right, the interent is a great help in heading you in the direction you want the story to go.The access to digitized papers and books opens a whole new ‘can of worms’.

      Your story of the Kenan family sounds fascinating. That extra effort allowed the readers to really experience those events and whether they realized it or not, it probably made the story stick with them longer than just the dry names and dates.



  10. Doris, I don’t think readers notice the details, but they know something’s wrong if the details aren’t there. 🙂 Good post. I loved the diary entry, too.

    Google Earth is my friend. I like to look at the location of my stories, even if I’ve been there. It was a great help in writing Muleskinners 2: No Small Tempest (not yet released), because it’s set in Kansas, mostly, and I have a hard time relating to flat, flat, and more flat. How do you set up an ambush in flat country? But, with Google Earth, I figured it out.


    1. Jacquie,

      You are right, most readers don’t notice the details, but necessary to make a story work. BTW I’m looking forward to the new Muleskinneers. Having been across Kansas many times when I would go back to Illinois, it ain’t as flat as most folks think, just not mountains like Colorado. But an ambush…gotta love Google Earth *Smile*

      Thanks for stopping by. I love reading Helen’s work, it has such details that fit the time periods I write in. (Plus I do speak as her, so….) Doris


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