“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. It was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”
Great opening paragraph, isn’t it? It’s from The Big Sleep. Ray certainly has an eye for details, doesn’t he? In her wonderful book, The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp talks about Chandler’s use of descriptive detail as a tool for defining his characters and the way he employed a series of “tight shots” to create the settings his characters inhabited.
According to Tharp, Ray was an obsessive kind of guy. He kept made lists of details from his own life and people he knew. He had a necktie file, a shirt file and lists of names, book titles, and one-liners for future reference. He also liked to write on half-sheets of paper, creating just twelve to fifteen lines one a page. And each half-sheet had to contain what he called “a little bit of magic.”
“Up close was Chandler’s focal length,” says Tharp. He didn’t go for the big picture or sweeping images of the state of the world. Instead, he piles on details “until a character or scene takes shape and a vivid picture emerges.”
In Tharp’s view, “focal length” — the distance at which we tend to work — is an important facet of our creative identity. Do you take a wide, sweeping” approach when telling a story, tell it at middle distance, or do you strive to get up close and personal? Something to think about. I like Chandler’s idea of working on a half page and his self-imposed requirement that each page has to have a “little magic.” Think I’ll try it with big index cards and see how it goes. Want to join me?