Writing Right with Dmitri: Corroborative Detail

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Corroborative Detail

Editor at work.
Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.

WS Gilbert, The Mikado.

Consider this story:

Priscilla Mullen is a third-grade teacher at Miles Standish Elementary in Plymouth, Massachusetts. One Monday is particularly trying. First, there's a squirrel in the classroom, which amuses the kids, but involves Priscilla and the janitor in animal retrieval. Then, Pearl Prynne doesn't have her pencil. She claims that Natty Hawthorne stole it. Natty denies this vehemently.

Priscilla is not sure. A search of Natty's desk, backpack, and pockets yields no pencil. Perhaps Pearl dropped it? An examination of the space under the radiator turns up a nickel and a penny, two wads of used chewing gum, a lot of lint, and a dead cockroach. Priscilla makes a note to complain to the janitor.

Under educational grilling, Pearl admits that the pencil in question is still on the kitchen table at home. Since she knew Ms Mullen would be angry with her for forgetfulness, she made up the story about Natty. Pearl seems to be unaware of the inappropriateness of this behaviour. Priscilla resolves to send a sharply-worded letter to Pearl's mother Hester, recommending counseling in the strongest terms, while being supportive of the challenges facing single mothers.

On her way out in the afternoon, Priscilla runs into old Mr Hapgood, the school's avuncular part-time gardener. Mr Hapgood is semi-retired, and a bit of an eccentric. He regales Priscilla with an elaborate story about the UFO he saw flying over his house on Saturday night. Priscilla is polite, and echoes his hope that the account will be well received at next month's MUFON convention over at the town hall. Then she hurries home to change: her boyfriend, John Alden, has texted her about a dinner date.

Now, Priscilla has heard two narratives in the course of her day. One concerns a pencil, and one a UFO. In which case is it important for Priscilla to determine the facts?

Why, the pencil story, of course. The pencil story is important. It requires decision-making on Priscilla's part. The UFO? Nah. Either they exist, or they don't. Either Mr Hapgood saw one, or he was mistaken. But if they exist, and he saw one, that's a problem for MUFON, and possibly Homeland Security. But not for an elementary school teacher.

Do you see what I'm saying? Sifting fact from fiction is a more practical matter than often suspected. The internet, for example, is full of interesting stories about strange experiences users have had. Or say they have. Here's an example:

In one story, an elderly lady related that as a girl in the 1920s, she lived in a small Southern US town. One summer day, she was helping the women shell peas on the front porch, At this point, it might be good to explain that by 'peas', this lady meant 'black-eyed peas', a kind of legume grown in the region. Shelling them is not a short process. When the peas are harvested, groups of people sit, often for hours, shelling them for preservation. In other words, this was an all-day job.

About mid-morning, the women looked up as Mr Hawkins rode up on his horse. He had obviously been to the store: he had a sack of flour and another sack of sundries on his saddle. He waited at the gate, while one of the boys ran to open it for him. However, before he could do this, the man and horse vanished! The women, alarmed, let out screams.

When the errant horseman failed to reappear, the ladies recovered and, puzzled, went back to work. Those peas weren't going to shell themselves. Things were relatively normal again when, in the late afternoon, Mr Hawkins and his horse showed up again, complete with groceries. He waited at the gate…and waited…and finally called out impatiently, 'Isn't anyone going to open the gate?'

They were afraid he'd disappear again, you see…

Now, did this happen? Well, why in the world would someone make it up? More importantly, does it matter whether it happened or not? Were you entertained by the story? Did you like the punchline? Can you think of a better one?

Urban legends get started because anecdotes, exaggerated or otherwise, strike a chord with people. They grow with the telling. The internet is full of allegedly true – but probably bogus – tales of magical realism adventures. A writer can learn from these. Better still, a writer can steal this material. Just don't claim it happened to you. Instead, label it FICTION, clearly. Truth in packaging. And go to town with that story. Wouldn't that horse and rider incident fit beautifully in your down-home coming-of-age story? Just change the black-eyed peas to something that grows in your neck of the woods.

And remember: as long as you don't have to look for that pencil, you don't care if they're telling the truth.

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