Details make a difference. We got out some old pictures a while ago. Like so many old pictures, the prints had no date, no captions.
A picnic table, with a broad river in the background; beyond it, a range of snow-capped peaks. Two young children, so swaddled in their bulky sweaters that it was hard to tell their age.
“That’s along the Skeena,” said Joan. “When we were in Prince Rupert. But which year?”
“There’s a yellow car,” I noted. “We sold the Valiant in 1967.”
“And I knitted those Cowichan sweaters our first winter,” Joan added. “So this has to be 1966.”
The rest of the story fitted around those details.
It’s the details that trigger people’s memories. Once, Joan and I were trying to get her mother to remember a different picnic, a family re-union at a park where Summit Creek dumps into the Kootenay River. “Nope,” Mom kept saying, “I don’t remember it at all.”
“It was the first time you put curry into your potato salad,” Joan prompted.
Whoosh! The memories came flooding back. Mom rhymed off all the relatives who had attended, what we had talked about, who had brought what food…. All her memory needed was the right detail.
As a writer, I always encourage people to include some telling details in their stories. What colour was her coat? Did he have stubble on his face? How big were the puppy’s paws?
Don’t be satisfied with what might be called the “official record” — date, place, purpose. Organization minutes provide that information. But they rarely mention that this was the last meeting of the Women’s Institute that Nellie B. attended before her death. Or that Amelia J. dared to wear pants. Or that lifelong spinster Eunice W. announced her engagement.
The Lake Country Museum and Archives has a selection of artifacts related to the legendary Brian Cooney. But you have to talk to an old-timer to hear about Northcote Caesar rowing across the lake in a wild storm, with Brian lying in the bottom of the boat hoping it would sink and put him out of his misery.
No doubt Northcote Caesar kept a record of his purchases and his sales. But who cares about those? It’s the human stories that matter.
Pictures help, of course. Pictures always consist of details — if you know what to look for. “That was taken on the front steps of the school,” someone can say. Someone else might add, “Before 1955, before they tore down the outhouses.” A third person will see the old school hanging by the door. Still another will recognize the rose bush planted in honour of a favourite teacher….
Photographers now like to get in close, to eliminate all the extraneous details. Fine. But take a long shot too, showing the surroundings, the environment, the context. It may prove more valuable to future generations than a row of stony faces in black suits. Even if the faces have names.
Look for the telling details. They tell the story for you, if you have them.
By Jim Taylor