Attention to detail


I haven’t had a lot of time to write recently because of family commitments. However, I have snatched moments to think. I’m lucky to live in two different countries throughout the year and I’m in Italy at present for my six-month spell. That seems an apt noun, because Italy brims with enchantment for me. One of my favourite types of outing here is to explore new places. I don’t have to pay to go into a museum or religiously follow a guide book to show me round. It’s the details that appeal: a fountain in a tiny piazza, geraniums cascading from old terracotta pots, an original display in a shop window, the stitching on a costume in a small-town palio, an archway with inscriptions in mediaeval Italian, faded frescoes in the cathedral cloister, piles of aubergines on a market stall…I could go on and on. I’m not a good photographer by any means but I’ve realised that (apart from snaps of family), my albums are full of details. Let’s face it, Italians are strong on this:
“To create something exceptional, your mind-set must be relentlessly focused on the smallest detail.” (Giorgio Armani).

I like detail but viewed from interesting angles. My favourite books reflect this. I have a famous quote by Anton Chekhov pinned on my notice-board near my desk: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.” As writers, we are told to be careful not to tell our readers our story, but to show them. We should aim to suggest rather than to tell in full. In this way the reader’s imagination finds its own wings.
To date, “All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr is my favourite read of all. I know this is a book I’ll jealously keep on my bookshelf forever and read again and again. It’s a very moving novel that tells the stories of a young, blind French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, and Werner, a German orphan who is drawn into the Hitler Youth. The reader experiences the Second World War through these two youngsters via stunning, beautiful imagery. Simple details say a lot.
“Doerr sees the world as a scientist, but feels it as a poet. He knows about everything – radios, diamonds, molluscs, birds, flowers, locks, guns – but he also writes a line so beautiful, creates an image or scene so haunting, it makes you think forever differently about the big things – love, fear, cruelty, kindness, the countless facts of the human heart…” (J. R. Moehringer).
I am not surprised that the book took Doerr ten years to write. You must read it yourselves to savour his talent. It’s too hard to pick out a single quote – each page is a treasure trove – so I opened the book at random and here is one example:
Page 26 from Zollverein:
“Werner and Jutta sift through glistening piles of black dust; they clamber up mountains of rusting machines. They tear berries out of brambles and dandelions out of fields.”
From those two lines I’ve deduced that the two boys need the piles of old machinery. This haul is like treasure to them. They’re agile and probably young, because they clamber. They’re desperately hungry – they can’t get enough of the berries and even weeds are needed to fill their empty bellies. But Doerr hasn’t bluntly told me those things. He’s shown me through detail – with just the right measure.
“Our life is frittered away by detail…simplify, simplify.” (Henry David Thoreau).

One of my much thumbed text books is “The Creative Writing Coursebook” from the University of East Anglia.
In Chapter 2, Julia Bell writes about developing a “sharp eye for details” in the world around us, so that the writer can construct “vivid, believable narrative”. She continues:
“But we have to unpeel our eyes, re-sensitize ourselves to our environment …focusing too much on irrelevancies will throw the reader off the scent…In many ways it is what you filter out that focuses the reader’s eye on the important details…break up your gaze into jigsaw bits, then fit it back together on the page.”

My final thought for the day (well, it is Sunday), may be considered airy-fairy but I feel that through writing and the capturing of detail on the page, we can help ourselves connect with the world in which we live.



About Angela Petch

Bit of a story dreamer, written two novels - a third in progress. I love my little family and in no particular order afterwards: Italian culture, food, wine, walking everywhere I can and especially in the Apennines, East Africa, tennis when I can, reading, reading and more reading. So much to discover still before I die.
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8 Responses to Attention to detail

  1. Ally says:

    Hi Angela. I have just ordered the Doerr book you mentioned it should be with me next week. Congratulations on the Peoples Friend short story. I will endeavor to get a copy (5th October?) and tell the Holbrook Group about it.


    • Angela Petch says:

      I hope you enjoy Anthony Doerr’s fantastic book. It is a work to pick up every now and again – it is very rich writing and I could only digest so much at a time. Beautiful writing to aspire to.
      The story comes in the edition of People’s Friend that is issued on October 7th. It is set in Italy and is a piece of whimsy. Thanks for reading my blog.


  2. Vivienne Wendy Jones says:

    I have to dispute your comment that you are a mediocre photographer. Your pictures indicate that you have that wonderful 3rd eye which allows you to see beauty in what to others would appear mediocre and also the heart which shares what you see. Thank you.


    • Angela Petch says:

      Thank you so much, Vivienne, for your kind comment. I do have a friend who is a fantastic photographer and very dedicated to his art form – getting up early to capture sunrise and special light. He also uses many different types of lens and techniques. So, I think of him as being a photographer. I just go around capturing snatches of pictures that appeal to me. While on the subject of my photographer friend, I asked him to make a silly film of myself and two author friends, on the occasion of our book launch last April and he really entered into the spirit of it. I’ll try to post a link to it here:


  3. Great piece. I was discussing the Doerr book yesterday with friends whom I had recommended it to. One loved it, despite 2 technical mistakes she found (a technologist) The other, a historian, enjoyed the prose but couldn’t believe in the story. It got me thinking about the story and I began to see similarities with the South American novels I enjoy. They all have a magical element to them. So you may not believe in some aspects of the story but there is something bigger, some overriding truth which grasps you. However, you must be willing to let it happen. As John says, it is the Spirit which allows the eye to see.


    • Angela Petch says:

      I’m not a technologist – or an “ologist” of any kind, so if there were technical mistakes I didn’t notice them. As for the historical aspect – Doerr was also writing as if from a child’s perspective in many points of the story and, therefore, I allow for a child’s view of the world. However, that is not to say that I don’t ever find myself becoming irritated by errors in books. I speak Italian fluently and when I come across language errors, I can be a bit of an anorak. Nobody will budge me (for the time being) on my passion for “All the Light we cannot see”. Another author will probably write a new book that will blow me away – and that is another wonder of literature – in the meantime, why don’t we try to write the best books we can. Full of magic.


  4. Angela, I loved your blog today. It made me think of a lovely quote I once jotted down without honouring the source (typical me) anyway, here it is: ‘Not what the eye sees, but that which makes the eye see, that is the Spirit.’


    • Angela Petch says:

      Thanks for reading my blog and for taking the trouble to comment too. What a great quote! I tried to find the author on Google but without success. But it is very apt and I shall add it to my ever-growing list of sayings. Now, back to the writing!


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