Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Little Things

By Darcy Crowder

Often it’s the little things, those small details or quite literally those tiny treasures, that have the most impact, trigger the sharpest memory, embody the dearest sentiment. Unfortunately too many of these details or thoughtful gestures can go unnoticed. Mementos get tucked away in drawers or boxes for safekeeping and so their significance and stories dim with time.

My mother-in-law was a master of “the little things”. The first time I met her she’d invited me into her home for a nice family dinner. It was February and I’d only been dating her son a few weeks. The table was set in warm white with red accents in honor of Valentine’s Day. It wasn’t yet the 14th, but one of the first things I learned about her, and quickly came to love, was her unfailing joy at decorating her table to reflect the season or nearest holiday. And there beside my plate was my first hint of her generous personality, a delicate pewter heart-shaped frame; a small gesture of welcome that’s turned into a cherished memory. It now holds a picture of my baby daughter’s first smile. Amazingly, years later I found another identical frame to hold a picture of my son’s first smile.

It’s these tiny treasures and simple gestures that turn the everyday into the unexpected and make powerful memories.

Several years ago, not too long after my mother-in-law passed away, I wanted to give my husband something special to commemorate her life. I found myself in possession of her treasures from my husband’s childhood, and a precious few from her own. Too endearing to be stored away, I decided to make a shadow box. I used background paper in soft blues and buttery yellow, colors she loved and used often. There were pictures of her as a child, and as a young mother holding her baby son. I pinned some of her own baby items strategically alongside those of my husbands; faded satin baby slippers, a crocheted pin holder with pale pink ribbons, a teething ring, a tiny bracelet, a thin bouquet of small dried flowers that look like daisies because she loved flowers so much, even part of a letter she’d written.

You get the idea. Now every time we walked past this display we’d be reminded of her and so many of the little things that made her special to us.

So what does all this have to do with writing? Just like in real life, it’s the small details that can have the biggest impact, show us who a character is, make us care. From the clothing choices they make, to the kind of art they have hanging on their wall. But even more compelling are the things they hold dear. Whose picture do they have on the bedside table? Where did that antique locket they wear every day come from? Why do they smile every time they walk past the ceramic dog sitting by the door? What triggers their most powerful memory and why? The answers to these types of questions are what make characters come alive; relatable in their similarities, fascinating in their differences.

What about you? What mementos do you keep nearby to remind you of happy days or special people? Are you into scrapbooking or making shadowboxes? Can you think of a scene that made an impact on you because of something a character cherished?


Sandy Elzie said...


Great, thought provoking article. I have my father's flag, the one folded into a triangle, in a frame on display. I ran across his "wings" the other day and will add them to the frame, sitting them in the bottom edge of the flag. He loved our country.

In my current story, my hero is the younger son, the one left at home to run the family business while his older brother is off with his career in the Air Force. My hero carries his older brothr's dog tag in his pocket and fingers it every so often, gaining a calming,centering,strengthening
sense of closeness that helps him when making difficult decisions.


Sally Kilpatrick said...


The devil is in the details. One of the things I learned from reading the 2008 RITA award-winning inspirational novel whose name escapes me at the moment, is that details make characters come alive. In that novel the hero had an old fish key chain given to him on the day he and his brothers were separated and sent to different foster homes. He also had a weakness for new tennis shoes because he had spent the first years of his life never having new shoes and never having shoes that fit. These were concrete details and they also gave him a weakness, but one any heroine could live with.

As for me, I'm not a relentless pack rat, but I do keep little momentos. I have a Bulova watch that belonged to my grandmother and a pocket watch that belonged to my grandfather. I rediscovered a necklace with my name on it from when Carrie Bradshaw made it all the rage. At the time I didn't know the big deal, but it brought tears to my eyes when I rediscovered it after finally watching the entire run of Sex and the City. The necklace had been a gift from my Aunt Dot, and it was almost as though she was telling me it was time to write, but that she had always known I was going to write. Silly, I know.

Thanks for the great post,

Debbie Kaufman said...

I agree. Details are what makes a story. Writing suspense, I tend to get caught up in the action. I am keenly aware of the need for those details. When I make a second pass, those are the things I add. Although, with one character I gave her my love of tea and already added in the varieties she loves.

Cyrano said...

As always you invoke such emotion and really get me thinking with your posts. I really look forward to reading your words of wisdom and you didn't dissapoint with this one. Your writing is beautiful.
I'm not a "keeper". I'm terrible about boxing things up and sending them straight to the attic. There are alot of people who keep their children's school papers from years past. I don't. To me it's clutter. God that makes me sound so insensitive. I adore my children, love them to peices, but unless it's a photo, I don't keep it close at hand.
My husband on the other hand picks out a card for every holiday and my birthday every year since we've been married, 16yrs (I usually forget to buy cards for him. Hey, I'm being honest)
Anyway, I keep all of these cards in a decorated shoe box under my side of the bed. He doesn't know I keep them. The reason I have them close by is because they aren't just a bunch of signed cards. He actually writes full page notes in them.
He's a Brooklyn boy, a new yorker all the way, a jock, not incredibly romantic, but he writes the most beautiful, the most heart felt, the most memorable love letters in the world. Those are my mementos, my cherished possesions. And I wouldn't give them up for anything.
Thanks so much for the post Darcy.
Have a wonderful, productive day,

Marilyn Baron said...

Beautiful post. Beautiful sentiment. It brings to mind the fact that my mother is currently cleaning out her place and she has bags of things to give her children that she's saved throughout the years. Old school papers, trophies, photos, etc. I will get them over Thanksgiving.


Anonymous said...

What a great blog! I keep a picture of my younger brother and I on my desk. It's little. We both have burger king crowns on, he's maybe 3 and I'm 6 or 7, but it reminds me daily of the little boy I love. The first "little thing" in writing that came to mind is in Nora Robert's JD Robb series, how Roarke keeps Eve's button from her suit in his pocket.
Caroline Z.

Maxine Davis said...


I really enjoyed the post! You certainly have a way with words.

Me? Don't keep a lot - no children to pass it on to and I like clutter less as I get older. But, above my guest bed are three ladies' hats on the wall. They were my mother's. I remember her wearing them and looking beautiful.

Carol Burnside said...

We've really had to pare down our momentos over the years due to so many moves, but there are things each one of us simply won't part with.

I never knew my grandfathers, but have something from each of my grandmothers. A tiny decorative china picher from one (my sister has it's companion), 2 bowls and an old spoon from my Granny, who taught me how to cook things from scratch.

I also keep cards from my hubby and kids, and amazingly, he keeps his from us. We have a small keepsake file for each kid. I kept one pair of their baby shoes, etc.

And now that I think of it, I guess we're still carrying around quite a bit of "stuff" with us from town to town, state to state. :)

Enjoyed the post!

Linsey Lanier said...

Wow, Darcy. How poignant. Once again, you brought tears to my eyes. Your manuscripts must be wonderful.

Every so often, my husband and I go through our old stuff from our past together. Pictures, movie stubs, birthday cards we gave each other. His memory is better than mine. He can remember dates, when we did what, what we wore, and even the color and make of the car we drove at the time. He's a real inspiration when it comes to details. We get very sentimental and the ritual brings us closer.

In my current wip, my heroine became a cop because her father was killed in the line of duty. She wears his number on her star (Chicago police have "stars" not badges). The number reminds her of him and her heritage.


Darcy Crowder said...

Hi Sandy. That's so special, that you have your father's flag and wings...a perfect tribute to a man who served and loved his country.

And I love the dog tags as a device to show the depth of relationship between the brothers. I look forward to reading their story.

Darcy Crowder said...

Hi Sally,

I don't think your idea about your Aunt's unspoken message is silly at all. She sounds like a great encourager.

Funny, I have a Bulova watch that belonged to my mother when she was a young woman - with an inscription on the back from my grandfather. These are the kinds of treasures I was thinking of, you can't bring yourself to let them go, they're so personal, yet what do you do except tuck them away and rediscover them once in awhile. Since I made that one shadowbox, I've put together a stash of items that I plan to put into a few different shadowboxes commemorating lost loved ones, and some I never knew. If I ever get the time that is. :)

Darcy Crowder said...

Debbie - One of my favorite parts of writing is giving my characters those unique traits that play into plot. I respect anyone who takes on writing suspense...and your recent win just confirms you know what you're doing!

Marilyn, good luck with the stash. :) I love going through old mementos and hearing the stories that go with them.

Maxin, thanks for the compliment. You know, I find myself getting less and less cluttered as I get older as well. It just makes life easier. I LOVE the idea of hanging your mother's hats on the wall. What a neat idea!

Caroline - Thanks for stopping by. I love Roarke, talk about a rich, multifaceted character. I was going to do a picture collage on a wall at one time, but other things ended up hanging there. But I don't think I have any pictures of my brothers or sister as a small child - I was the baby. Maybe I should go hunt some down. Thanks for sharing. :)

Darcy Crowder said...

Tamara -

Thanks for the kind words about my post. I'm always blown away by the insights you come up with in yours.

I'll tell you a secret. I don't keep a lot of my kids school papers/crafty stuff either. :) But I do have a box of things like ribbons & medals they've won, special notes, things like that. Again, I'm planning a shadowbox for each one just to reflect their school years. Ahem, now that my baby's in college I guess it's time to get started. LOL.

How sweet that your husband takes the time to write love letters to you. Gotta love that!

Darcy Crowder said...

Awe, shucks, Lindsey. Thanks. I love reminiscing over old times. And your husband sounds adorable, I don't know too many guys who can remember those kinds of details. How romantic. :)

Waving hi, Carol! Happy B'day! :)

You know, I still remember you telling me all about that small vase that hubby brought you, with dried flowers...that you carry faithfully from house to house, the way you looked as you talked about it. That's a treasure! Hope you're having a great day. TTYS.

Susan May said...

I have a house full of little memories. Children's shoes, baby books, pictures in books, cross-stiching on the wall, boxes in the closet. I've even saved my favorite toys so that my grandchildren can play with them. I like having the little reminders around. Thanks for the great post.

Tami Brothers said...

Wow. Another good post!

I'm not much of a pack rat (hubby and son are though.....) so I don't have a lot of extra stuff. I don't like to dust, so the only nick naks are the things my son has given me.

Regarding his stuff, well, I guess you can be a bit obsessive. We have 6 photo albums (of just him) and I am two years behind on that. I do not have all his drawings and stuff (only the very best are kept and some are hanging on the wall). Instead, I lay them all out on the table and take pictures of them to put in his school photo album. It works and cuts down on all the clutter.

Thanks for another great post. Love it!!!!


Ana Aragón said...


What a lovely post! I love your writing.

I am a pack rat...I come by it honestly...and that's why I have a hard time cleaning, unpacking...anything that requires me to move things. I'll spend an hour looking through folders of the kids drawings and school papers (by grade level, of course!)

My mother-in-law, who passed away a year ago, would give away anything if you complimented her on it. She loved to shop for new things, but what she did is give each person who came her way a little something of her!

I love authors who put in little quirks and likes...always thinking they must have put in a little something about themselves.

Thanks for the reminder.


Darcy Crowder said...

Hey Susan! LOL. Our very limited attic space is stuffed with the kids toys in hopes of grandchildren, too. Hope springs eternal. :)

Hi Tami - Taking pictures of the kids artwork, wish I'd have thought of that. Great idea.

Hi Ana. How's Mark doing??

I struggle with the packrat jean. :) Over the years, little by little, I've been cleaning it all out. Though, like I mentioned to Susan, some of it doesn't make it very far. :) Your mother-in-law sounds sweet. I had an aunt like that. She had a huge, at least 4' tall vase full of peacock feathers of all things, in her parlor. When I was finally deemed old enough she gave me one. Huh. I haven't thought about 8that in years. Funny the things you remember.

Ana Aragón said...


Now you need to add that tidbit about your aunt to one of your stories!

Mark's doing great but looking forward to coming home in September. It's been a long summer!