Gill Polack has an interesting post today about the use of specific details to build effective worlds and cultures in fiction. I couldn't figure out how to link to the specific post (anyone know how you do this with a LiveJournal site?) so scroll down to the post "Even in a little thing" dated 22 April. It refers primarily to fantasy and science fiction, but it seems to me that it applies equally well to historical fiction. Good historical fiction also has to build a world that is different from the world we all inhabit day-to-day, and make it recognisable enough for a modern reader to follow a story set there.
Discussing a writer called Glenda Larke (who sounds like someone whose novels I should try - anyone read them?), Gill Polack says:
"Her worlds work because she mimics the sense we sometimes get in our own lives: that things are interlinked and complex. She streamlines her narrative by making use of different aspects of society and making sure we see those aspects from several points of view (never just 'sheep' - sheep in fields, cloth in market, wool on someone's back)and so she indicates to us that these societies are complex and functional. The detail is *so* telling, that we can infer much more from her hints than is said on the page."
This chimes in with the discussions we had here earlier about how much detail is too much, and with the recent discussion about sensory description (also discussed by Bernita). It also ties in with a conversation I had with Rick on Gabriele's blog on the possibility of inferring considerable information about a fictional world from the existence of a single item (in that particular case, a book).
Detail and description for its own sake has a tendency to drag, whereas detail and description that has the double function of saying something significant about the world, advancing the plot or developing a character can be hugely effective. As ever, one should bear in mind the caveat that it depends on the personal taste of the reader. Perhaps even more than usual in this case, because the telling detail may only be telling to a reader who is sufficiently engaged with the story to be using their imagination to make the inferences. Someone who is skating along on the top of the plot may never notice at all.
Have you any favourite examples of a telling detail that makes a world real?