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Devil’s in the Details

Devil’s in the Details

They say the devil’s in the details—and I might tend to agree, in most contexts. In the context of writing fiction, though, for me the details are almost always more fun than work.

They also take some of the sting out of one of more tedious parts of the process: rewrites. The part where I try to fix everything that went wrong on my first, thrashing, headlong race through a chapter, when I’m just trying to get the story down on the page. At first it’s all about characters and plot: does this feel right, ring true, respect (and entertain) the reader, and advance the story. When rewrite time comes, half the job is fixing blunders—and the other half is filling in, where still needed, the telling little details that help flesh out the story and round it into three dimensions.

Some of these details are decidedly obscure, done for the pleasure of the author and whatever subset of readers actually gets the reference, which is typically both musical and somewhat obscure. In my mind, though, there are few details that are insignificant. After all, if you’re going to go to the trouble of creating an entire imaginary world, why not have a little fun with it?

Just for example: in Believe in Me, Tim Green’s girlfriend is named Theresa (Terry) Valenzuela. Now, I have to say, I struggle with names. I will often throw one down on the page only to change it later. I want names to fit and perhaps distinguish the characters, at a minimum, but it’s nice if they can do more than that, offering additional, subtler layers of meaning.

What I knew about Terry at the start was: she and Tim grew up together as pals from a young age, she was a tomboy who later blossomed, and she was Latina. I started with a first name; I wanted something androgynous to reinforce her tomboy nature, but it had to be something that would also fit her background. Theresa, nicknamed Terry, worked on both counts.

Her last name had to fit her background as well, but I had room to have more fun with it. I just hope no one thought she was named after Fernando Valenzuela—c’mon, folks, a diehard Giants fan naming a major character after a Dodgers pitcher? No, Terry is named in honor of Richard Valenzuela, whose stage name was changed by his label to Ritchie Valens, and whose brief, successful career in the early days of rock and roll—cut off by the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper—was immortalized in one of my favorite musical biopics of all time, La Bamba.

There are other, more obvious details strewn through Believe in Me, of course—planting Bruce Springsteen among the partygoers at the Ritz in New York, playing Woody Guthrie songs to a puzzled Nicky Frost; having Tim put Van Morrison’s Greatest Hits on the stereo while enjoying the company of the brown-eyed girl he hasn’t quite realized he’s in love with yet; and so many more. But Terry’s name is a favorite because it’s more than just sneaky fun being had by the author; it honors someone worth honoring.

And now that you know, maybe you’ll smile when I slip a quote from a Valens lyric into Terry’s dialogue somewhere down the line. I know I will.

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