Myrtle is the loose woman who eyes rich Tom Buchanan on the commuter train from Long Island to New York City. He oozes money. She, wife of a garage mechanic with grease under his fingernails, sees the moneyed Tom after noticing his shiny patent leather shoes.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, mastered the use of precise detail.
Years after reading Gatsby, one can still remember the crisp images of patent leather shoes or Gatsby’s fake library full of leather-bound and gold gilded classic books with no words.
Great writing must include detail, the type that stays with a reader like me, long after I rest my book on the little table beside my bed, remove my glasses, and switch off the light for the night.
How does one find those choice details, Mrs. Sabraw?
By becoming a keen observer of all around you, I answer. By noticing!
Let’s take a look at a short piece I wrote last fall. You can go to the mall this week, looking for details and a story.
On Halloween last, I observed a Muslim woman with a dark wool head scarf enter the cosmetic store Sephora. She was pushing a stroller, tucked inside of which was a newborn baby whose little head was crowned in dark hair. I followed her into the store.
I was not without judgment.
Postpartum depression will move even a Muslim into a store like Sephora, I thought. With its marketing focus on feminine charm, seductive aroma, and alluring make-up, this store seemed to me to be the last place a modest woman would shop.
Sephora is all about cosmetics, perfume, and skin care. Salespeople, edgy-overly made up girls and women, and spiky feminine guys, dress like characters from the film The Matrix: Black pants with black tunics.
This woman, whom I will call Naheeb, and I entered the store. They greet us as we enter the space, stomp over to see if we need assistance, and blink their big lashed eyes and pout their lavender puffed lips.
Can we help you? the stick-figure, whom I will call Valerian, asks Naheeb, whose over sized brown eyes cry for attention from under her chador.
Black, white, pink—these colors dominate Sephora’s walls, along with enlarged photos of eyeliner, brushes and semi-naked hard bodies in repose.
Music pulsates and undulates. It’s hard not to think of sex here.
Perfume aromas commingle.
The Muslim woman heads for the eye make-up, selects a brand familiar to her, pauses to pick up some lotion, and pushes her pram into the line.
I move in behind her, with my small steel basket full of facial lotions, guaranteed to make a middle-aged woman look twenty years younger. My judgmental eyes scan Naheeb’s garb. I wonder about her in all ways.
Behind the counter, four clerks dressed for Halloween, robotically operate the registers.
Naheeb comes face to face with a buoyant busty blondie thing, whose black open tunic reveals a line of cleavage four inches long. A rhinestone crucifix nestles comfortably there. Is she a Visigoth? A Vandal? A medieval prostitute?
Did you find everything you were looking for? She spouts the prescribed script.
Naheeb answers, Yes, with her head down, rocking her buggy a bit.
And there I stood, evaluating freedom in a store suffocating from it.