Collect Ambient Details to Bring the Past to Life

Writers notice. It’s part of our creative work. We practice being aware of what’s going on around us so we can add some of that ambient detail to what we’re writing to help bring the world of the story to life. 

As the great poet William Carlos Williams has said: “Observation is the first act of imagination.” Both play an essential role in creative nonfiction.

When you write creative nonfiction you engage the imagined and the literal. You amass impressions from observation and translate those impressions into language afterwards. 

We know the internet has a wealth of information. If you’re writing about horses, for example, you can watch a few You Tube videos and gather details about horses in motion. But how do you get the sensory impressions that can only come through personal experience? 

Recently I was writing about the time I went horseback riding and fell and broke my elbow. I haven’t ridden a horse since.

To get ambient details to include in that scene from more than fifty years ago, this summer I went to a local stable one day to observe for thirty minutes. I brought a notebook and pen with me and sat in a horse barn at a horse rescue where a friend volunteers.

Birds fluttered in the rafters where they’d built nests in spring. A black barn cat with a white stripe down its nose rolled on its back in the soft soil outside a horse stall. I never would have thought to include those good ambient details about the horse barn if I hadn’t gone to one with the goal of noticing.

I share my notes from that time I spent in a horse barn to show how spare and how detailed useful observations can be.

— Wheelbarrow full of fluffy white cedar shavings for the horse stalls

— A rotating fan high on a wall

— Horses: long wiry whiskers 

— Black nostrils flaring

— Ears upright and alert

— Long tongue

— Whirr of air horses blow through their rubbery lips

— Watchful eyes

— Long tail flicking at flies, curls up to reach them

— Chirping birds are flying in the barn, fluttering at the beams—spring nests built in the eaves

— Barn cat, black with a stripe of white perfectly painted between its eyes to the top of its black nose, white paws and tail tip

— Brown horse with black legs and tail, lower front legs look like white Go-Go boots

— Nibbling hay sticks and flowers, a sweet reedy smell

Sitting in a horse barn on a warm July afternoon I took these notes with no idea which of them I would use or how I would use them. But I did use several, and happily. When my memoir is published you’ll be able to see in the horseback riding scene how I made use of ambient details collected in the present to help bring the past to life.

For your own writing:

Make a writer’s date with yourself to spend a half-hour noticing ambient details to use in a piece you’re writing now or to save to use in a future piece you’ll write. Take a small notebook and pen with you and be ready to sit quietly and notice. Jot down the details.

If your story takes place in a big city, you might collect ambient details by sitting on a bus stop on a busy street. Notice what you hear, see and smell. Notice the weather, the sky, the light and its effect on what’s around you. Write notes—not narrative—as you collect details to use later. For a scene in a restaurant or a shop, a beach, a cafe or a bar, take your notebook and pen with you. Use a half-hour to write down details of what you hear, see, and smell.

Remember: observation + imagination is a winning combination.