I arrived at a key juncture in one of my books recently, and as I endeavored to craft the scenes with precision, I found I had so many dam questions. Really. Dam questions: in my story, a fictional 1970's Midwest town diverts its main river, erects a dam and permits the town to be flooded. And while the story is not really about the dam—it is about some of the dark secrets about to be submerged along with the town—the building of the dam is still a pretty integral piece of the action, and I wanted to write it effectively.
But what would constitute that? I recently threw this question around with a writer friend of mine. What comprises good detail and description? What is enough, what is insufficient, what is superfluous? I don’t think there’s an easy, formulaic answer. I visualize every scene I write as if it will be onscreen and I’d like the reader to be able to do the same. And it’s a bit difficult to predict how much or how little readers may know about dams, or how much or how little they’ll care. But I do have a little more say on how important all this is to my characters, and my sense of this should guide the amount and type of detail I subsequently provide. In the scene in question, the construction magnate overseeing the project takes pride in immersing himself in every step of every project which bears his name, and so when it came time to write about the dam’s construction, I felt it needed pretty strong detail, because the scene unfolds mainly through his point of view. Glossing over the process, or omitting key details or worse yet, botching some, could erode the credibility of that character, that scene and of the story itself. But again, the dam conundrum—I wanted readers distracted neither by too much detail, nor by insufficient or inaccurate information.
And so a little dam research was in order. I found a pretty good website, the British Dam Society. It’s actually pretty cool, and I found there were some key steps typically involved in the construction of a dam: Diverting the river; Preparing the foundation for the dam; Building the dam; Filling the reservoir; Testing that valves and floodgates work; Monitoring the behaviour (British spelling) of the newly built dam. And if you choose to give the site a quick perusal you’ll see that each of these steps possesses its own steps and procedures, and that there are myriad other details that go into such an undertaking. So I extracted a decent chunk of information and plopped it onto my page, then set about incorporating it into the dialogue and contemplations of my construction magnate. I started with too much; I reasoned that I could always trim some of the dam vernacular if need be, but that it was essential that he sound conversant on the topic. Unsurprisingly, some pruning was necessary, but I am cautiously optimistic I navigated that careful balance between credibility and excess. I guess we’ll see.
There is of course no shortage of literary advice on this topic (perhaps even excessive?). “When you step away from the ‘write what you know’ rule, research becomes inevitable,” Stephen King says in On Writing. “And it can add a lot to your story. Just don’t end up with the tail wagging the dog; remember that you are writing a novel, not a research paper. The story always comes first.” Indeed it does and if your story, your characters, your writing, are not strong, then successfully distinguishing between a concrete dam and embankment dam is unlikely to save you. Like with so many parts of the writing process, I rather suspect navigating that sometimes elusive balance comes best through practice, and perhaps with a little bit of trust. Trust your readers, trust your characters, and trust yourself.
PS: I must confess here to the delight taken in sending an email to the British Dam Society, seeking some clarifying information. It was the first and probably only time in my life I was able to write “dam questions” in the subject line. I never heard back.