Onomatopoeia, Mimesis and Children’s Literature


Someone in a children’s writing forum crowdsourced recently: What does a waterfall sound like?

They were after an onomatopoeic sound. Some replied ‘trickle’. Others said ‘trickle’ is no good at all for a waterfall, as ‘trickle’ suggests a piddling amount of water.

I don’t know what they decided, but I thought of my years learning Japanese. Japanese most definitely has the perfect word to describe the sound of a waterfall: “goh-goh”.

That explains the wonderful and also one of the lesser-known, extremely challenging aspects of learning Japanese non-natively: Everyday Japanese language bursts forth with onomatopoeia, and not just onomatopoeia, either: mimesis in general.


Onomatopoeia: A word which emulates a real-world sound. Woof, bang, crash, pop…

Mimesis: A more general term for language which emulates a feeling, texture or ambience. ‘Goo’ describes the feeling of viscous, slimy products.


Onomatopoeia is not a difficult concept for an English speaker. We use much of it, too, though we do tend to grow out of it a bit. By the time we’re adults, we’re using ‘proper’ words (eruditely, those with Latin and Greek roots) to describe the world around us. Use onomatopoeia as an adult and your speech will sound comical or childlike. While Japanese speakers also make a distinction between ‘formal’ and ‘conversational’ registers, conversational Japanese mimetic language as utilised by all ages of Japanese speakers does not carry the same comical, childlike baggage. Onomatopoeia can be used in a deliberately comical, over-the-top way, of course, but for Japanese natives, the huge range of onomatopoeia available to them does a fine job of describing any situation. They’d be silly to leave it to children and picture books, as we do.

Onomatopoeia plays various roles in language, apart from comic and playful value:

  1. Onomatopoeia allows the speaker a more vivid description of an environment.
  2. Increases the musicality of the language.
  3. Deepens the impression for the listener.
  4. The listener enjoys a visceral acoustic sensation.

In short, onomatopoeia helps listeners hear the content of story.

Onomatopoeic words can also develop into other parts of speech. Over time they become nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, even though they may start initially as interjections, or used on their own.


Many words in any language probably started out as somehow mimetic, but native speakers simply hear sounds only as symbols. English is not particularly mimetic — to me — but perhaps that’s only because I speak it natively. Perhaps the sound of a book falling onto a desk really does sound like ‘book‘!

Japanese, on the other hand, has retained a more obviously mimetic lexicon. What does a Japanese speaker say when there’s an awkward silence? “Shiiiiin.” Shiiiin is the sound of silence. But of course, silence has no sound to emulate, which makes it ‘mimetic’ rather than ‘onomatopoeic’. We have the ability to express this same feeling in English, too, though it comes from pop culture. From cowboy movies we have the concept of “tumbleweed”, riffing on the pillow shot cutaway in which the audience sees a tumbleweed blowing across a prairie. The accompanying SFX is usually the sound of wind.

But on other occasions, I can’t think of an English equivalent.

What does a Japanese person say when waiting anxiously for something to happen? ‘Waku waku’. That one little mimetic word is all that’s needed. An English speaker in the same situation might say, “Well, this is exciting” or “I have butterflies in my stomach.”  A complete sentence, in other words. And it still doesn’t achieve the same specificity as the mimesis of waku-waku, which includes the feeling of delight.

From my Japanese English Dictionary of Everyday Mimesis and Onomatopoeia:

Waku-waku: To be excited, unable to relax, full of joy, expectation of happiness. It is used in reference to a purely psychological state, with few physical manifestations, such as quickened heartbeat, perspiring etc.

If you’re nervous without the joy of expectation you’d say Doki-doki (in emulation of a heartbeat), and if you’re impatient in an angry kind of way it’s Ira-ira.

In fact, Japanese has so mimetic, Japanese speakers themselves use five categories, compared to our two:

  • Giongo — actual sounds made by inanimate objects and nature. Non-linguistic sounds represented orthographically, in other words. The most general Japanese term for onomatopoeia.
  • Giseigo — A subset of giongo which includes only animal and human sounds
  • Gitaigo — The most general Japanese term for mimesis. Describes all kinds of conditions and states.
  • Giyougo — A subset of gitaigo which describes movements and motions
  • Gijougo — A subset of gitaigo which describes feelings

We do make our own linguistic distinctions between different kinds of onomatopoeia and mimesis in English, but the terminology is not so widely known outside linguistic circles.

  • Echomimesis — Though it literally means ‘sound imitation’,  I’ve seen it used more specifically  to refer to an array of letters which describes a sound but isn’t quite a word in its own right. BZZZuuuuuppppp or MWAHHHAHAHAHAaaaa are examples of echomimetic language. When making use of echomimesis in picture books, do readers a favour and make them pronounceable! (Unsayable echomimesis is an issue I have with Zita the Spacegirl.) Echomimesis is more about the transcription than a categorisation of the sound itself.
  • Sound symbolism —In linguistics, sound symbolism, phonesthesia or phonosemantics is the idea that vocal sounds or phonemes carry meaning in and of themselves. This is basically an overarching category, including mimesis in all its various forms. But it goes further than that, and looks into why ‘f’ sounds ‘harsh’ and ‘s’ sounds quiet and so on.
  • Ideophones — Words that evoke an idea in sound, often a vivid impression of certain sensations or sensory perceptions. This includes onomatopoeia, but also includes all of the Japanese categories listed above, and more, which exist in various other languages: movement, color, shape, or action. Ideophones are relatively uncommon in Western languages. If you’re wondering why we need this extra word on top of ‘onomatopoeia, see: Three Misconceptions about Ideophones.
  • Onomatope — A word formed by onomatopoeia or mimesis. (It’s backformed — the word ‘onomatopoeia’ came first, and I guess linguists got sick of saying ‘onomatopoeic words’ all the time, preferring a shortened version.
  • Lautmalerei  — As you can probably imagine, German linguists came up with their own awesome terminology: ‘painting with sound’. It translates into English as ‘onomatopoeia’.


One thing picturebooks do wonderfully well is onomatopoeia. Especially the ‘animal and human sounds’ category. (I do feel English writers tend to neglect all of those other options!)

In picture books designed for very young readers (which is most of them), it’s probably the onomatopoeia as much as anything which helps emergent speakers learn their native languages. Even in older, competent speakers, onomatopoeia in picture books fosters a love for word play, which presumably fosters a love for books.

For writers of junior fiction, let’s make full use of mimetic language. If English doesn’t have the word you’re after, perhaps take inspiration from some of the more mimetic ones. Then do some phono-semantic matching to make it fit into English.

Japanese is just one example of a highly mimetic language. Peoples with a close link to hunting are well-known for the ability to mimic sounds related to nature. But you might find resources on those a bit harder to find.

A Niger-Congo language known as Ewe is apparently as rich as Japanese in mimetic language, but it’s a lesser spoken tongue. Siwu is another, also of Ghana.

Shamanism is famous for mimesis, especially in musical performance. I doubt I could ever learn throat singing, practised by a number of different cultures.

You will find lists of onomatopoeia from the major world languages online. I still make use of my trusty old Japanese dictionary of mimesis even when coming up with words for an English language story.

Here’s a list of Sounds of Nature as expressed in Japanese.

There are many similar resources out there. One of the most comprehensive seems to be Written Sound, which functions as a dictionary. On the front page you’ll find a random selection of onomatopoeia from their database, but its search function is useful:

  • The search engine can be used in a few different ways. You can enter a non-onomatopoeia word such as ‘paper’ and you’ll get mimetic words related to the concept.
  • Or, if you can think of a mimetic word but it’s still not quite right, type that in. Say you’re looking for something like ‘bang’, but ‘bang’ is not quite right. The entry for ‘bang’ is linked to a wider category, which you’ll learn is ‘hard hit‘. Click on that link and you’ll be taken to a wide variety of words which all come under that category. The site is definitely English focused, but seems to include inspiration/mimesis from other languages as well. ‘Kwok’, ‘swah’ and ‘wakt’ sound foreign; ‘bam’, ‘whack’ and ‘pow’ sound English.
  • The neuroscientist creator of Written Sound ask for user input in a side panel on the right-hand side, in which you use sliders to describe a particular word. Even when used a few times for your own amusement, the act of thinking so closely about a sound trains the ear for appropriate onomatopoeia. This would be a useful exercise to do a few times with young writers in a classroom situation.
  • My search for waterfall returned nothing, so I shortened my query to ‘water‘ and was rewarded with a vast selection, some of which is perfect for a waterfall.

The creator of Written Sound has also noticed that Japanese is especially rich in onomatopoeia and mimesis. If you know a young word lover, or Japanophile, or manga creator, they may enjoy this book as a gift. (Unlike my comprehensive but dry dictionary, this one is illustrated.)


I started to think hard about the role of onomatopoeia in junior fiction when my husband and I were making interactive picture book apps. There have always been a lot of misgivings about the value of book apps, as there always is about any new technology.

An important question for app developers: Where is the line between ‘book’ and ‘movie’? It’s a valid question. Some people say it comes down to whether or not the reader/viewer can control the pace of the story. The ‘page turns’, in other words (or equivalent thereof):

When reading [a paper book], the parent is better able to control the use of the book and pace of the story. […] Narration is the norm on apps – “When I use the iPad I don’t read with them, I let them use it on read-to-me mode.” This means the experience of reading a book is usually more shared with parents who spend time talking around the story more, doing all the silly voices, and getting involved in their children’s world.

Helen Dineen

Further to the general discussion of things that picturebooks apps can do that printed books can’t, an unintended flip side is that sound effects in an app may indeed discourage adult co-readers from making onomatopoeic sounds and doing the funny voices themselves.

This is not necessarily down to the inherent nature of the digital medium itself. It’s partly about how adult co-readers are choosing to use the book apps. Narration only replaces voice over if the adult turns the sound on.

On the other hand, there are absolutely decisions developers can make which encourage readers (adults and children alike) to continue making noises with their own mouths.

One thing I’m seeing in many picture book apps for young readers is an unfortunate substitution: Rather than presenting the adult co-reader with an opportunity to revel in onomatopoeic language, produced by the mouth, a lot of real-world mimesis is conveyed via recordings of actual real world sounds. For instance, rather than encouraging readers to work their own mouth muscles with a sound which mimics a motorcycle, a picture book app might simply provide a recording of a motorbike engine, which either autoplays after a page flip or is activated on touch.

This is not an argument against sound effects in picture book apps, or against picture book apps more generally.

Instead, I’d like to see developers encourage use of the mouth. The digital medium would be better used, perhaps, to skip the stock SFX in favour of narrator-produced onomatopoeia.


  • Onomatopes for animal voices often sound the same in different languages.
  • Almost all ‘cock’ voices contain a velar stop (either [k] or [g], the voiced equivalent.
  • Sheep voices are remarkably, amazingly similar across languages. They all seem to start with a bilabial consonant [m] or [b] followed by a final front vowel.
  • Snakes = [z] (or in English, [s])
  • Cows = [m] + [u]
  • Cat voices start with [m] followed by [ja]
  • Bees make [z] sounds
  • Horses [h] and [i], which makes English a bit of an exception
  • Frogs have a wide variety of voices, but there’s also a wide variety of frogs. Cantonese: gwaa, gwaa. English: Ribbit. Limnodynastes dumerilii is a frog species native to Australia. We call it pobblebonk because it has a distinctive call that sounds like a banjo being plucked.

For more on that, see this paper.


Onomatopoeia A Mentor Text Lesson Plan by Marcie Flinchum Atkins

Stream of Consciousness vs. Interior Monologue

Interior Monologue Narrative Technique

  • Interior monologue is a stylised way of thinking out loud. (Technically: thinking ‘on the page’.)
  • Some people call it ‘internal’ monologue. This is the same thing.
  • Unlike stream-of-consciousness, an interior monologue can be integrated into a third-person narrative. The viewpoint character’s thoughts are woven into description, using the author’s own language.
  • This is the essential difference between interior monologue and straight narrative:
  • Straight Narrative = the narrator talking (You know ‘the narrator’ — that made-up character who sounds like the author — but please don’t mistake authors for narrators — not all authors are crazy axe-wielding, mentally unstable murderers, unlike many of their narrators.)
  • Interior Monologue = a character talking/thinking, using words specific to that character, making assumptions, mistaken judgements, conclusions RIGHT FOR THAT CHARACTER.
  • If interior monologue is done well, you won’t even notice it’s happening.

Two Men Contemplating The Moon by Caspar David Friedrich makes me think one of them is telling the other a solioquy, or some other old-fashioned narrative device.
Two Men Contemplating The Moon by Caspar David Friedrich makes me think one of them is telling the other a solioquy, or some other old-fashioned narrative device.

Stream of Consciousness Narrative Technique

  • Like interior monologue, stream-of-consciousness is another stylised way of thinking out loud.
  • It is the 19th and early 20th century version of what has become ‘free indirect style/speech’. (A style of third-person narration which uses some of the characteristics of third-person along with the essence of first-person direct speech.)
  • Stream-of-consciousness tends to read more like a pure soliloquy. (A famous soliloquy is Shakespeare’s To be or not to be.)
  • There’s a lot of interior monologue in stream-of-consciousness but the difference is, there’s no punctuation to mark it out as such.
  • The terms ‘stream-of-consciousness’ and ‘interior monologue’ are used interchangeably by some — but stream-of-consciousness refers more often to a first person narrative which mimics the jumble of thoughts, emotions and memories passing through a character’s mind. (That said, interior monologue is not necessarily written in first person.)
  • Stream-of-consciousness tends to be less ordered than interior monologue. That’s because consciousness has no beginning and no end — thoughts flit quite randomly from one thing to another.
  • Stream of consciousness is a regular feature of The Psychological Novel.

How Well Do You Know Genre?

[quiz-cat id=”16108″]

For More On Genre

Gothic Horror and Children’s Books 

What is the horror genre for?

Notes On Tall Tales

How To Write Mystery

Tips For Writing Melodrama

Masks In Storytelling (about transgression comedies and transgression thrillers)

I think it’s a lack of exposure to contemporary YA lit that makes adults refer to it as a “genre.” Much of the time when people say “the YA lit genre,” what they really mean iscategory rather than genre, and that’s fine. However,  I recently attended a talk by an author who had been writing adult genre fiction and was working on her first YA novel, and she kept referring to the characteristics of the YA genre, as if all YA books were somehow fundamentally the same.

– In the library with the leadpipe

The same would apply to short stories. Short story is not a genre; it’s a length.

Likewise, women’s fiction is not a genre; it’s a marketing term.

And if YA is a category rather than a genre, then it follows that there’s no such thing as ‘the genre of children’s literature’. That, too, would be a ‘category’.

Right now I can picture my dad watching the Emmys & muttering “reality shouldn’t even be a category” & my mom telling him to shut up.

– @sarahlapolla

Related Link: Genre Theory — continued, from Michael Rosen.

The Labryrinth of Genre is a web app which helps you to find subgenres of a genre.

Children’s books are also sometimes referred to as a ‘genre’: “The genre has come a long way over four centuries. “Early children’s books tended to be solemn and purposeful,” Marcus says. “They were created to teach a moral lesson of some kind and they spoke to the child from on high.”

— The Atlantic.

Why writers should leave book-genre debates to the marketing department

Some combinations of genre are more successful than others. Comic by Poorly Drawn Lines

Cowboys, Westerns and Lonesome Dove

The Brave Cowboy, by Joan Walsh Anglund

Here’s the premise of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove: Two Texas Rangers decide to move cattle from the south to Montana running into many problems along the way.


Detail a legendary journey while including the harsh realities of Wild-Western life to show that the ‘legends’ of the Wild West were ordinary men working in unglamorous conditions.

Pulitzer Prize winners may have a reputation for being dense and requiring much work, but if that’s the case, Lonesome Dove is an exception. This is what you’d call ‘super readable’. A page-turner. Which is just as well, because you could build a house with these bricks.

If you would like to know what it feels like to be a cattle man in the Wild West in the mid 1870s, and you don’t like the idea of getting kilt or drinking black coffee for breakfast or hoiking up black phlegm from all the dust or using your saddle for a pillow while sleeping on the hard, cold ground; if you aren’t the owner of an actual time machine, then this is the book for you. McMurtry does an excellent job of detailing the day-to-day realities of being a cowboy in the Wild West.

And few authors would be more qualified. Larry McMurtry’s own father was a cattleman, along with every one of his eight uncles. McMurtry himself obviously absorbed a lot of the dialect, grammar and vocabulary of cattlemen, putting it to good use in his Western novels.

I wouldn’t have called myself a fan of Wild West stories beforehand. The West was a misogynistic setting, not to mention all the atrocities involved in almost wiping out the Native Americans. Cowboy stories can sometimes glamorise and glorify the white man’s domination. Indeed, McMurtry can’t rewrite history, but nor does he glamorise these men. “Would you want to know them?” he said once in an interview, acknowledging that the main characters are emotionally stunted, unreasonable people. Yet they are also rounded. Gus and Call feel like real people. Newt, the ‘Lonesome Dove’ of the title, is the teenage newcomer, and the reader’s introduction to this foreign world.

There is violence in this book, as there was in the Wild West. But there is no attendant glory. Rape scenes are referred to but not described in gory detail. Even the big struggle scenes which have been extended for dramatic purposes in the mini-series adaptation comprise just a page or two in the book. The vast majority of text describes day-to-day practicalities and conversations and emotional landscapes. Gus drops many funny and quotable one-liners.

The female characters are constrained by the gender rules of their time. Despite this, they are as strong and stoic as the men. As it says on the cover, ‘If you only read one Western novel in your life, read this one.’



Brush-busting – riding through scrub

Duds – clothes

Carrot, bean, dingus, pod, a poke etc – well, you can guess from context.

Cowpie – a dropping of cow dung. McMurtry spells it as a single word, but pronounce it as two.

Crack one’s noggin – to go a bit crazy

Chili-bellies – derogatory term for Mexicans

Chunking varmints – killing animals to eat by throwing rocks at them

Cut out a beef for the cook – to choose a cow from the herd in order to eat

Draw rein – to rein in a horse and make it stop

Harry – to harry an area is to cause trouble; to persistently carry out attacks on (an enemy or an enemy’s territory)

In chunking distance of – near

Lope – the cowboys use this word to mean ‘ride a horse’ somewhere as in ‘lope on over to X’

Lunkhead – a slow-witted person

Nuzzling the jug – having a drink

On the prod – riled up and stirring others up for a fight

Plays out – when a horse ‘plays out’ she has had it, with no energy left, and can die.

Soap bones – a disparaging term for someone’s horse. (They used to make soap from horse fat and glue from the hooves.)

Sour as a clabber – describes Jake’s look. Clabber is a food produced by allowing unpasteurized milk to turn sour at a specific humidity and temperature. Over time, the milk thickens or curdles into a yogurt-like substance with a strong, sour flavour.

Talk guff – guff is ridiculous or insolent talk

Sporting life – sex work

Wet as a muskrat – a large semiaquatic North American rodent with a musky smell, valued for its fur


Adobe – a building made of clay bricks (or the clay, or the bricks). Adobe buildings are common in countries with low rainfall. The clay is basically silt deposited by rivers. The bricks are dried under the sun.

Army trail – these were well-marked, making it possible for even someone with as few trekking skills as Roscoe to make his way between towns.

Barroom – a room where alcoholic drinks are served over a counter. July and Roscoe are warned that in the Wild West they’ll be facing ‘more than a barroom scrape in Arkansas’.

Bluff – a high, steep bank, as by a river or the sea, or beside a ravine or plain; a cliff with a broad face. The men see limestone bluffs to the west as they travel north.

Breastwork – a low temporary defence or parapet. A little fort made by Gus and Pea to protect themselves from Indian arrows

Cistern – When I think of a cistern I think of the toilet, but the cistern is the tank used to store rainwater in Lonesome Dove. Unlike wells, cisterns have waterproof linings. In Lonesome Dove, the well is still being dug, and no one particularly wants to dig it in the heat.

Corral – a pen for livestock, especially cattle or horses, on a farm or ranch. We might just say a paddock, here. Or an enclosure.

Cow trail – What the cowboys call the cattle trail, the path used to transport cows from place to place. You can find old maps with major cattle trails marked on them. The cow trail of this story is the Goodnight-Loving Trail, which is highly significant because this trail is named after the two men who inspired the characters of Gus and Call.

Cutbank – A cut bank, also known as a river cliff or river-cut cliff, is the outside bank of a water channel (stream), which is continually undergoing erosion. So, not quite a ‘cliff’ but just as hazardous to your cattle and horses if you fail to see it coming.

Freshet – the flood of a river from heavy rain or melted snow. Gus and Pea met with this after being surrounded by Indians in Montana.

Gully – A gully is a landform created by running water, eroding sharply into soil, typically on a hillside. Gullies resemble large ditches or small valleys, but are metres to tens of metres in depth and width. Blue Duck is in the habit of retreating to a particular gully when tailed.

Llano – (in South America) a treeless grassy plai. “The llano is a big place.”

Red River – The Red River, or sometimes the Red River of the South, is a major tributary of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers in the southern United States of America. Legendary for drowning cowboys.

The Canadian – shorthand for The Canadian River. The Canadian River is the longest tributary of the Arkansas River. It is about 906 miles (1,458 km) long, starting in Colorado and traveling through New Mexico, the Texas Panhandle, and Oklahoma. Blue Duck tells Gus that he’d better watch out if he sees him north of The Canadian River.

The Canadian River

Two-bit town – Jake Spoon returns to Lonesome Dove and is disappointed to find it’s still a ‘two-bit town’ (‘missing 15 cents’). ‘Two-bit’ means cheap/worthless and comes from “the value of a quarter of a dollar.” There is no such thing as a single bit, at least not anymore. The now obsolete Spanish dollar comprised eight reals, or eight bits, so a quarter of the dollar equaled two bits. The phrase “two bits” carried over into U.S. usage, though there’s no bit coin in U.S. currency. “Two bits” first appeared in print in English in 1730 (and later developed the figurative sense of “something of small worth or importance”), followed in 1802 by its adjectival relative. These days, the adjective has far surpassed the noun in popularity. (Merriam-Webster)

Windlass – apparatus for moving heavy weights, like the thing over a well which is used to pull up dirt (and presumably water, when it’s dug).


Apache – refers to a number of Native American groups with little political unity.Apachean people formerly ranged over parts of ArizonaMexico, New MexicoTexas, and Colorado. In Lonesome Dove the Apache don’t get much of a mention, except to say Call and Gus once thought they’d head ‘out west of the Pesos’, but only the rare settler has challenged the Apache, so there was ‘no need for Rangers’. I wonder why the white men left the Apache alone, even while fighting the Comanche? The Apachean peoples had already been fighting with the Spanish and Mexican peoples for centuries. By the time the American Army thought of fighting them, they were very good fighters and strategists.

Blackfeet – not to be confused with the ‘Blackfoot Confederacy’, of which about 6,000 live today. The Blackfeet Nation are called Pikáni and are mainly in Montana. Both Blackfoot and Blackfeet peoples speak Blackfoot language. Much of their history is similar. They were named ‘blackfeet’ by white settlers, because they did something to the bottom of their moccasins to make them more durable. (Maybe using pine tar or charcoal or something like that.) Or it may have been a reference to the bottoms of their actual feet, which turned black from running barefoot.

Braves – refers to Native American warriors. Today there’s the ‘Atlanta Braves’ baseball team, which is weird because otherwise the term is an insult due to its troubling history as outlined in this novel. (Ditto ‘redskins’.)

Card sharp – a person who uses skill and deception to win at poker or other card games. So, not quite a cheat. A card counter.

Cornshuck mattress – Lorena’s bed in Lonesome Dove is a mattress stuffed with the husks of Indian corn. None too comfortable.

Cowpoke – another word for a cowboy, but used disparagingly. A cowboy has prestige and credibility. A cowpoke tends to be lazy. Shortened also to ‘poke’.

Cowpuncher – yet another word for a cowboy

Comanche – a Plains Indian who inhabited what used to be called ‘Comancheria’. This part of the world is now New Mexico and parts of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. The Comanche were hunter gatherers with a strong horse culture. Gus has killed as many Comanche as any other Ranger in his time. Despite this, he feels some affinity for them, being ‘people of the horse, not of the town’.

Desperado – a desperate or reckless person, especially a criminal.

Farmers – are at the bottom of the pecking order. Cattlemen are a step up from farmers, according to cattlemen. Yet the cattlemen, along with Roscoe and July and Joe stay at farms along their travels, with interesting encounters along the way. I guess the farmers along the Army trail and other established cattle trails were used to overnight guests.

Horse thieves – were a threat to horse traders and rustlers and wranglers, though I can’t personally work out where one begins and the other ends. I suppose a horse thief steals horses that have already been rounded up by the likes of Gus and Call’s team, though it seems Gus refers to himself as a kind of ‘rustler’ (horse thief).

Horse trader – Clara’s husband Bob is a horse trader, and has made a lot of money by providing horses for the army. Gus considers this a dangerous job. “I’ve known horse traders who didn’t last a year.” Jake points out that Gus himself is a horse trader, though technically Gus round up the cattle and sell them on to horse traders. The comment about the danger of horse trading foreshadows the condition in which they will find Bob, who has been kicked in the head by a horse and rendered brain dead. Presumably the job is also dangerous because of the threat of being captured and scalped by Indians.

Horse wrangler – A wrangler is someone employed to handle animals professionally. So he breaks the horses in. A cowboy herds the horses up while himself on horseback.

Kiowa – another Native American tribe. They migrated from western Montana southward into the Rocky Mountains in Colorado in the 17th and 18th centuries, and finally into the Southern Plains by the early 19th century. In 1867, the Kiowa moved to a reservation in southwestern Oklahoma.There are about 12,000 left today. Call gets bitten in the back by a ‘Kiowa horse’ and Gus says he should’ve known better than to turn his back on one. This made me wonder if Kiowa horses were especially vicious. But Gus’s comment may have been a comment on the Kiowa people themselves: ‘Typical of all plains Indian peoples the Kiowa were a warrior people that fought frequently with enemies both neighbouring and far beyond their territory. The Kiowa were notable even among plains Indians for their long distance raids, including raids far south into Mexico and north onto the northern plains. Almost all warfare took place while mounted on horses after the introduction of horses into Kiowa society.’ (Wikipedia)

Nester – a squatter who settled on government land, usually to farm

Peon – a Spanish-American day labourer or unskilled farm worker (whose boss is a ‘jefe’). This is how the cowboys refer to the underling Native Americans. (For example the men who work under Blue Duck.)

Pistolero – Thrown around as an insulting term by these American cowboys, a pistolero is a member of an armed band of roving mounted bandits. Comes from Spanish ‘pistola’, of course. (Pistol.)

Posse – originally a body of men summoned by a sheriff to enforce the law. More widely, a group of people with a common occupation. ‘A posse of cowboys’ etc.

Sharpshooter – someone who can shoot a gun very accurately. Gus is the best sharpshooter in the group.

Sioux – Jake says the Sioux and the Cheyenne have got the grass of Montana all to themselves. He wants to go up there, kill them off and reap the financial rewards of claiming Montana for men like him. The Sioux comprise three major divisions based on Siouan dialect and subculture (Santee, Yankton-Yanktonai, and Lakota). Today, the Sioux govern across several reservations, communities, and reserves in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Montana.

Sodbuster – a farmer or farm worker who ploughs the land. As mentioned throughout Lonesome Dove, cowboys and outlaws pay little respect to farmers.

Stage robbers – people who rob stagecoaches, a type of four-wheeled covered wagon pulled by horses/mules. Stagecoaches were frequent targets for robbers, and it didn’t help that they ran on established routes at predictable times. (The Jarbidge Stage Robbery was the last stage robbery in the Old West. In 1916 a small two horse-driven mail wagon was ambushed on its way to Nevada.)

Vaquero – a horse mounted livestock herder. Basically a cowboy, before American cowboys existed. In fact, the American cowboys learnt much of their craft from the vaqueros, who developed their skills on the Iberian Peninsula, took them to South America and then moved up into America eventually.

Waddie – another slang term for a cowboy, though perhaps McMurtry is using an anachronism with this one. It maybe didn’t come about until the late 1800s. The word is used to describe skinny Jasper Fant. It is generally used affectionately to describe each other.

Wrangler – The person in charge of the remuda (group of horses) is generally known as a wrangler.


Arrows – while the white men used guns, the Indians used both guns (usually old and poorly maintained) and arrows. Sometimes the arrows were poisoned. Native American tribes used venomous reptiles to provide the poisons required. In the Southwest United States, the Gila Monster, being one of the only two venomous lizards.

Beaver hat – impossible to guess what a beaver hat would look like since, apart from being made of beaver, could be a variety of shapes and textures, from fluffy to shiny and smooth.

Bed-ground – the cowboy equivalent of a bedroom for the night. Good cowboys didn’t need much sleep, and had to remain awake on a horse for very long hours. Neither Gus nor Call need much in the way of sleep. The men whose circadian rhythms require more sleep soon get a reputation for being lazy.

Bowie knife – a fixed-blade fighting knife first popularized by James Bowie in the early 19th century.

Brogans – lace up shoes, worn by Louisa. There are both men’s and women’s styles. Louisa wears men’s ones.

Buckboard – a four-wheeled wagon of simple construction meant to be drawn by a horse or other large animal.

Buckshot – coarse lead shot used in shotgun shells

Buffalo chips – dried buffalo dung used as fuel, sometimes even for cooking (which Gus hates)

Buttermilk – both Gus and Call love to drink buttermilk. Originally, buttermilk was a byproduct: the liquid left behind after churning butter out of cream. These days it’s made by culturing milk.

Cap and ball gun – The cap and ball loading method is one of the first and earliest methods of loading a revolver. Samuel Colt created the first revolver in 1836 which relied on loose powder and ball, although this meant that the gun would be slow to load, usually requiring around four minutes, the method was practical and dependable. In the 1870s when the men met Indians using such a gun, this meant the gun was old-fashioned.

Cavalry cap – What Deets wears on his head. Apparently he found it lying around sometime in the 1850s. It’s like a baseball cap that’s kind of squashed down at the front.

Chaps – Leather pants that go over normal trousers to protect the legs when riding through bushy terrain. Chaps look like leather trousers minus the bum and crotch area. Sometimes fringed for decorative purposes.

Cobbler – refers to a variety of dishes, consisting of a fruit or savoury filling poured into a large baking dish and covered with a batter, biscuit, or pie crust before being baked. Po Campo makes the men ‘a sugary cobbler made with dewberries’. (It’s thought that sugary food is good for hangovers.)

Derringer – a small pistol with a large bore, which is very effective at close range

Dewberry – any of a number of trailing brambles (in N. America) with soft prickles and edible fruit resembling the blackberry, which have a dewy white bloom on the skin

Dogie – motherless or neglected calf, easy to round up for even the most hapless cowboy.

Double eagle – a gold coin worth 20 dollars

Dust – it’s hard to imagine how much of it there would have been and how you would be affected in the days before even sunglasses. The men wore bandannas across their mouths to get less mud in their mouths, but the men new to the job found themselves wanting to throw up, there was so much white dust kicked up by the cattle. Men and horses looked white with it.

Fatback – as in ‘biscuits and fatback’. Fat from the upper part of a side of pork, especially when dried and salted in strips. (Apart from the biscuits – scones – these men pretty much at a paleo diet.)

Frock coat – worn by the eccentric entomologist, A frock coat is a man’s coat characterised by a knee-length skirt (often cut just above the knee) all around the base, popular during the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

Fryback – another food. Eaten with cornbread. I can’t find exactly what it is, though perhaps it’s leftover lard?

Goat-gun – Bolivar holds his goat-gun close when he’s feeling unsure. Gus is worried he’s going to blow up the whole house and everyone with it. I suppose it’s called his ‘goat gun’ because he uses it when he goes rustling goats, but underscores the way these men felt about their weapons — different weapons for different, specific purposes.Jake Spoon is said to have killed the dentist with his ‘buffalo gun’. Same with knives and horses.

Gunplay – the word to describe shoot ups. Gunplay is what the men fear when they go rustling.

Hackamore – Call instructs the boys to make hackamores after they’ve caught a large herd of horses. A hackamore is headgear which does not have a bit. Instead, it has a special type of noseband that works on pressure points on the face, nose, and chin.

Hats – liable to blow off more than one might think.

Henry – a rifle patented in 1860 by a man with the last name of Henry, funnily enough. Cal carries a Henry. Gus favours the Colt Revolver.

Hobble – horses need to be hobbled so they don’t run off. When one of the Irish brothers is startled and drunk he tries to ride off on a hobbled mule. A horse can be hobbled by tying two of its adjacent legs together, or by tying up one leg. I wonder how unpleasant this is for a horse.

Horehound candy – a dark brown hard candy with a distinctly bittersweet taste. It is commonly sold in 5 inch long sticks or lozenges, which are often sugar coated. It’s a folk remedy for helping sore throats and other cold symptoms.

Lariat – a rope used as a lasso or for tethering. Bolivar takes one with him to have a shit among the chaparral. Gus and Call, looking on, can’t work out why he needs a lariat to take a dump.

Lunch – there is none. Call doesn’t like to stop for a midday meal. This makes a hearty breakfast important.

Malaria – Gus called his horse Malaria which makes me wonder the extent of its threat in that area at that time. Malaria was eradicated in America in the 1950s but had been prevalent in earlier eras, particularly before the 1880s. Malaria was a leading cause of death. When it didn’t cause death it seriously undermined public health. (In the southern states, including Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas, 7.8% of deaths in 1850 resulted from malarial fevers.)

Mash – home-distilled alcohol. Probably made with cornmeal, sugar and yeast in boiling water. You can even use sourdough as starter. This ‘mash’ was probably fermented by covering the pot in cheesecloth and storing in a dark place. After a while the top turns brown and foamy. When the sugar has been metabolised by the yeast it turns sour. Sounds disgusting. Prohibition didn’t take place in the US until 1920. The men also drink a lot of whiskey, often sharing a jug on the veranda.

Pallet – a straw mattress, or a crude or makeshift bed

Patching – needed to be done regularly, both on the wagon and on Deets’ quilt pants. I guess this means the men were good with needle and thread.

Plains Indian Sign Language – The Kiowa and other nations picked up sign language from the Mexicans. It’s no longer used much. It originated because each tribe spoke a different language, and they needed to trade to each other and so on. There is mention of sign language in the book. In the TV series, Gus seems to make the Plains Indian sign for ‘good’ as Blue Duck approaches.

Pommel – the highest part of the back of the saddle

Point – referred to positions, like sporting positions, alongside the herd. (Left point, right point etc.) The worst place to be was at the rear, catching all the dust. (The ‘drags’.) This spot was reserved for the lowest ranked in the crew, and in this case, the youngest. Dish is an excellent ‘point man’, keeping point all day, never letting the cattle get out of sight.

Reins – ideally made of plaited horse hair, which is stronger than leather reins.

Root-the-peg – a pocketknife game. Players flip knives to make them stick in the dirt. Another pocketknife game is mumblypeg, also called ‘mumbletypeg’, which is mentioned later in the book. The men use a ‘case knife’ which is term used in the south simply meaning a table knife.

Quirt – Lorena uses a quirt to cut a man’s face. I thought it was a kind of knife but actually it’s a whip. A quirt is a forked type of stock whip which usually has two falls at the end. The falls on a quirt are made of leather, buffalo, or cow hide. The core of the quirt is usually a leather bag filled with lead shot, the main part including the handle is often made from braided rawhide, leather or kangaroo hide and is usually somewhat stiff but flexible.

Rawhide – animal skin that has not been tanned. It’s therefore a much lighter colour than leather, more like parchment. (Think of a dog’s chew toy shaped like a bone like you can buy at the vet. That’s rawhide.) Cowboys used it to make whips because it’s more durable than leather. It’s also used to make drums and lampshades and sometimes shoes.

Rivermen – cause the sheriff in San Antonio grief. These are men who are ‘always drinking, fighting and cutting one another up’. I’m imagining men such as those in Huckleberry Finn, who live on boats, making lives of crime and odd jobs. Others would have made honest careers out of transporting fur and liquor and many other goods of the time by water. And it would have been a physically demanding job.

Rowel – Gus sits on Lorena’s bed and likes to ‘twirl the rowel of his spur’. It seems the ‘spur’ refers to the entire thing that straps to the boot. The ‘rowel’ is the little round thing with spikes that hurts the horses. Gus plays with his spur as if it’s a musical instrument. Some cowboys used to add small metal earring-looking things near their rowels which jangled when they walked. You’ll recognise the sound from cowboy movies or spoofs. These jangly pieces were called ‘jingo bobs’ or ‘jingle bobs’. I suppose those jingo bobs were the cowboy equivalent of no-muffler in the age of the rev-head.

Serape – Bolivar’s garment — a long, blanket-like shawl. Generally brightly coloured and fringed, worn by Mexican men. Bolivar gives one to Newt to use as an actual blanket.

Singing – the only skill those Irish brothers brought was their ability to sing. As Gus said, if there’d been two more of them, they’d have made a fine barbershop quartet. In fact the skill of singing wasn’t entirely useless. Cowboys used to sing overnight to keep the cattle calm. The songs would mask other sounds of the night, which were inclined to put the wind up the cows, in which case they were liable to take off in a panic. As long as the singing continued, the cattle remained calm. They would sing songs such as ‘Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie‘ and probably got mighty sick of the songs they knew, though Irishmen are famous for knowing many, many songs as they come from a strong tradition of singing.

Singletree – These days called simply a ‘tree’ – the top part of a saddle. Made of wood, hence ‘tree’. In the old days saddle trees comprised different parts of wood. Then they were made of a single piece of wood, but for a while the term ‘single tree’ distinguished the two kinds. Peaches gives July’s stepson an old singletree before the two set off after Jake Spoon. I had to ask what the ‘single’ refers to on Quora and here are the answers.

Saddle – the saddle was possibly a cowboy’s most important piece of equipment. He used it not only to ride in but as a pillow at night. He used its horns to tie the end of a lasso. His other equipment hung off it. A saddle was like a pair of boots in that it needed breaking in, and would have moulded itself under specific pairs of buttocks.

Saddle scabbard – where the men keep their rifles. Looks like a scabbard a cowboy would wear on his belt, but this is bigger and hangs off his saddle.

Saddle soap – still used today for keeping leather supple. Comes in a tin like shoe polish and apparently has a distinctive smell.

Sidearm – a weapon worn at a person’s side, such as a pistol or formerly a sword

Six-shooter – a revolver with six chambers

Slicker – a long overcoat. A cowboy slicker would ideally have had three buttons above a split at the back, with the buttons doing up over the man’s backside, making it more practical for sitting astride a horse. Gus wore a yellow slicker.

Trail-broken – once the cattle are trail-broken it’s easier for the cowboys to keep them going where they want them to go.

Walker Colt – The Colt Walker was a single action revolver with a revolving cylinder holding six charges of black powder behind six bullets. It was designed in 1846. Deet carries one of these.

Winchester rifle –  Winchester rifles were among the earliest repeating rifles; the Winchester repeater was incredibly popular and is colloquially known as “The Gun that Won the West” for its predominant role in the hands of Western settlers. But Call always uses a Henry, even when his men are all using Winchesters due to their being lighter. Perhaps Call considers a lighter gun a kind of laziness.


Bay horse – Bay is a horse colour. Brown with black hairs in it. (Unlike ‘sorrel’, in which there are no black hairs in the mix.)

Beeves – plural of beef (cows raised to be beef)

Bison – The systematic commercial bison hunting by white hunters in the 19th century nearly ended the bison herds and permanently changed Native American life on the Great Plains. Early American settlers called bison “bufello” due to the similar appearance between bison and buffalo, and the name “buffalo” stuck for the American variety. But buffalo and bison are different animals.You find actual buffalo in Africa and Asia. The American bison has a large shoulder hump and massive head. Buffalo have all but gone from the South but are still plentiful in Yellowstone, according to Jake, at the time of the story. It’s commonly thought that bison were plentiful on the American plains before white men arrived, but in fact the Native Americans themselves kept the populations down. For a while there was a population explosion of bisons, between the events of white men killing a lot of Native Americans, and white men killing a lot of bison.

Bronc – short for bronco, a wild or half-tamed horse of the western US.

Bulls – unlike grizzlies, unbranded bulls were a genuine threat, wandering into camp and mating with the cows, charging at the cattlemen, threatening their horses.

Bullbat – not a bat but a common nighthawk. Comes out at sundown. It is sometimes called a “bull-bat”, due to its “bat-like” flight, and the “bull-like” boom made by its wings as it pulls from a dive.

Buzzards – if cowboys see buzzards in the distance circling around something on the prairie it’s a good sign they’re eating something dead. No wonder buzzards have an ominous undertone in film.

Chaparral – a shrubland/heathland plant community found mainly in California and the North Baja California Peninsula. Shaped by mild, wet winters and hot dry summers with wildfire. Comes from Spanish ‘chaparro’, meaning the Kermes Oak.

Crawdad – dialect for a kind of crayfish. In Australia they’re called ‘yabbies’.

Cottonmouth – a large, dangerous semiaquatic pit viper which inhabits lowland swamps and waterways of the south-eastern US. When threatening it opens its mouth wide to display the white interior. Another danger when crossing rivers and stopping to let horses drink.

Dun horse – a dun horse comes in a variety of colours but its body is lighter than its mane and its legs.

Gant horse – ‘gant’ is also used as a verb as in ‘to gant a horse’. Seems to be a regional variation on ‘gaunt’, and means to make a horse thin by insufficient feeding and a lot of riding/work. Also ‘to gant up’. Seems to be Scottish. (The character of Call was born in Scotland, which causes Gus to accuse him of not being American over breakfast.)

Gelding – a castrated animal, especially a male horse. ‘To geld a horse’ is the verb.

Grizzly bears – the men are scared of bears, perhaps in a pleasantly threatening kind of way, because they’ve never actually seen one down south. There would have been a few back then, sure, but grizzly bears were pretty much wiped out from the plains of America (by men such as these) between 1850 and 1920. Today grizzlies are not found in America outside Alaska and the very top of the Canadian border. The cowboys in LD did eventually meet a grizzly when they got high enough. It proved about an even match for the bull.

Grulla – a type of horse coloration. (Pronounce as if it’s still only Spanish.) The body colour will be smoky or mouse coloured (not a mixture of black and white hairs, but each individual hair is mouse colored). A grulla usually has a dorsal stripe, shoulder striping or shadowing and black leg barring on lower legs. Grullo is used equally.

Horse nickering – Lorena can hear horses nickering from her room, but I had no idea what that actually sounded like. Here’s a YouTube video of someone’s horse nickering. It’s basically an excited grunty sound. People who know horses divide nickers further: There’s the greeting nicker, the courtship nicker and the maternal nicker.

Jackrabbit – a hare found on the prairies and steppes of North America

Lobo wolf – lobo is Spanish and Portugese for wolf, so I guess the men mean wolves from across the border.

Locoweed – (also crazyweed and loco) is a common name in North America for any plant that produces swainsonine, a phytotoxin harmful to livestock. (It looks quite a lot like Paterson’s Curse, which is the equivalent around these parts.)

Mosquitoes – It’s hard to imagine how much of an annoyance these would have been. The mosquitoes are so thick at one stage that if one of the cowboys touched his face he’d end up with a red smear across it. There wasn’t even the benefit of DIMP. I guess a successful cowboy would have had to build up somewhat of a resistance to the bites over time, or else end up covered in huge welts. It’s mentioned that the Irish brothers suffered most, and I’m thinking it’s because they had yet to build some resistance to the local mosquitoes.

Mesquite – the coals of mesquite are used for fires to cook over. Mesquite are trees which grow in hot, dry areas of southern America, as far north as Southern Kansas. The cattle herders do not like mesquite because it’s hard to drive cattle through. They much prefer the prairies.

Mouse snake – the boys are scared even of mouse snakes after one of the crew is killed by a nest of cottonmouths. I wonder if they mean a ‘rat snake’ which is not venomous, changing it to ‘mouse snake’ to make it seem even less harmful.

Nag – an old/worthless horse

Pacing horse – Jake Spoon is known for riding a pacing horse. What is that, exactly? Jake says he prefers pacing horses because they’re ‘easier on the seat’. It’s to do with a horse’s gait: ‘a pacing horse is less stable on uneven ground, which would make it less practical as a cowboy’s horse. A pacing horse lifts the front and back leg on the same side, and rocks side to side as it moves forward. A trotting horse lifts right front/left rear (left front/right rear) together, and it’s a much more even gait for the horse (and the rider). … For some horses, pacing is a fairly natural gait because it’s been bred into them. It is possible that in the Lonesome Dove example, they are not referring to an actual pacing horse, but just any horse with a fancy gait that wasn’t necessary, such as a Tenneesee Walking Horse… they’re giving [Jake] crap because he’s got a fancy-pants horse when any regular horse would have been a more practical choice.’ (MetaFilter) When Gus sees an Indian (Blue Duck) riding a pacing horse he is immediately suspicious. Indians didn’t traditionally ride them, so Blue Duck may have shot a Mexican and taken his pacing horse.

Possum – are mostly eaten by negroes, who catch them. (Negroes also eat turtles, according to the girl who tags along with Roscoe.)

Prickly pear – an annoyance to cowboys who are often getting spiked by it. I wondered if the bush grew pears, at least. Turns out it’s a cactus — the archetypal kind that you would’ve seen on Road Runner etc. Its hairlike prickles easily penetrate the skin. They’re native only to America but have been introduced to other parts of the world, including Australia. The fruit of prickly pears is edible, although it must be peeled carefully to remove the small spines on the outer skin.

Rat Snake – a medium to large constrictor. They eat mainly rodents and birds and are nonvenomous.

Rattlesnakes – are a plenty in Lonesome Dove. Jake Spoon says it’s a pity there’s not a good trade in snake meat, in which case Lonesome Dove would be a lot better off. Unlike rat snakes, rattlesnakes are venomous. Poison gets into you when the snakes bites with its fangs. There was no antivenom when this story was set. Antivenom was originally called ‘antivenin’, and the first published use was in 1895. At first it was just for the Indian cobra. These days, if you got bitten by a rattlesnake you’d need a product called CroFab, the only official treatment in America since the year 2000. Before that there was Crotaline, which had only been around since 1953 anyhow. If you’re bitten by a rattlesnake there’s a chance it’s a ‘dry bite’ — one without venom. But you can also lose a limb or your life, especially if you have an anaphylactic reaction, or are stuck out in the wilderness.

Remuda – a herd of horses from which ranch hands select their mounts. The word is of Spanish derivation, for “change of horses” and is commonly used in the American West.

Shoat – a young pig, especially newly weaned. The shoats (often called pigs by the characters) hang around Lonesome Dove, killing snakes etc. The shoats in Lonesome Dove are often described as having a ‘blue’ coat. This is a black/grey colour which looks bluish under the light.

Snub a horse – an unbroken horse is sometimes tied (snubbed) to a snubbing post so it can’t run around of its own accord. Also called a ‘patience pole’.

Sorrel – Sorrel is a herb, and the flower on its spike is a brown colour, which is used to describe one of the main colours of horse. Brown, for the uninitiated. You’ll have seen plenty of brown horses. Technically that shade is called ‘sorrel’.  A sorrel horse has no black hairs.

Steer – a castrated male bull. Steerhide is leather made out of a steer’s skin. The saddler uses strips of it to make rope.

Turtles – can be seen in the rivers. Janey calls them ‘snappers’ and is more afraid of them than of rattle snakes. Roscoe assures her that they may be deadly but they’re slow.

Varmint – an animal considered a pest; specifically : one classed as vermin and unprotected by game law.

Water moccasins – the snake that killed the Irish boy when crossing the first river. Another name for cottonmouth.

Withers – the highest part of a horse’s back, lying at the base of the neck above the shoulders. The height of a horse is measured to the withers.


This story happens 1876-1879 or thereabouts. What was going on in America at this time? According to Call, the big towns have things like ‘oprys and streetcars’, though he personally does not hanker after such things, preferring a comfortable life in the wilderness. For these men, the border is the safest place for them to be, because the local Native Americans have been killed, chased off or mainly subdued. For them, travelling through the Wild West will present a hazard, as this is not the case yet for all of North America.

Of the men in Lonesome Dove, only a few can read at all, and Gus is the best educated of them, misplaced apostrophe notwithstanding. He has a primitive introduction to Greek and Latin, though never finished his education. While much of America is illiterate, the best lettered know not only how to write in English but in Greek and Latin as well.

Deets being black has never had a scrap of education and won’t believe Gus when Gus tells him the world is flat. His view on the world is of the superstitious kind. Others in the group don’t know where Canada is exactly. Even the worldly Gus doesn’t know if the Northern Lights are visible from Montana. Newt thinks ‘the north’ is a place rather than a direction, and has never ridden further than San Antonio.

Although Deets is Call’s most reliable man, Call can’t put a black man in charge of anything. It goes without saying that women of the Wild West have no rights and no say whatsoever, and if they achieve anything in life it’s by persuading a white man to help them out. Gus regularly refers to the men as ‘girls’ in a mildly insulting way, pointing out the gender hierarchy each time.

America is still in its Puritan era. Lorena’s clients don’t even like to take their clothes off most of the time, which is what makes Gus and Jake different. Many are scared away when she undresses herself, which is why she does it.

A lot of men are suffering PTSD after the Civil War. Bill Spettle for example ‘died of drink’. There’s a hole in the male demographic. These lands are missing middle aged men. In fact, the male death rate is still so high that if a man sees a married woman he likes the look of he’s inclined to wait until her husband dies rather than give up hope of romance altogether. Gus is especially prone to this way of thinking.

For an account of a slightly earlier time: Review of Mark M. Smith’s “The Smell of Battle, The Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War”

Big Indian Raid of ’56 – Clara’s parents were killed in this raid in Austin. The Texas–Indian wars were a series of conflicts between settlers in Texas and the Southern Plains Indians. The Comanche fought hard against the settlers. The years 1856–1858 were particularly vicious and bloody. I can’t work out if the ‘big Indian raid of ’56’ refers to a particular actual big struggle during that time, but the main thing is that the last big big struggle happened in 1858, with the Battle Of Little Robe Creek. This marked the end of Comancheria.

Little Robe Creek, Oklahoma

How much did Gus pay to have a poke at Lorena that time Jake Spoon was out branding dogies?

So when Lorena charged $2 per session it would cost the modern man $50. Roscoe as Deputy Sheriff was earning about $750/month and I guess that’s how he figured he was poorly paid.

Scalping – Gus lives with the fear of being ‘scalped’. His hair turned white age 30, but he still has a head full of it, which makes him nervous because he guesses it’s attractive to Indians. He doesn’t really want to ride up to Montana in case he’s scalped. What is scalping, and was this really a thing? Indeed, ‘Scalping is the act of cutting or tearing a part of the human scalp, with hair attached, from the head of an enemy.’ Some Native American tribes practised scalping from way back (while others never did). The practice lasted until the end of the 19th century in some cases, and was still going on during the Civil War, which I suppose legitimised Gus’s concern for his head. As usually happens, something as gory as this has a lot of mythology around it, and it would seem the white man took up this practice with creepy gusto. There was already a European tradition of using heads as trophies and proof of bounty hunting; scalps were only a small modification on that.

Summary justice –  refers to the trial and punishment of suspected offenders without recourse to a more formal and protracted trial (for example a jury trial) under the legal system. It is also a term sometimes used to describe or justify vigilantism. Call and Gus prefer this kind of ‘justice’ since the only jailers available in the wild west are ‘circuit jailers’, who may or may not turn up to a trail if a criminal is found.

General Lee – Bolivar is under the impression that ‘General Lee freed the slaves.’ Gus points out that it was actually Abe Lincoln who freed the slaves. Robert E. Lee (1807-70) served as a military officer in the U.S. Army, a West Point commandant and the legendary general of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War (1861-65). He’s famous for being bloody-minded, sacrificing lives in big struggle even while knowing the big struggle was hopeless. These days Lee is generally considered a hero in the south and a traitor in the north, but mostly as a soldier who fought for a cause he believed in. After he seceded in the war, he did spend the rest of his life fostering relations between the north and the south. (This makes me think he’d have fought just as hard for the opposite side had his birthplace been slightly to the north.)

Goodnight-Loving Cattle Trail – Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving were real men. They are ficionalized in Lonesome Dove by Call and Gus respectively. (Gus = Loving and Call = Goodnight.) The fictional characters are very different in personality and circumstance from the real life men, though the main plot points line up approximately. Also, Gus mentions Charlie Goodnight in his conversation with Blue Duck, so even if these two characters are based on real men, the real men also exist within the story.

Rangers – Gus and Call used to be rangers before they started the Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium. But what exactly did rangers do? ‘The Texas Rangers were unofficially created in a call-to-arms written in 1823. Ten years later, on August 10, 1835 Daniel Parker introduced a resolution to the Permanent Council creating a body of rangers to protect the border. The unit was dissolved by the federal authorities during the post–Civil War Reconstruction Era, but was quickly reformed upon the reinstitution of home government. Since 1935, the organisation has been a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety; it fulfills the role of Texas’ state bureau of investigation.’ (Wikipedia) The Texas Rangers is the oldest law enforcement in America. Here’s a description of a ranger’s camp life. (Spoiler alert: Not all that romantic.) Gus and Call also shot their fair share of Indians. But the job ‘wore out’. ‘In the south it became mainly a matter of protecting the cattle herds of rich men like Captain King or Shanghai Pierce, both of whome had more cattle than any one man needed. In thenorth, the Army had finally taken the fight against the Comanches away from the Rangers, and had nearly finished it. He and Call, who had no military rank or standing, weren’t welcomed by the Army; with forts all across the northwestern frontier the free-roving Rangers found that they were always interfering with the Army, or else being interfered with. When the Civil War came, the Governor himself called them in and asked them not to go—with so many men gone they needed at least one reliable troop of Rangers to keep the peace on the border.’

The United States from 1868-1876
Cowboys at a Funeral From The Fireside Book of Favorite American Songs, Illustrated by Aurelius Battaglia. 1952
Cowboys at a Funeral From The Fireside Book of Favorite American Songs, Illustrated by Aurelius Battaglia. 1952

Header illustration: The Brave Cowboy, by Joan Walsh Anglund

The Symbolism of Stairs And Attics

C. Coles Phillips (American artist and illustrator, 1880-1927) stairs


Common-sense lives on the ground floor […] on the same level as the others, as the passers-by, who are never dreamers.

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

See Symbolism of the Dream House for more on stairs and the places they connect.

stairs from Mango & Bambang- The Not-a-Pig by Polly Faber
Mango & Bambang- The Not-a-Pig by Polly Faber

Beauty and the Beast

Stairs = Ascent To Heaven

This image is from the 1986 version retold by Anne Carter,  illustrated by Binette Schroeder. Beauty and the Beast has a strong Christian message for young women: Do as you’re told and you’ll wind up in Heaven. Here we see her going up the stairs into the Beast’s castle, sure that she’s about to end up dead.


Stairs as Ascent into Terror and Imagination

I like drawing staircases, so it seems. There’s nothing like a steep staircase to add some tension and drama to an illustration.

Page 14 of The Artifacts with development notes
Page 14 of The Artifacts with development notes

Stairs As Eavesdropping Spaces

The staircase in the horror comedy Courage The Cowardly Dog. A camera tilt makes an ominous staircase seem even more ominous.

A struggle scene in 101 Dalmatians (1963) features a chase and dodge sequence which takes place on the stairwell of a big, unwelcoming, aristocratic house. Staircases allow for a variety of angles.

Baddie ascends the stairs, where he is close to discovering the puppies.
The nice thing about stairs is, the space beneath offers shelter and hiding place.
A top down view of the baddie sprawled across the landing shows that he has been defeated.
From ‘When the Sky is like Lace’ 1975 Written by Elinor Lander Horowitz Illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1917 – 2000)
Angela Barrett, from the Walker Book of Ghost Stories
Angela Barrett. from the Walker Book of Ghost Stories

Speaking of ominous staircases, you may have seen this picture on the Internet:


Over at Messy Nessy is an explanation:

“The Stairway to Heaven, also known as the Haiku Stairs, is a series of 3,922 steps in Oahu, Hawaii on the Koolau Mountain Range. The staircase was built by in 1942 by the U.S. Navy and its scenic views made it a popular tourist attraction. The Stairway to Heaven was closed off in 1982, and scheduled to re-open in 2001 after an $875,000 renovation but local residents opposed access in a NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) move. Hikers ignored the signs placed by the city, the city hired security guards to block access, so hikers then accessed the Stairway to Heaven in the middle of the night.”

Some stairs are fantastically long.

Some stairs are hidden, functioning as a labyrinth just beyond the familiar walls.

The Hidden Staircase


The stairs leading to the turret are narrow, which forces physical proximity.

Frederic William Burton - Hellelil and Hildebrand, the meeting on the turret stairs (1864)
Frederic William Burton – Hellelil and Hildebrand, the meeting on the turret stairs (1864)

Wolves In The Walls by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

Does anyone else find it ironically hilarious that the steps are made of anti slip metal? I mean, it’s necessary and all, and probably better than nothing, but that, folks, is what you call a death trap. Safety tread or no safety tread.


Wolves In The Walls is a contemporary story, but ‘living beings in the walls’ has a real-life history when we think back to the relatively recent Edwardian era, in which well-to-do houses kept a staff of services who lived, like rats, ‘behind the scenes’. Behind the green baize door. These servants had their own stairways, and were expected to keep apart from the owners and ‘proper residents’ of the house as much as humanly possible. If they were to ever meet their superior in the house, the most lowly of staff were expected to turn away, pretending not to have seen or heard a thing.

Behind the Green Baize Door

In order that the frenzied activity of the servants didn’t impinge on the peace and quiet of the household, there was a second staircase, unlit, between the attic where the maids lived and the basement where they worked. The servants’ stairs were behind the … green baize door, and led to a network of tunnels and passages few from the other side would ever need to see. The servants’ entrance was around the back of the house and, in town houses, was below ground level. It was considered a heinous impertinence for anyone of servant or tradesman class to call at the front door.

Along with the kitchen and scullery, the basement housed the sleeping quarters for the male members of staff as well as the butler’s pantry and the housekeeper’s room, where the preserves and pickles would be kept. If the housekeeper was lucky she would have enough room there.

Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney

The Dark by Lemony Snickett and Jon Klassen

Stairs = Descent into terror

the dark stairs

Geronimo Stilton

In this humorous series we have a mouse who is terrified of entering an attic. This is a small inversion on the norm, which is to be terrified of entering a basement.

Geronimo Stilton staircase_600x911

Courage The Cowardly Dog: The Demon In The Mattress (1999)

a great high angle view of a staircase

Midnight Feast by Slap Happy Larry (2013)

Stairs = descent into dreamlike other reality

midnight feast stairs

David’s Waiting Day by Bernadette Watts (1977)

At various other points in this picture book we see the young David gazing out at the reader from the second-storey bedroom window.

We don’t find out what it is David is waiting for until the end of the book (when we learn he has been waiting for his mother to come home with a new baby.) In the meantime, there is a deliberately ominous mood to this book, depicted here by the staircase in silhouette and backgrounded in black. David doesn’t know what’s going on. The mysteries of childbirth are kept from him. David is The Boy Upstairs.

David's Waiting Day staircase

Midnight Feast by Slap Happy Larry (2014)

I am a big fan of stairs in picture books — here, in the wider story, Stairs = economic hierarchy.

Page 15a of Midnight Feast
Page 15a of Midnight Feast
Angusine Jeanne (A. J.) MacGregor (Scottish-English, 1881-1961) stairs
Angusine Jeanne (A. J.) MacGregor (Scottish-English, 1881-1961) stairs

Beauty And The Beast by Carter and Schroeder

Beauty and the Beast front cover_600x709

Beauty and the Beast is a strongly mythic tale: A girl goes on a journey and ultimately finds her true self.


Beauty and the Beast back cover

Beauty and the Beast is a tale featuring multiple levels of misogyny and much has already been said about that. For example, Was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Re-Tooled Because Belle Wasn’t Enough Of A Feminist? Angela Carter has rewritten the tale in a way that feminists may find cathartic. It’s called “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” and can be found in Carter’s collection of feminist fairytales retold: The Bloody Chamber.

The Bloody Chamber Angela Carter includes Beauty and the Beast revisioning

In this picture book version, intelligently illustrated by German artist Binette Schroeder in the mid 1980s, the coincidentally similarly named Anne Carter retells a tale which — I was surprised to learn — dates only so far back as the mid 1700s. This is a ‘literary fairy tale’, meaning that unlike a ‘true’ fairy tale, it did not originate from any oral tradition (unlike a tale such as Little Red Cap, for instance). It was written by a French governess who had the most erudite sounding name it almost sounds fictional in its own right: Mme Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.

That said, Anne Carter explains in the afterword that this tale is quite similar to a Greek myth about Cupid and Psyche called The Golden Ass. This dates from the second century A.D. Both stories feature:

  • the palace
  • nasty sisters
  • the return home

The main differences:

  • In versions of the Greek myth the monster turns out to be merely invisible
  • Psyche’s is a journey towards intellectual/spiritual love; Beauty’s is a journey towards understanding the difference between the superficial and the real.

The main differences between the original tale by Mme LePrince de Beaumont and many modern retellings is that the original author

  1. Wrote the tale for adults, not children
  2. Emphasised that what makes for a good partnership is respect, understanding and the ability to see past your partner’s superficial charm and into their deeper soul. Modern retellings tend to sensationalise the romance.

Anne Carter’s retelling is not in any way subversive, but the afterword is definitely worth a read because it puts the story in historical context.



With a modern reading, Beauty is indeed a flawed character. She is far too willing to please. But to a contemporary audience, Beauty was perfection itself. A model of feminine virtue, sacrificing herself to the needs of the men around her and acquiescing to her older sisters in the family hierarchy.

It’s possible that Beauty’s mother died in childbirth. I think that because she is the youngest in a large family and because women often died in childbirth in the 1700s. Perhaps Beauty’s ‘ghost’ or backstory, is that she feels guilt for bringing this misfortune upon the family, and why she feels she needs to be her father’s stand-in female companion in his old age.


Beauty wants to stay with her father and be his loyal companion.


Beauty’s opponents are her older sisters.

Below, we see how psychologically separate the sisters are from the heroine. There are not one but two frames (doorways) between them; the sisters are from another world entirely.

beauty sewing with dog
Notice how the dog — its eyes, its colouring and its open mouth — look very much like the Beast when we meet him in the night garden. If this dog can love Beauty, so can the similar-looking Beast, apparently. Note also the bird, depicted in the same pink and greys as Beauty — who chooses not to fly away even though the cage is open.

The Beast appears to be an opponent but we find out he is a false-enemy ally. (Or he’s meant to be. I code him as a coercively controlling menace.)

Here's the Beast, looking very much like Beauty's little dog. He is depicted in this story as a chimera. Even more terrifyingly, his castle is full of chimeras — most startlingly, the table with leopard legs.
Here’s the Beast, looking very much like Beauty’s little dog. He is depicted in this story as a chimera. Even more terrifyingly, his castle is full of chimeras — most startlingly, the table with leopard legs.
table chimera


When Father returns with the news that one of his daughters must marry a terrifying Beast, Beauty offers herself as sacrifice, feeling that the rose incident, too, is her fault.

It’s worth remembering that Christianity in the 1700s looked a bit more like modern-day fundamentalist Islam in the respect that the devout really, truly believed that if they lived their lives according to the word of God, they would find themselves in a Heavenly paradise. When Beauty sacrifices herself to the Beast it is clear that she believes she is going there to die. But she also believes she will end up in celestial Heaven due to having been good all her life.

The Hans Christian Andersen tales are based on the same belief. That’s why the ending of The Little Match Girl, who dies from hypothermia and goes to meet her grandmother in Heaven, was written to be a ‘happy ending’, and the evolution of Christian belief is why modern young readers usually fail to find it so.

The atrium with its glass ceiling gives the characters a direct view of the Heavens. The stairway symbolises Beauty's ascent to Heaven. That's where she thinks she's going, after all.
The atrium with its glass ceiling gives the characters a direct view of the Heavens. The stairway symbolises Beauty’s ascent to Heaven. That’s where she thinks she’s going, after all.


The Battle is a Christian-like test. The Beast (in god-like fashion) is testing Beauty when he allows her to go home to visit her natal family. Will she come back or not?

It is the Beast who goes to the edge of death rather than the beautiful and noble Beauty.


As Anne Carter says in the afterword: ‘for Beauty the challenge is to move from the superficial to the real, to see through the loathsome outward appearance to the goodness within. Only then, when Beauty knows and loves the virtue of her Beast, can the transformation take place.

Dreams and revelations are prominent in this tale. Anagnorisis is delivered via dream.
Dreams and revelations are prominent in this tale. Anagnorisis is delivered via dream.


Beauty and the prince were married in great state and lived together throughout the length of their lives in the most perfect and deserved happiness.

See Also

My own revisioning of Beauty and the Beast is called Winter Rose.

Even going by the most generous estimates, Mrs. Potts, the Beast’s faithful housekeeper, is clearly way too goddamn old to have given birth to her “son,” Chip. […] 

A Theory That Will Change How You See Beauty And The Beast

Honest Movie Trailer for the Emma Watson adaptation

The Beauty and the Beast. Illustrator – Margaret Evans Price

Beauty and the Beast taught me that I can be just an awful shitmongrel and still expect a beautiful woman to find and save me if I accidentally start doing the least. Am I doing this right

Studio Glibly

Stockholm syndrome is often mentioned in relation to Beauty of Beauty and the Beast, but Pop Culture Detective makes an argument in favour of avoiding that term, because it heaps undue blame on the female victim, assuming she has been brainwashed. In fact, these characters show great resilience in the face of extreme abuse.

Warwick Goble (1862-1943), English children's book illustrator. Beauty and the Beast 1913
Warwick Goble (1862-1943), English children’s book illustrator. Beauty and the Beast 1913
Beauty and the Beast as illustrated by Angela Barrett is also wonderful.
Beauty and the Beast as illustrated by Angela Barrett is also wonderful.

What is a metaphor for?

Metaphors help readers see the world in a new way. Below are some hints for creating a resonant metaphor.


Every metaphor or simile is a little explosion of fiction within the larger fiction of the novel or story.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

The metaphor is a fabricated image, without deep, true, genuine roots. It is an ephemeral expression. It is, or should be, one that is used only once, in passing. We must be careful, therefore not to give it too much thought; nor should the reader think too much about it.

— Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space

“Metaphors matter”, as Bernard Bailyn has reminded us, for “they shape the way we think” — all the more when they make sense in the light of actual experience.

— A. Roger Ekirch

The Difference Between Imagery and Metaphor

A metaphor gives concrete substance to an impression that is difficult to express. Metaphor is related to a psychic being from which it differs. An image, on the contrary, product of absolute imagination, owes its entire being to the imagination.

— Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space

Don’t Hate On The Mixed Metaphor

A mixed metaphor is defined as ‘a combination of two or more incompatible metaphors’.

Actually, there is a way in which mixed metaphor is perfectly logical, and not an aberration at all. … In contemporary parlance, what people dislike about mixed metaphor is that it tends to combine two different cliches, as in, say, “out of a sea of despair, he has pulled forth a plum.” The metaphorical aspect is actually dimmed, almost to non-existence, by the presence of two or more mixed cliches (which be definition are themselves dim or dead metaphors).

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

In other words — a mixed metaphor is fine. Cliches are bad.

The Secret Of Powerful Metaphor

Often the leap toward the counterintuitive, toward the very opposite of the thing you are seeking to compare, is the secret of powerful metaphor. […] Obviously, whenever you liken x to y, you will be drawing attention to the fact that x is really nothing like y, as well as drawing attention to the effort involved in producing such extravagances. The kind of metaphor I most delight in, however […] estranges and then instantly connects, and in doing the latter so well, hides the former. The result is a tiny shock of surprise, followed by a feeling of inevitability.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

(I’ve heard that ‘surprise plus feeling of inevitability’ combo before, elsewhere, in describing ‘the perfect ending’ to a story. So metaphors and endings have a few things in common.)

Metaphor In Children’s Literature

Maurice Saxby tells us that metaphors in children’s literature need to be on the child reader’s level for them to work:

When the image or metaphor is within a child’s range of sensory, emotional, cognitive and moral experience and is expressed in linguistic terms that can be apprehended and comprehended by young readers, a book becomes classed as a children’s one.

— Maurice Saxby, Give Them Wings

Pyrrhic Victories and Tragic Dilemmas In Fiction

pyrrhic victories

A pyrrhic victory is a ‘victory’ in which the costs of winning are so enormous that winning becomes an ironic term. In the ultimate pyrrhic victory, the main character has achieved what needs doing but is dead by the end of the story. The hero can ‘transcend’ what in the real world we would call a victory.

Some people think that successful stories have to have happy endings. This is simply not true if you look around at what’s popular, even out of Hollywood. Pyrrhic victories are extremely common.

A subset of pyrrhic victories are stories in which the main character faces a tragic dilemma.

pyrrhic victory
cartoon by Poorly Drawn Lines

Tragic Dilemmas

Moral philosopher Bernard Williams argued that there exist many situations in life where something won’t work, where we are just stuck and there’s no way out.

  • Agamemnon by Aeschylus — A great king has to either betray his army by abandoning his expedition to Troy, or sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, because the goddess Artemis was preventing the wind from blowing the right way, and demanded this price.
  • Sophie’s Choice — perhaps the most obvious example of a tragic dilemma — expressed even in the title. Sophie has to decide which of her two children is to be sent immediately to the gas chamber.
  • A Streetcar Named Desire — Writer and critic Joseph Wood Krutch, in appraising Blanche, says, “Her instincts are right. She is on the side of civilisation and refinement. But the age has placed her in a tragic dilemma. She looks about for a tradition according to which she may live and a civilisation to which she can be loyal. She finds none. Ours is a society which has lost its shape.”


Moral Dilemmas in Children’s Literature

Illustrating Maps

The literary maps that look like these next few were designed by Geoff Sawers and Bridget Hannigan. They can be found at various places on the Internet.

After the booklovers map of America, a typographic literary map of the UK.
from Explore
Literary Map of Australia

The Booklover’s Map of America Showing Certain Landmarks of Literary Geography

from Brainpickings

The Book That Represents Each American State

The Book That Represents Each American State

For Arthur Ransome Fans

Arthur Ransome In Lakeland

Atlases: A collection of the British Library , Koninklijke Bibliotheek

Levels of Detail In Literature

writing the detail

The first job of the storyteller is to decide what to leave out and what to put onto the page.

It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because of what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many.

Margaret Atwood

Even once on the page, not every detail is necessary for the plot. In which case, why keep it? Writers are told to cut, cut, cut.

Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something. Don’t use such an expression as dim land of peace. It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol. Go in fear of abstraction.

Ezra Pound

But don’t cut everything, just because it doesn’t advance the plot. There are multiple kinds of fictional detail, each performing different functions.

Here are some factors to bear in mind when creating rich and detailed scenarios:

  1. Not only too little information but too much creates anxiety.
  2. Humans value useful rather than necessarily true information.

If storytellers aren’t careful about detail, the effect can be unpleasantly disorienting:

Literary narratives present readers with dynamic environments that typically contain representations of fundamental features of the external world, including a physical place rich in inanimate objects and living beings. Among the latter, other humans with a distinct set of social relations are often particularly salient. Yet even though the fictive world must have sufficient dimensions of real-world environments for readers to navigate within it, so to speak, it is at the same time a highly artificial environment whose aspects have been carefully selected, unlike those of actual places and spaces. In everyday experience, organisms filter out an abundance of actions and entities that have no relatively meaningful claim upon their attention. Stepping into the street, a person will attend to oncoming traffic rather than the dead worm being eaten by ants or an inexplicably brilliant flower lying in withered leaves by her feet. In the moment before she crosses the street, these objects do not strike her as important stimuli or opportunities for action if a car is barreling rapidly down the street, and she does not attend to them. But a work of fiction is an intentionally produced, cognitive artifact, and if a writer describes each of these features of the environment as a character crosses the street, readers expect those features to have some relevance to the ongoing construction of meaning in the text. (The real woman crossing the street is likewise continuously producing meaning, but her priorities and the bearing of her environment on her well-being are rather different.) In offering itself to our attention as a meaningful, humanly constructed cognitive object, a literary work leaves us unprepared to filter out extraneous elements.

‘Who Was It If It Wasn’t Me?’: The Problem of Orientation in Alice Munro’s ‘Trespasses’: A Cognitive Ecological Analysis

James Wood has his own taxonomy of detail:

On-duty and Off-duty Detail

There is a conventional but modern fondness for quiet but “telling” detail: “The detective noticed that Carla’s hairband was surprisingly dirty.” If there is such a thing as a telling detail, then there must be such a thing as an untelling detail, no? A better distinction might be between what I would call “off-duty” and “on-duty” detail; the off-duty detail is part of the standing army of life, as it were—it is always ready to be activated. Literature is full of such off-duty detail. […] Nineteenth-century realism, from Balzac on, creates such an abundance of detail that the modern reader has come to expect of narrative that it will always contain a certain superfluity, a built-in redundancy, that it will carry more detail than it needs. In other words, fiction builds into itself a lot of surplus detail just as life is full of surplus details.

James Wood, How Fiction Works

Below, author Charles Yu shows he is a fan of off-duty detail:

Leave things lumpy. People want to know how the protagonist’s father’s dress socks looked against his pale white shins. People want to know the titles of the strange and eclectic books lining the walls of his study. People want to know the sounds he made while snoring, how he looked while concentrating, the way his glasses pinched the bridge of his nose, leaving what appeared to be uncomfortable-looking ovals of purple and red discolored skin when he took those glasses off at the end of a long day. Even if those lumps make the mixture less smooth, less pretty, even if you don’t quite know what to do with them, even if they don’t figure into your chemistry—they don’t have a place in the reaction equations—leave them there. Leave the impurities in there.

Charles Yu

There’s a great danger inherent in a writer’s choice of ‘telling detail’. The detail might ‘tell’ the writer’s own prejudices. Be mindful of the detail chosen to ‘tell’ the reader a character is:

  • poor
  • disabled
  • not white

In these cases, it’s generally safer to tell rather than ‘show’ via ‘telling detail’. Stereotypes are a useful shortcut between writer and reader, but only when writer and reader are complicit in their own privilege to the point where they don’t even see it themselves.

Umberto Eco had a term ‘wandering gaze’ which describes how when an audience is presented with a scene, for instance one which includes a semi-hidden gun, some members of the audience will notice the gun and others won’t, because everyone in an audience views a scene a little differently, no matter how carefully the artist/writer/film maker guides the eye.

Philip Larkin has apparently said of the James Bond franchise that we believe Hugo Drax will blow up London because he wears a Patek Philippe watch. In the words of Diane Purkiss, sometimes, especially in certain types of story, ‘descriptions simply add verisimilitude to an otherwise unconvincing narrative.

What are the types of story that expect us to derive very specific meaning from detail? Harlequin Romances and James Bond stories. From young adult literature, I’ll add the subcategory of books which are constantly dropping brand names as detail, the standout example being Gossip Girl.

Barthes’s Referential Illusion

Although surplus detail feels like it’s meant to denote what’s ‘real’, all it does is signify it.

Realism in general, it is implied, is just such a business of false denotation. […] Realism offers the appearance of reality but is in fact utterly fake—what [Roland] Barthes calls “the referential illusion.” […] those laurel-leaf haircuts worn by the actors in Hollywood “Roman” films signify “Romanness” in the way that Flaubert’s barometer signifies “realness”.

How Fiction Works

‘Random’ Detail

No detail in fiction is ever truly random, because the writer has chosen to include it, starting from nothing.

Therein lies the difference between fiction and real life. If I walk down a street I’m obliged to take in everything my mind registers, whether I want to or not, but the fiction author picks and chooses the detail most relevant to the reader.

When choosing detail, the storyteller:

  • evokes an atmosphere
  • paints a much wider setting with minimal clues to reader
  • might introduce or reinforce imagery (e.g. a stormy sky in the gothic novel foretells calamity)

In How Fiction Works, James Wood writes of the ‘Flaubertian Randomness of Detail’.

So the modern reader accepts a few things without question:

  1. The narrator notices stuff that ordinary people walking around would not notice, and can even make imagery out of mundane detail.
  2. For some reason, the narrator has gone to the trouble of writing it down.
  3. The narrator is able to pick and choose the detail which is relevant, unlike the rest of us, who walk down a street and take everything in, without any context for story. What we see when we walk down a street may well set off a chain of thoughts, but we’re not in full control of that chain.

‘The reader is happy enough to efface the labor of the writer in order to believe two further fictions: that the narrator was somehow “really there”, and that the narrator is not really a writer.’

James Wood, from How Fiction Works, p55

Telling versus Lifeless Detail

Rose Tremain’s categorisation is simple:

Learn from cinema. Be economic with descriptions. Sort out the telling detail from the lifeless one.

Rose Tremain

Lavish Backstories

Novelist Donna Tartt endows her characters, however minor, with lavish backstories. No detail is too small. ”Not everything has to serve the plot,” Tartt says. ”Dickens digresses. I like books that are big, busy and bustling. Novels are capacious. Those casual walk-on parts create the illusion of life, which is baggy with people you never see again and get to know fleetingly.”

from an interview with Donna Tartt, Sydney Morning Herald

Leave Out The Unrealistic Memories

Think of a significant moment in your life. Maybe you heard the Twin Towers had been bombed. Maybe someone died. Maybe a stalker chased you through a park.

Which of the details do you remember from that moment?

I’m thinking of one. I remember:

  • – What I said
  • – How I felt at the time
  • – Sequence of events
  • – How I felt afterwards

What I don’t remember:

  • – What he looked like, much
  • – What he said
  • – The colour of his eyes!
  • – His rippling forearm
  • – The sweat across his brow.

And this, fellow writers, must have consequences in fiction. When our viewpoint character looks back in time, don’t get too specific. Memory doesn’t work like that.

We all have an ongoing narrative inside our heads, the narrative that is spoken aloud if a friend asks a question. That narrative feels deeply natural to me. We also hang on to scraps of dialogue. Our memories don’t usually serve us up whole scenes complete with dialogue.

– from an interview with Lydia Davis

An excellent example of remembered detail can be found in the aptly named “What Is Remembered“, a short story by Alice Munro. In this story, an older woman looks back at a time in her life when she was unfaithful to her husband. The details she remembers in the close third person narration are signifiers — they have stuck in her memory after all else has faded.

It was in a small, decent building, three or four stories high, inexpensive rather than cheap-looking. All that she would remember about it would be the glass bricks around the front entrance and the elaborate, heavy hi-fi equipment of that time, which seemed to be the only furniture in the living room. […]

She remembered his hazel-gray eyes, the close-up view of his coarse skin, a circle like an old scar beside his nose, the slick breadth of his chest as he reared up from her. But she could not have given a useful description of what he looked like. She believed that she had felt his presence so strongly, from the very beginning, that ordinary observation was not possible. Sudden recollection of even their early, unsure and tentative moments could still make her fold in on herself, as if to protect the raw surprise of her own body, the racketing of desire.

Alice Munro

Robin Black is another short story writer who understands that memory has holes in it. When describing an event which happened 13 years earlier, here’s how she writes it:

Jeremy could only ever remember bits and pieces of those two weeks, the ones when [his daughter] was gone. Merciful amnesia, a friend once called it — except it wasn’t very merciful, because only the worst of it stuck with him. Or so he assumed. Like the first shock at her absence, as too many hours passed for it to be benign teenage tardiness; like walking the streets of London, night after night, as though she might have become a nocturnal creature waiting to reveal herself in the dark; like the dawning nightmarish realisation that he himself was a suspect in her disappearance.

A Country Where You Once Lived by Robin Black

Description Must Work For Its Place

Hilary Mantel is basically saying what Lydia Davis is saying, and demonstrates why writing in close third person is easier (and more modern-sounding) than writing in a truly omniscient voice, for what details would a god notice?

Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It ­usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.

Hilary Mantel

Detail in Short Stories

Detail in a short story has to carry a lot of weight. Even more than in novels, everything means something.

In the short story, detail is transformed into metaphorical significance. In a novel, on the other hand, the particular can remain merely the particular. It exists to make the reader feel he/she knows the experience — to create verisimilitude.

Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity, edited by Per Winther

Raymond Carver offers a disclaimer: Even in a poem or a short story the language used to describe this detail does not, itself, have to be startling. Everyday words will still do the trick.

It is possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things — a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring — with immense, even startling power.

Raymond Carver, On Writing

Detail in Children’s Literature

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead won the Newbery Medal. A large part of that was because of her choice of detail. Stead makes every small detail matter. The Newbery judges chose the novel for making the small details important to the plot. Publishers Weekly added that even the smallest of details—Miranda’s name, her strange habits and why she carries A Wrinkle in Time with her—have a reason for their inclusion by the end of the novel.


Tips on writing memorable fiction with good use of detail, at Anne R Allen’s Blog


Are you a constant observer, consciously looking for things you can use as a writer?


I think I’m a very unobservant person, one who goes straight to concepts about people and ignores evidence to the contrary and the bric-a-brac surrounding that person. Stephen Spender said an amusing thing about Yeats—that he went for days on end without noticing anything, but then, about once a month, he would look out of a window and suddenly be aware of a swan or something, and it gave him such a stunning shock that he’d write a marvelous poem about it. That’s more the kind of way I operate: suddenly something pierces the reverie and self-absorption that fill my days, and I see with a tremendous flash the extraordinariness of that person or object or situation.

The Paris Review interview, The Art of Fiction No. 49, by W. I. Scobie


If you hear the term ‘authenticating detail’, it’s not easy to Google so here’s a link.