ABCs of Creative Nonfiction: A is for Accoutrements

Posted by on Jul 6, 2016 in Uncategorized | 1 comment

Erin Ollila31: Yoga pants. Tank top. Cardigan. Flip flops. Messy brown pony tail made even messier from new hair growth. No makeup. If any, day-old mascara beneath the lower lashes.

Charcoal gray Fisher Price diaper bag, ripping at the seams from being too full. In it: diapers, wipes, changing pad, nail clippers, Cheerios, spoon, baby food, bib, socks, backup onesies – both long and short-sleeve, pants, blanket, 40-ounce water bottle –filled, nursing cover, keys, cell phone, wallet, agenda, pens, small notebook with four-leaf clovers between the first few pages, laptop, charger, squeaky toys, scraps of paper, notes, receipts. 

21: Jeans. Low cut v-neck shirt. Heels. Straightened, dyed, shoulder-length blond hair. Lipstick, eyeliner, mascara, eyeshadow, blush, bronzer, foundation.

Most-likely knock-off pocketbook borrowed from a friend. In it: makeup bag filled to the brim, huge sunglasses, keys, agenda book, notebook, 5-10 pens, Marlboro Menthol cigarettes, 2-3 lighters, birth control.

11: Catholic-school plaid uniform skirt. White Oxford shirt. Black undistinguishable shoes. Hair: short, blond, to the chin.

Green Jansport backpack filled with back-to-school supplies chosen weeks before: new notebook – college-ruled, new pencil box, filled with new pens, mechanical pencils, #2 lead pencils, a ruler, protractor, schoolbooks.

1: Wispy, long-for-a-baby blondish-brown hair. Toothy grin. Wide eyes.

No bag, just Baby Erin, and only Baby Erin: a soft, cloth, bonneted baby doll, with light yellow yarn for hair peeking out of her bonnet.


Accoutrements – isn’t that such a fun word? Roll it around on your tongue for a minute. I’ll wait. My mentor in graduate school sprang the word on me one day, and I was hooked.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “an identifying and often superficial characteristic or device.” But, what does it mean for creative nonfiction writers?

When you’re writing creative nonfiction, you (usually) already know your characters. Well, at least, you understand your own perception of them. A reader has no back story, no insight. It is your responsibility to introduce your characters to your reader. It’s your job to make a connection.

I could have started this by telling you that I’m a new mother, but what would you care?

Remember the saying, show don’t tell? If you were ever in a writing workshop, you probably heard it too many times, but that’s because it’s true. The physical “things” that identify your character are one small way to show her as a whole individual without telling your readers anything.

What kind of car does your character drive? What color? What’s in her purse or pockets? Besides keys, what’s on her key chain? Is there a gym bag in her backseat? What’s in it – ballet shoes or batting gloves? Does the fuel gauge in her car always linger around empty or full? How much money is in her wallet? My questions could go on. The point is simply that descriptions paint a clearer “picture.”

Here’s a secret for you: everything and everyone changes over time.

I haven’t smoked in almost nine years. I’m no longer a practicing Catholic. I’m finished with school. I still have Baby Erin, though she is tucked away in a teal plastic bin in my attic for safe keeping. One day, my baby will grow up. The items I carry will change. Well, except for the paper and pens. Those have been a constant in my life.

Understand that your characters will change with time. They will change with circumstances. They will change with perspective. The accoutrements you share with your readers will help them see and feel and take part in that growth and change.

Erin Ollila graduated from Fairfield University with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. She believes in the power of words and how a message can inform – and even transform – its intended audience. Her writing can be found all over the internet and in print, and includes interviews, ghostwriting, blog posts, and creative nonfiction.

1 Comment

  1. This reminds me of THE THINGS THEY CARRIED by Tim O’Brian. Great piece, Erin!

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