Knowing what one’s readers don’t know…

I’ve been following the virtual book tour of the very knowledgeable on-all-things-Stuart Gillian Bagwell recently, because well, she is knowledgeable on the most arcane and intriguing bits of trivia this side of Antonin Careme’s sugar palaces.  And I simply can’t resist. 

(She did a fascinating piece on pillion saddles in one.  With pictures!)

But on the blog where she had posted her latest musings–this time on the subject of miniature paintings–the blog-mistress complimented her because she’d included several miniatures and remarked that it was wonderful to see what a miniature looked like at last…

Which kind of stopped me in my tracks. 

Because I can’t imagine not having seen a miniature.

You see, I live here. 

That is to say, I live in Great Britain–here where so many historical novels are set–in a small out of the way place in the south of the country, but I am, inevitably, surrounded by all this…well, we refer to it as junk.  Or stuff. 

Like miniatures and ancient buildings and swords and old bits of horse tack…It’s all just there.  It’s inescapable. 

I’d been reading another blogpost too–this one about the Tower of London.  A place which I don’t think about very much.  By the time of my period of speciality it was used as a menagerie for all the wild animals that had been given as gifts to the Crown.  So people went there to see the lions and tigers and suchlike. 

But there again was a comment about there’s nothing like the Tower of London in the US.  Which is obviously true.  The place is roughly 1000 years old.  But here’s the thing–so is the Abbey in the town where I live and where we go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. 

And it’s not so much that we take these buildings or artefacts for granted, it’s just that they are familiar to us from childhood.  They are part and parcel of the fabric of our beings. 

Which then can make it tricky to write historical fiction–particularly if one is thinking/hoping there might be an international-ish market for one’s work. 

How do I know what the reader doesn’t know? 

This was all brought home to me years ago when I was up in a rather rich suburb of London–driving through, as you do, on the way to someone’s house or something.  

Anyway, there we are, driving along this fiendish road, and I’m looking out the window and laughing at the names people give to their houses.  This one’s Little Croft.  The next one’s Middle Croft… And the thing is, these houses are stonking great neo-Tudor mansions.  There’s no ‘croft’ about it! 

A croft, for those who don’t know, is a small, sometimes with only one room, stone cottage, often whitewashed, often with a thatch roof, (absolutely bloody freezing in winter and none too warm in summer), up in the Highlands of Scotland.  The smaller of the crofts were inhabited by crofters–maybe today we’d call them subsistence tenant farmers–who farmed the land a bit, kept the sheep, and lived impoverished and isolated lives. 

So you can see, I think, the anomaly in calling one of these massive modern mansions–some of them with their own gyms–any kind of croft.  One would be surprised if the owners had ever even met a croft, frankly. 

All of which got me thinking–how do I convey, for the reader say in Tucson who has never been outside the US, how grimy London was in 1813?  How thick was the fog. 

Do they know that the women (and men too) used wax to keep their curls in place–not unlike today?  Have they any idea how to take snuff one-handed?  And how that gesture would set a man apart in an age when others were doing it two-handed? 

Do they know what a miniature looks like?  (I’d never even thought of that before this morning!)

And Paris?  Which was radically altered during the Second Empire of Louis-Napoleon.  How do I explain that there wasn’t an Arc de Triomphe?  That it was only a quarter built and then abandoned when Napoleon abdicated in 1814?  Or that all the streets had a kind of glaucous black muck, inches and inches deep, the combination of the horse droppings and the household rubbish that houses put out on the corner, but which never got taken away, and so it was all trampled down into this permanent sludge…

Or what if they don’t know that English dinners weren’t served in several or many courses?  But that there were two courses, during both of which sweets and savouries were placed side by side on the table…

Or that orchestras didn’t practise together before performance?  The players just turned up, got handed their music, and got on with it, so the performances–even of great works like the premiere of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony–weren’t rehearsed.  They were messy…at best.

How do I know what to say and when to just shut the heck up?  Even though I do believe in historical accuracy and all that–and I want my readers to be able to envision a thing as much as possible as it was, hear what they heard, know what it smelled like (okay, maybe not so much)…

But should I tell them that blowing the yard of tin or the post-horn was a mighty tricky business?  That you had to have lungs like an ox and it takes a good bit of skill, even for a horn-player, and that they often played a bit of a tune when coming into town?  Or that many post-horns are jointed in the middle, so they can be taken apart into two pieces…

How do we know what our readers do and don’t know?  And where to draw the line between writing ‘setting’ and just being a walking encyclopaedia of our period? 

I wish I knew…


5 comments on “Knowing what one’s readers don’t know…

  1. sashabest3 says:

    I just found you, and your blog, through Stephanie Dray & twitter. And I’m so glad I did! What an amazing post! I’ve no answer for the question you posed, but you’ve filled my head with such rich, vivid images that I think I need to find a bookstore. So that I can buy your book.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Sasha, thanks for joining in. And if you have any answers at any time to the question–please, please, ask! Or tell! Or in some way, let me know. (Carrier pigeon works for me…)

      There are two books–not twins, but definitely from the same family. Ha ha.


  2. Yes, indeed. A perennial problem. In one of my recent efforts I have conversation between an Indian man and an Australian woman (in a contemporary setting). It seemed natural to me that the two would use cricket as a breaker-of-ice. But how much to say? One American beta-reader said much of it whizzed past, another said she understood enough. It’s tempting to take out such references but that would detract from authenticity. Besides, the same Americans expect me to read books and stories about baseball or American football. Thurber’s ‘The cat bird seat’ was part of our reading for English at school.

    How much detail? As I recall, you did it well, painting the picture as it was without commentary. If people are interested in detail (and if they are, kudos) they can look it up.

  3. Rappleyea says:

    MM –
    I’m not sure if you’ll find this so late (I’m hoping you get an email ping when someone replies on your blog), but I wanted to reply to your question. Having read both of your books, I think you struck the perfect balance between atmosphere and informational dump. In other words, just enough so that the reader wasn’t left in the dark, wondering what the heck you were talking about, but not so much as to interfere with the flow of the story.

    Sept – Nov. is a killer time at work for me and I tend to come home, brew a cup of tea, feed the cats and veg so that’s why I’ve been MIA (in case you were wondering). I’m just catching up now.

    I hope your writing has gone well in the meantime.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Yes, I get a ping.

      But thank you. Thank you most kindly for that. I try to perceive–as much as possible–the world as ‘they’ saw it and record it for you…but sometimes, you know, words do fail me and I think, this is important, but how can I possibly describe this? I do wonder sometimes if film and photography haven’t robbed us of our ability to describe things well.

      As for the writing, er…plotting…plotting…

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