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…