What people don’t know

Recently I had conversations with several of my beta readers which made me think long and hard about general ignorance.

I am working on a novel set in World War I, A Soldier’ Wife, and I thought I had put in enough background on the war itself – surely most people know about WWI, I thought. Wrong.

One of my beta readers comes from a non-English speaking background, from a country which wasn’t involved in the conflict. She had a vague notion that England and Germany fought, and she knew that Anzac Day was about Australians who went to fight for England – but she thought they were fighting Germans at Gallipolli.

One of them was quite young. She knew all about Gallipolli, because they’d covered it in school, but she didn’t know much about the war in Europe. More importantly, perhaps, since the characters in the novel never go to Europe, she didn’t know much about daily life in Sydney. She got quite annoyed with me for having my character take a tram to Randwick, because there aren’t any trams in Randwick! (Not now, I said, but… she was astonished and a bit irate: Why did they take them away? she asked. Why, indeed.)

Subsequent to this, I had a chat with a writer friend who felt that I’d put a bit too much historical detail in because, ‘surely everyone knows that?’ Apparently not.

One of the challenges in writing historical fiction is putting in enough explanation to set the story but not so much that you bore people who already know it all.

In writing A Soldier’s Wife, I drew on my experience in creating fantasy worlds. It’s much the same process. You have to give a combination of straight-out explanations and a number of more subtle clues. Some of those clues won’t be picked up by the general reader, but the intelligent or experienced reader will note them with pleasure.

However,when you’re writing fantasy you can assume a certain level of ignorance. After all, you’ve made up this world, and anything you have made up you can assume you need to explain. When you’re writing historical fiction, you have to guess at the level of knowledge your readers may have.

World War I is beyond living memory. There are no Anzacs left alive. There are no people who were adults during the war left alive, as far as I know. So everything we know is based on anecdote, history lessons, books, TV and films.

The lesson I’ve drawn from all this is: don’t assume any knowledge on the part of your readers. For some people, A Soldier’s Wife will be their first introduction to World War I. For others, all they will know is what they’ve seen on Downton Abbey. And that’s okay. It’s part of the fun of historical writing, to introduce people to fascinating, disturbing or enjoyable facts which you have discovered. I enjoy sharing my vision of Sydney in 1915-16 – I just hope others enjoy reading it!

27 thoughts on “What people don’t know

  1. This is really interesting…

    I suppose historical fiction is really like fantasy – you’re describing a world that doesn’t exist, with cultural and physical aspects that are different to the world today…

    I know about trams in Sydney because my parents talked about them… I have an old cricket bat that my father owned (supposedly given to him by the English cricket captain after they lost to NSW at the SCG in the 1930s…) It has a huge dent in it from where a tram ran over it, because my dad dropped it under one on his way home… 🙂

      • This blog is particularly interesting and I think much of this history will be lost now that we’ve lost the generation who fought there. I think there is much more known about WWII than WWI. Also, I don’t doubt that you will make it interesting enough that even if people already know what they are reading they will appreciate being reminded.

        • I find myself going back to the poets of the time. They have so much to share about war and the consequences of war

  2. I think you put in as much detail as possible – you just don’t want to be didactic. Since I have been privileged to read a draft of A Soldier’s Wife I think you have got it about right.
    For example, I had never heard of the ‘Heroes of the Dardanelles’ page in the newspaper, with little bios of those killed. But by having one of the characters read it, I know clearly what it is without being told. Later in the book you have a journalist telephone the main character looking for a few biographical details on one of the ‘heroes’. Now we have an understanding of what level of detail accompanied each photograph.
    All of this appears naturally in the story and you never feel as if you are being ‘educated’.
    History is good. More of it I say.

  3. I enjoy novels which expand my knowledge, and I also appreciate the clever feeling it gives me when I understand the ‘subtle’ hints – I can see it must be a hard balance to achieve. If I come across something which I think is wrong, Google is my friend, and hopefully the author is right and I learn something new. 🙂

  4. Working with young people, I am constantly surprised–and then realise I shouldn’t be–at what they don’t know. Recently, I was asking students to develop some questions around some children’s books that would encourage primary school kids’ critical thinking skills. One of the books was My Place (Wheatley and Rawlins, not Morgan) and asked them to check the imprint page to see when it was published and what that might suggest about the ‘purpose’ of the book. Well, the 1988 Bicentennial meant nothing to them. Didn’t even know about it. These students would be in their mid 20s, most born after ’88.

    I think if you’re not specifically interested in history as a subject, you read historical fiction for different reasons than you or I may read someone like Hilary Mantel. And so yes, the challenge for a historical novel more on the commercial end of the market is to somehow meet your readers in the middle. It sounds like you’ve put an enormous amount of thought into it, and your readers won’t even know when they’re learning!

  5. Sorry, I meant to add another bit to my first paragraph, to the effect that, I realised there’s no reason, really, my students should have an awareness of the Bicentennial. It was, though, a bit of a surprising reminder how what seems like very recent history to me is outside of their lifespan. I didn’t know anything about the sesquicentenary celebrations in the 1930s until my father’s old friend died, and I discovered at his funeral that he had been a boy soprano who sang solo at one of the big public events. And then I didn’t know that that same year Aboriginal people held Day of Mourning protests, until I read Anita Heiss’s My Australian Story book, Who Am I? The Story of Mary Talence, Sydney 1938. And that would have felt like not-that-long-ago to my parents. Anyway, all I mean really is that I have learned a lot of history from fiction (and a lot of fiction from history, yuk yuk), and I think people will enjoy this aspect of The Soldier’s Wife.

    • So much of what I know of history I learnt from historical novels. Rosemary Sutcliffe, Victoria Holt, Barbara Taylor Bradford, James Michener and, of course, Mary Renault. But I also learnt from reading what had been contemporary novels: Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, Leon Uris, Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie, Evelyn Waugh, Wilkie Collins – the more I think about it, the more I realise what a debt I owe to them.

  6. ‘The past is another country: they do things differently there.’ Always loved that quote and yes it’s almost why we read, to discover the differences. That whole idea of seeing a place you know well, but though the lens of another time, through pictures or stories is hugely appealing. I grew up in Glebe and I rode my scooter over old tram tracks as they ran into the sheds behind Harold Park. And when my mother was a teenager, she used to catch the tram from Bondi. She mentions it every time we go to her favourite restaurant in Surry Hills – Beppi’s behind the Oz Museum, which amazingly has been there all that time.

    • They’re bringing the trams back to Bondi, did you know? So we can once again use that wonderful phrase, ‘Shot through like a Bondi tram’!

  7. Excellent post. I definitely like to be educated on interesting historical events and oddities when I read fiction. Writing my historical story, I also am struck by what people don’t know, which I would have assumed was common knowledge. The difficult thing is that when I’m really immersed in the research, its hard to remind myself that the world out there just doesn’t know all this stuff I now take for granted. Its a fine line though – resisting the urge to throw in too much of all the interesting stuff I’ve picked up.

    • It’s so tempting, isn’t it? I cut 10 000 words out of A Soldier’s Wife because it wasn’t directly relevant to the story – but, oh, the research I’d had to do for that section of the story! It took me days to find out which wharf the early returning troop ships used, for example. The book is better for it, but I can’t say it didn’t hurt!

  8. Pingback: What people don’t know | Reading To Write

  9. Great article. It’s a fine balance isn’t it. It needs enough detail for authenticity but not so much that the research overshadows the story. Looking forward to reading A Soldier’s Wife – sounds fascinating.

  10. I can’t help thinking of Rilla of Ingleside (for some reason it never seems far from my mind) — “the only Canadian novel written from a woman’s perspective about the First World War by a contemporary”. It was published in 1921 and its original audience had obviously just lived through WWI, and yet L.M. Montgomery basically retells the whole war, and any later reader gets a crash course in all four years of it, at least from a Canadian perspective. One of the many details I remember off hand is the difficulty the characters have getting their tongues around the French place names constantly mentioned in the newspapers, such as Ypres. Another rather dark aspect is how terribly unpopular the lone local pacifist is. Perhaps, at the time, it read like nostalgia (despite the recentness of the events), or an emotionally satisfying record of what everybody had just been through. But anyway, at least as far as I recall, she doesn’t seem to assume all that much knowledge at all, or at least she retells recent history as if that’s a natural thing to do, even for people who were absolutely certain to know it first hand. Having said that, I always feel like it’s a bit of a sin to focus too much on an intended audience — I feel in my bones that a work ought to have its own integrity and find its own audience. I’m also inclined to think that it’s best (even when writing for children) to more or less write as if you’re writing for yourself, for an equal, as it were (within reason). I think I’d prefer to read something that seemed to assume that I knew what the author knew. After all, if I don’t know it before I’ve read the book, I will afterwards!

    • Love that attitude, Cassandra, but I think the way you refer to events/ideas/people is crucial. There’s a kind of writing which excludes people deliberately – an ‘in-group, out-group’ kind of attitude where not knowing is implicitly denigrated. Your work never does that – it’s more an invitation to share, beautifully inclusive – but I’ve seen it often enough.

  11. That is an excellent point: the similar requirements of fantasy/specular fiction and historical fiction in terms of world building. And in these days of the declining value given to the humanities and the pressures of the political filtering of the past, one should never assume too much knowledge of history, alas.

    It makes me think of how one wastes the knowledge of the older members of our families. Sometimes, they don’t want to talk about it, and we can’t do anything about that. My grandfather, who came back from Gallipoli with serious “shell shock” as they called it then, never spoke of his experiences to my knowledge, and I suspect he had good reason for his reticence.

    Other times, they just don’t think to talk about it.

    My parents were too young to actively fight in WWII, but both have amazing tales to tell of the era. My dad, on duty as a naval spotter, the day the Japanese submarines came into Sydney Harbour. My mother, working for the National Emergency Services, getting the call to dash down two levels below Wynyard Station where she’d transcribe secret service messages–she was a whiz at shorthand. Stories I’d never heard until recent times, as they slowly succumb to dementia and their past returns at the expense of their present.

    This is the history of real people, the history that will be lost as they die or forget or fail to tell the stories. It is one of the reasons that historical fiction, well-researched, is simply crucial to our understanding of ourselves. History books might capture the big event and the Significant Dates, but it takes fiction to truly understand the personal, the emotional and the intimate.

    • Ooh, Margaret, you’ve got to tell your mum’s story! I love that image: the tunnels, the darkness, the secret rooms….

  12. I like historical novels that take my notion of a particular era or event and beat it to pulp. I’m not sure if Gravity’s Rainbow can be called a historical novel but if it is, that’s my kind of book. I’m not that worried about historical ‘accuracy’. Farley Mowat, the Canadian writer who died yesterday, once said ‘fuck the facts, it’s the truth that’s important’. Novels can and do play an important role in the preservation of the past but I think novelists have to avoid simply echoing the historical record (whatever that is). As we all found out in the 80s, reading the first (?) wave of post colonial novels, ‘history’ is something that must be challenged regularly. Novelists can do that and those are the ones I like to read!

    • Yes, but that assumes some received notion of what history is. There must be something to be challenged. I’m talking about people who don’t have any concept of that period at all – so it’s a big responsibility to present my ‘truth’ to them!

  13. I imagine finding the “right” balance of story and World-building would be exceptionally difficult in this instance, because as you point out, readers will vary greatly in their prior knowledge (and their level of interest in the era). So if there is no “ideal” amount of information to include, then how do you compromise? Sounds like a very challenging process.

    Personally, I must admit to knowing very little about World War I, particularly when compared to World War II, which seems to be covered far more comprehensively. But I am looking forward to reading “A Soldier’s Life” to enlighten myself, delve into a good story, and to see how you’ve tackled your dilemma! I’m sure you’ve done so with aplomb 🙂

  14. An interesting topic.

    Personally I know very little about either of the World Wars, my exposure to them comes entirely from forced learning in school (which I remember resenting so retention wasn’t high) and various movies, books and television shows. I think it is one of those areas that people tend to have a vauge grasp of but in general, unless they have a specific interest, know very little about. Often I don’t think there is a drive to learn it either.

    When reading novels in historical settings I personally appreciate well blended historical information throughout the book but the real drive to read comes more from gaining new insight into the emotions and human behavior that surrounded such a devastating event. It’s enthralling and horrific at the same time and I have nothing to relate it to.

    I come from a generation that has very little exposure real tragedy and while we have been taught about the world wars in school I don’t think it something we really connect to without that emotive aspect. Facts stick best when you can imagine how the people who where there first hand felt.

    Good luck with A Soldier’s Wife, can’t wait to give it a read.

    • Thanks, Gemma. I think you’re so right about the vagueness of our understanding of history. I studied WWI in history at school, but it was all armies and dates and battles, nothing about the people who lived through it. It was the personal connection with my grandfather, who was at Gallipolli, which got me interested.

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