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!