Wednesday 4 February 2015

Writing What You Know... by Annie Burrows

Continuing Novelista Annie Burrow's monthly alphabetical rambling though the writer's life.  This week, she's reached the letter K, which is for...Knowing.  (Or not)

"There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know." (Donald Rumsfeld)

When you first start writing people advise you to write what you know.  The argument goes that you cannot write a convincing story unless you know your subject inside out and upside down.  The trouble is, I wanted to write fiction set in Regency England, which is a place I have never been, and never can go to.  All my knowledge of the era comes from books.

However, when I started attempting to get a publishing deal, I felt fairly confident that I knew enough to be able to create a convincing fictional Regency world.  I've read stacks of Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen and the like.  And whatever I didn't know enough about, I could look up, right?

So I bought loads of books about every subject I thought I might need to know about - fashion, the army, the navy and biograpies of people who actually lived in the time which would hopefully give me an idea of the mindset of people living back then.

I even go round stately homes to get an extra "feel" for the era, especially ones where I can dress up in period costume, or have a ride in a carriage.

All the little details of dress, manners, and so forth, help to create a world that strikes a reader as "real".

For example, an author may set a scene by having the hero check his cravat in the mirror.  The heroine curtsies to him.  Instantly we're in an age where manners are more formal than today, and the costumes easily dateable.  The hero asks the lady to dance the waltz.  She refuses lest she be thought "fast".  We're very firmly in Regency territory.  So far, so good.

The trouble is, there are things about the Regency world that I never knew I didn't know.  I didn't know, for example - until it was mentioned on an author loop I belong to - that a girl couldn't waltz in public until she'd been granted permission, by one of the patronesses of Almack's, within those hallowed walls, to do so with an approved partner.  I'd had no idea how close I'd come to the brink of writing one of my heroines into committing such a social gaffe.

And a lot of authors fall into the same trap.  As a resident of the UK, I cringe whenever I read of Regency bucks going down to Dorsetshire to sample the local whiskey.  Or having to banish their dogs to the stables after an encounter with a skunk on the South Downs.  For me, such slips of the pen ruin my belief in the Regency world the author is trying to create.  Though I don't suppose it has any effect on readers who don't know that in Dorset the local brew would most likely be cider, and that the only way a skunk would wander onto the South Downs was if it had escaped from some local eccentric's private collection of rare species.

Which brings me back to the inimitable Donald Rumsfeld, who has been soundly mocked for warning the world about the danger of the "unknown unknowns".  As an author, I can vouch for the peril of those pesky facts that hamper us in our creative endeavours.  I have had my own heroes and heroines unwittingly do and say things that a person living in 1815 would not have done.  I have had them use the word "hello" - which was not in common use until the 1880's except on the hunting field.  I have also had them perform a twentieth century waltz, having had no idea that in the Regency era, the waltz was nothing like the rather tame dance performed today.

Only look at the way these couples are cavorting in each other's arms...

However, if I was now to describe the dance with complete accuracy, I suspect that editors and readers alike would find it hard to believe in it if my hero performed an acrobatic leap while the heroine hopped to one side.  It would strike them all as bizarre, and would ruin their belief in my Regency world just as surely as it would had they arrived at the ball in question in a porsche 911.

So - I'll probably need to disguise what I actually know, so that a reader will be convinced I do know what I'm talking about.

Donald Rumsfeld might have fared better with the world's press if he'd done the same.

Annie's next book, "A Mistress for Major Bartlett" which is part of a trilogy "The Brides of Waterloo", will be out in July 2015


  1. Interesting points. I had to undertake some historical research for my last novel and am utterly convinced that despite my best efforts I will have made errors. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can't find the information you need!

    1. Too true Jenni - I have sometimes changed a plot point to make sure I don't fall into an error when I can't find the bit of info I need. We can only do our best to create a convincing historical world that a reader will enjoy, and hope they will forgive us for the slips we do make.


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