Pub quizzes are evil.
I’m still haunted by an evening ten years ago, when having failed to contribute anything on the subjects of baseball teams, Big Brother contestants, or the private life of Bjork, I was finally asked which Shakespeare play opens with the line ‘If music be the food of love, play on’? ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost,’ said our quiz veteran, ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ guessed the others, but I pulled rank as an ex-English teacher because I just KNEW it was ‘Twelfth Night’. The quiz ended, I folded my arms smugly, and heard the answer read out as – ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’.
|I was right...
It’s wrong. Just wrong. I argued with the quizmaster, but was answered only by a shrug and the unchallengeable statement ‘That’s what it says on the sheet.’
Obviously I’m far, far too mature to allow such a thing to rankle after ten years, but I’ve never forgotten that phrase. We’re surrounded by the kind of sub-knowledge it represents - popular misconceptions, urban myths, what ‘Everyone Knows’ and no-one knows at all. To perform successfully in tests of popular knowledge you need to suppress what you do know in favour of What It Says On The Sheet. You need to believe Benjamin Franklin invented electricity, that bats are blind, that lemmings deliberately jump off cliffs, and Columbus lived in a society that believed the world was flat. When asked ‘Who invented the light bulb?’ you must forget Joseph Swan (or any of the other possible 20 candidates for the honour) and dutifully write ‘Thomas Edison’. That is how you win.
But what if you’re a historical novelist, what then?
In many ways it’s easier. It’s part of our job description to challenge the stereotypes, and readers expect it of us. Most will be genuinely interested to discover that Napoleon wasn’t short, Cleopatra was actually Greek, and that Marie-Antoinette was only ten years old when Rousseau wrote the phrase ‘let them eat cake’. As long as they don’t attempt to use this new-found knowledge in pub quizzes then everyone’s happy.
The devil, however, really is in the details. It’s the little things that can surprise a reader when they go against a popular misconception – and not in a good way. Perhaps it’s because of the rise of easily accessible information on the internet, perhaps because we’ve all encountered mistakes in works previously considered sacrosanct, but either way we seem to have lost a quality of trust in what we read. Fifty years ago readers might say ‘that’s interesting, I never knew people wore spectacles in the 14th century,’ but these days we’re more likely to assume the writer has simply got it wrong.
I wouldn’t want people to read my books uncritically. I like to be questioned, it keeps me on my toes and always opens the possibility of my learning something useful. The problem only arises when the error is imaginary but there’s no chance of defence. I once saw somebody boast on a writers’ forum that they threw a book across the room in disgust because the writer gave blue eyes to a character with two brown-eyed parents – but that’s genetically perfectly possible. This hasn’t happened to me yet (as far as I know!) but it's only a matter of time.
Which is what makes it so horribly tempting to try to defend ourselves in advance. That’s when we make our characters implausibly present in Pisa to hear the monk declare in 1306 ‘It is not yet twenty years since the invention of spectacles’. It’s when we include hideous dialogue along the lines of ‘Hullo, Bob, what are those glass things on your nose?’ and ‘Yes, clever, aren’t they? Only invented a few years ago.’ It’s when our books do indeed get thrown across the room, and frankly when they deserve it.
Of course there’s that totally wonderful thing, the ‘Historical Note’. Ostensibly there to help the reader, I’m very conscious mine are also there to defend me. In ‘In The Name of the King’ it’s a blatantly transparent way of saying ‘I know you think Richelieu was a Bad Guy, but he really wasn’t’, or even ‘I know you think it’s implausible that Louis XIII took a young male lover, but it’s honestly what people believed at the time.’ I was talking to Karen Maitland at the ‘History in the Court’ bash last month and learned that even she felt the need to explain the different kinds of Plague in the Historical Note to ‘Company of Liars’ because she was afraid people might think she’d got it wrong in not blaming the rats.
But there’s a snag. Apart from the fact my Historical Notes are already threatening to become longer than the novels, the pesky things always go at the back – and a reader like the one who reacted so violently to blue eyes is simply never going to make it to the end.
So I do what I can in the writing. I knew, for instance, that someone would find it odd that my 17th century French hero in ‘Honour and the Sword’ should own a tennis ball, so I carefully had my peasant narrator refer to it as ‘a hard little rag ball used for a game called tennis’, and even had the thing ‘unravelling’ later on.
|17th century tennis balls
I still had an e-mail from a reader complaining about the anachronism.
Sometimes I’ve been so desperate I’ve wondered if I shouldn’t just leave the detail out – or even give in and write ‘what it says on the sheet’. It would certainly be safer, but then I think I really would be betraying the reader, and selling myself short too.
This has been a lot on my mind lately. I’m lucky to have an expert on the Crimean War giving ‘Into the Valley of Death’ a historical proof-read, and he’s pointed out (quite rightly) that it’s dangerously improbable to have my soldiers drinking tea because it was very expensive and hard to get. I can defend myself, I’ve found eyewitness accounts that have ordinary soldiers genuinely drinking tea at those times, but there’s no doubt that if I include those scenes there will be readers who think I’ve just been sloppy.
|4th Light Dragoons socializing with the French in the Crimea
The easy solution is to give them coffee instead, but I’m not doing it, and this is why. The cavalry went out without breakfast on the morning of the Charge of the Light Brigade, they sat for six hours before going into action, they breathed in cannon smoke and dust, and their mouths would have been dry with fear. I don’t think my hero would have been craving coffee, he’d have wanted the clean, thirst-quenching taste of tea. It’s significant to me that the trooper who wrote an account of drinking tea the morning after the Charge should remember it so clearly thirty years later, and I think under the circumstances we would too. I want my readers to feel what those men felt, so I’m ignoring the improbability and going for authenticity instead.
In my novels, that is. The next time I go to a pub quiz I’m going to grit my teeth and jolly well write what it says on the sheet.