Thursday 20 October 2011

'What It Says On The Sheet' by A L Berridge

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.

Not short...
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.



catdownunder said...

One of the things I loved (and still love) about Cynthia Harnett's novels for children is the way in which she included detailed notes about some of her research as a postscript. It has always made me feel comfortable about her overall research. (She took about two years to research each book she wrote.)
I am sure those who criticise authors for their errors have absolutely no idea how much research goes into writing, even more so in writing about the more distant past!

alberridge said...

Hi, catdownunder, and thanks very much for commenting.

Yes, Cynthia Harnett is a wonderful example to us all - and research was much harder back in the days before the internet when so many sources have been digitized online.
That's why I think it's fair we should come under tighter scrutiny these days, because there's less and less excuse for us to get it wrong. It's only when someone 'assumes' we're wrong without even checking that I feel the urge to grumble!

Will Coe said...

Nice post. What it points out is the importance of defining your public.
Anally retentive pubquizzers and '2 browns can't make a blue' readers have unchallengeable mindsets. You can't, and wouldn't want to write for them. An author's approach to historical accuracy limits their audience. You pride yourself, rightly, on the historical accuracy of your novels. You're after 'intelligent' readers not those panting for bodices to be ripped. A worthier but probably not a bigger pool of readers.
It's a matter of how far you want to go, given that omniscience is out of reach. Historical truths are no less relative than any other type. Compared to his guardsmen and to men today, Napoleon WAS short. But he was only an inch or two under the average height for men of his time. When an author is comfortable with their level of truth, the audience they find will probably feel comfortable too.
Getting comfortable isn't easy and may involve a few changes of position. Here's an embarrassing personal example. I've just completed a novel about a 16th century writer and, at first, I was careful to have him always using his quill. They didn't have pens in those days, that's obvious isn't it? No, what's obvious is that I didn't have Latin education. A pen, from penna, a feather, was as much an inking device in his day as it is now.

alberridge said...

Thanks, Will - that's a really thought-provoking response. There's a lot of truth in it too, though I'm not sure the lines of readership are so clearly defined. For instance, it's unlikely a general reader will worry at all about the tea in the Crimea - the people I fear there are the experts like my consultant, who know far more than I do in most respects but won't necessarily have seen the very specific accounts I'm using.

Perhaps I'm just paranoid and FEAR EVERYONE! But you're so right in your point about the quill, and those are the mistakes I fear most. When I know I'm ignorant of something I research it - what trips me up are the things I don't know that I don't know. In other words, I too have a nasty habit of believing What It Says On The Sheet.

Thanks again, Will - great comment.

K.M.Grant said...

This is such a hot topic. On-line reviews that sneer at a supposed anachronism are particularly hard to take, as the review is there forever unless you're prepared for one enormous battle. If the reviewer is a child, even a victory would be pyrrhic. Know-it-all author against keen young reader? No contest. I can feel my stomach churning even as I write. Excellent post.

alberridge said...

You're so right, Katie. I've seen reviews like that on Amazon and they frankly terrify me.
One possible redress is the new 'comment' facility on Amazon for responding to reviews. Authors won't want to repond themselves, of course, but the next time I see a significant factual error in a review of another writer's work I don't see why I shouldn't correct it and give sources.
Or is that just sad? :(

michelle lovric said...

Wonderful post. Something horrible that we have to accept is that there is a kind of person who LOVES to sneer, who feels aggrandized by it, and will therefore root out something to sneer at in our historical fiction, no matter how careful and conscientious we've been. On-line reviewing has empowered these people. And you will notice that the most gratuitously nasty reviewers are often hiding behind a pseudonym. It's like the driver in a hit and run accident, or a schoolyard bully who bashes and saunters off - knowing that the victim will be too intimidated to seek redress. As K.M. Grant says, it is apparently very hard to remove even a dishonest or incorrect review from its permanent pressing on the internet, just as the trauma of being bullied may inflict longterm damage. We must take comfort from the fact that genuine enthusiasm, eloquence and generosity are all allowed exposure in the same environment.That's also on the sheet, fortunately.

Linda B-A said...

Having just had a character give an off-the-cuff remark about Napoleon's height in my current novel, your comment - and Will's footnote - are highly useful. Reverting to quiz mode, "it's easy when you know," as they say on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Your central point is an excellent one - though it will also give me nightmares about how many things I take for granted but which aren't, strictly speaking, true.
P.S. Fabulous photograph of the Crimean War - how on earth did the woman manage to keep up appearances under such conditions?

alberridge said...

Thank you so much for that comment, Michelle - and for making me feel less of a whingebag.

But I'm horribly afraid you're right about some of these reviewers. Some, I think, are genuinely concerned about the perpetuation of inaccuracies through fiction, and for them I have nothing but respect. But yes, unfortunately, we also have the other kind.

I encountered them in television too. You'd spend months on research, you'd talk to the foremost surgeons in the UK about a procedure, and still someone would post on a forum 'My friend has a brother who's a medical student and he says this is rubbish.' And people would believe them.

There is no redress. None. When it happens to me (as it's bound to sooner or later) I'm just going to have to rely on internal integrity and (more importantly) the respect of people who actually know.

I think you've just helped me to do that.

alberridge said...

Linda - thank you, but Will's footnote is still the more accurate. I made a sweeping statement which is true, but Will gives the detail and he's right.

And women in the Crimea - I know! The wives (mostly) slept outside or curled up like animals by the pile of baggage in a ten-man tent, but still they stayed respectable. I'm told the keys were headscarfs (hides unwashed hair)and corsets to maintain a trim shape even under a ragged dress. The French viviandieres were even more glamorous (blast them). Here's one that makes me weep with inadequacy:

K.M.Grant said...

I think it's a splendid idea to correct unwarranted sneers, giving sources. Not sad at all. We must pick our fights, though, or we'll be at it all day! You've really hit a nerve, Louise. Love your website too. I'm so bad at keeping mine up to date. Ah, another subject on which to blog in due course ...

adele said...

I am still hopping up and down with rage at your 12th Night put down by that silly man! GRRR. What a good post...all completely fascinating and I am envious of your meeting Karen Maitland whose books I love. Maybe we could interview her on this blog when her next book comes out? Can't wait for Into the Valley of Death and you're quite right to keep the tea!

Annette said...

Oh, this is such a wonderful post and something my friends and I definitely worry about as we finish writing our first historical novels. We've experienced touches of this already in certain critique situations.

Writing about ancient Sparta, I have this concern from two perspectives - there's one faction well-versed in the commonly heard untruths about Sparta, and there's another faction who thinks all of ancient Greece is just like Athens, since we know more about Athens than where else in ancient Greece. But Sparta is absolutely unique in so many socio-political aspects - and quite ahead of its time in the treatment of women. That's one reason I set my story there, and that's one place I've been called out for being unhistorical. Frustrating. And as you said, would be difficult to address as the author and not appear in a bad light. I plan to have a feature on my author's website which discusses/addresses these sorts of things in a fun and interactive way. We'll see.

Thanks for this post and such an interesting blog.

Stroppy Author said...

Fantastic post. That's all :-)

alberridge said...

Adele - yes, I know! I was unliveable with for days after the 12th Night debacle. My husband says 'years', but I think that's possibly unfair.
And a great suggestion of Karen as an interviewee. I'm a huge fan, and will ask her.

Annette - Thanks so much for your comment. You're very brave doing Sparta, as it's absolutely rife with popular misconceptions - but that's a brilliant scheme to use the website to counter it. I think I'm going to nick that idea for myself...

Stroppy Author - Fantastic comment. That's all. :)

Rebecca A. Burrell said...

Lovely post, Louise - I can recall a similar near-transgression from my high school days, but I had better luck than you, being an incurable know-it-all (and having the luck to have my favorite aunt as the quizmaster in question, and therefore willing to humor my strop).

Ahem, topic. I think part of the problem is the disappearing concept of an acceptable gray area, in any area of life. The idea of respectful disagreement or stepping outside one's own worldview to consider an alternate perspective is an increasingly foreign concept. (I feel like I should be yelling at some kids to get off my lawn right now). I can't let myself believe that people such as yourself who've committed to swimming against that tide are 'sad' - simply committed to history and the things we learn from it.

Who knows, the next quizzmaster may be reading ;)

Leslie Wilson said...

I read it called 'the recency illusion,' in the New Scientist - the idea that everything happened just yesterday. I had a copy editor querying my use of the word 'cool' in the '40s - and probably there are people who think the word 'cool' only developed in the '90s as he suggested. I checked this, I remember the word from my childhood in the 50s, but it's on a Louis Armstrong number from the early 40s. I had a woman, years ago, writing to me and complaining because I'd called a character in my first novel Marlene, because in Marlene Dietrich's daughter's biography of her, she's supposed to have invented her name while at school. She was a great admirer of 'the lovely lady' - she said, and felt I had outraged her memory.
Well, maybe that's what Marlene D told her daughter, but I have a German kids' book that used to be my mother's, written before Marlene D was born, with a character in it called Marlene. I did write back and tell her this, but I suspect she didn't believe me.
I read a review that ticked Margaret Atwood off, because, in her novel Alias Grace, she refers to 'a Quaker minister.' The reviewer knew that British Quakers don't have ministers, but didn't realise that they do (regrettably in my opinion) in the US and also Africa.
I think most of us, if we feel inclined to correct someone else, should check our facts first.
I do agree about the quizzes. It's so annoying!!

ediFanoB said...

I'm a reader. I love to read historical novels. To be honest I do not expect that every single detail is true.
Historical novels are no history books you use in schools or at university.
Of course I would not expect a laser pointer in a medieval novel. But if you do it in a plausible way, why not.

For me there is a big difference between fiction and non-fiction.

Anyway I highly appreciate historical accuracy.

I do not know enough of history to check every single detail. And to be honest I do not want to do that.
I read for my pleasure and not for criticism.

none said...

This has bothered me a lot in my own writing. Everybody knows that the Romans gave thumbs up to save a defeated gladiator, and thumbs down for their death. Except they didn't.


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