Once upon a time, I read a worldwide best seller. I won’t name it, but it has been made into a film and yes, that film stars many beautiful people. In the book there is a long description of a certain artistic process and, as I was reading it, I was wondering how this description was moving the story on, what it was telling me about the person concerned, you know their character arc, the journey they were on? I came to the conclusion that however well researched it was and however well the scene was written, it didn’t do much for either of these things.
So, when I was writing ‘The Perfect Affair’ which is due for publication by Quercus in March 2014, I was conscious of the need to be careful with the research I had done to avoid this pitfall. Some of the story is set between 1959 and 1966 and to prepare for this I scoured the internet for photographs of the clothes people would wear, the cars they’d drive, what the headlines were at the time, what films were showing at the cinema, what books were being published, what was on TV, etc., etc. I also read extensively: Muriel Spark, ‘Nella Last in the 1950s’ and pored over Robert Opie’s Scrapbooks.
However, when it came down to it the contemporary references in the novel are fleeting and insubstantial; the price of a joint of lamb, the make of a car, references to A roads instead of motorways, the fact that people smoked in public places and wore hats, that paper was in still in short supply following rationing and such like.
And this raised an interesting question for me. Namely, how much do we authors rely on what the reader already knows when we write? Do we just point a delicate finger at the pictures they already have in their heads, their own experiences of the heart and of life? Or are we puppet masters steering our readers until they are looking at what we want them to see, thinking what we want them to think?
Of course, there is no correct answer to this but I believe it’s an interesting question to think about when we’re writing and reading and what is even more interesting is that the section in the novel mentioned above was cut to the briefest of scenes in the movie! So what does that tell you?!