I’m reminded of those uber-annoying commercials featuring lip-twisting matrons agonizing over the proper number of prunes needed to ensure regularity. Bleah!
What caused me to dredge up such a memory? A trip to Colonial Williamsburg, of all places. With my darling bride in tow, I sought to visit the 18th century and dig up a few quaint but little known details of Colonial life to add authenticity to the book I was working on, Treason, Treason! scheduled to come out the following fall.
It’s entirely possible I stumbled across The Mother Lode of Colonial American trivia. Some of the questions then begged, quite naturally, are as follows:
–How much of this cool insider stuff should I add? At some point, readers will cease to be amazed and simply become annoyed. (Jack Whyte, an historical novelist I’ve met and greatly admire, advises that just because one conducts meticulous research, one hasn’t earned the right to exhaust a reader with every boring detail.)
–How do I know this fabulous material will elicit a positive reaction? I live for the chance to actually watch a reader enjoy something I’ve written. But what if they find fault with one of these research gems? (I can already hear the book cover slamming shut. “No! Please, keep reading; I’m begging you.”)
So, what kind of stuff am I talking about? How ’bout the idea that Thomas Jefferson had a speech impediment? In fact, saying that might be a wee bit over the top. What we know for sure is that he had a high-pitched voice and loathed public speaking. But it’s quite possible he had other speech-related issues as well.
Does that mean Jefferson is in the book? Only tangentially; I named a building after him. Is that enough to trot out a bit of dialog from an “expert” in order to expose this little known morsel about our redheaded third president?
Here’s another charming scrap I picked up from an enthusiastic Williamsburg cast member (that’s redundant; the entire cast is enthusiastic, and their efforts make all the difference in the world): in certain colonies, when someone was put in the stocks for a lesser infraction of the law, they had their ears nailed in place. In order to be released, the ears had to be cut from the head.
Are you ready to relocate to the 18th century yet?
For some readers, details like that will garner an “Oh, gee, cool!” kind of response. Others will go in search of a place to throw up. What’s an author to do?
How ’bout something non-gruesome: According to at least one of the Williamsburg historians in residence, General George Washington (yep, that one) had a quartermaster named George Bush who played the fiddle for him. Oddly enough, I know exactly where I could work that into the story, but is it over the top? Will readers see it and wonder where, exactly, I lost touch with reality?
But wait! There’s more: females were not allowed to play certain musical instruments because they could not do so without violating strict rules of feminine “deportment.” Among these was the prohibition of exposing their <gasp!> elbows. So much for flutes and violins. And don’t even think about playing other wind instruments; they require the musician to contort the face, inflating and deflating the cheeks, something which was, for women, verboten. The feminine face, it turns out, is the essence of beauty. It must not be marred by unseemly expressions. Cellos, on the other hand, were just dandy for the gals. Go figure.
I’m still working on the answers to all of these, and quite a few more. If you were hoping for closure, well, sorry! (I tried closure once, it wasn’t pretty. In fact, I still have dreams about it. Your mileage, of course, may vary.)
It’s one thing to sit at a comfy desk in an air-conditioned room making stuff up about people you’ll never meet in places you’ll never visit. It’s a whole ‘nuther ball game when you can step right through the funhouse mirror and arrive in that other time and place. I highly recommend it! (And if you’ve never been to Colonial Williamsburg, you’re missing an amazing opportunity to experience American history in a vivid and memorable way.)
And whether you read Treason, Treason! or simply take a short vacation in the 18th century, be prepared to have your contemporary world turned a little inside-out and a little upside-down. The prunes are entirely optional.
Very good point Josh, it’s habit (maybe) for some of us to overtell a story. Recently tried to read a noted author’s book on Custer’s role at Gettysburg. He wrote nearly 10-page diatribe on why Phd’s should write history and justification for his book. I was so underwhelmed, was forced to put the book aside. What ever happen to concise?
There’s a handy acronym you might consider for such situations. It’s TBAR, short form for Throw Book Across Room. Sounds quite suitable for the tome you mentioned!
Ever since you introduced me to “TBAR” in one of your classes, it’s been residing near the top of my list of things to avoid provoking when it comes to reader response!
Loved this post. Some readers may not appreciate so much detail on the British museum in my Regency novel; however, it was what I wanted to write.
Having read your manuscript, I think you’re safe. But sometimes it’s hard to tell.
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