We have a book in our children’s collection called Mouseton Abbey, and it drives me insane.
It’s a sweet book, the pictures are all made up of knitted mice dressed in cute outfits having adventures against the backdrop of their illustrated abbey. There are ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ mice, and the whole thing is an entertaining parody of Downton Abbey.
My problem with the book isn’t the writing, or the pictures, or the story. It’s a tiny detail, so small to be of almost no significance, but it is wrong and it bugs me like you wouldn’t believe.
The Housekeeper’s name is Miss Swiss.
Housekeepers are never Miss. Nor, for that matter, are cooks. They are always Mrs, regardless of whether or not there is a Mr Swiss on the scene.
Why? I don’t know. I could look into it, but frankly, I’m spending enough time on the internet at the moment researching the different suburbs, or quarters of Rome, mapping the Allied advance through Italy during the second world war, and trying to get a handle on how the black market operated in Rome in 1943-44.
Research for one’s writing is a funny thing.
There is so much I can tell you about occupied Rome. For instance, the occupation happened on the 10th of September two days after the Italian’s announced that they were switching sides of the war, and 45 days after the Italian’s deposed their long-standing dictator, Mussolini.
Food was scarce in Rome in the initial days after the occupation due to the looting that occurred while the city was in chaos. A ration system was in operation, but with the southern part of the country in the hands of the allies, certain products became near impossible to obtain. Salt and sulphur both came from Sicily, which was in the hands of the allies, and so matches with their sulphur tips became scarce, which was a problem because gas was only available for short periods three times a day, and so you needed three matches a day to light your stove to cook.
There was no coffee, but people attempted substitutes, one of which was barley, roasted and ground (an apparently very unsuccessful imitation). No milk, half a pound of sugar per person per month, 150g of bread per day and no tea.
But even though I can tell you that the curfew was originally set from 9pm-5am, and that by January it had shifted to 5pm-6am (with shops and cinemas and cafes closing at 3pm), there is still so much left unknown, so much room for tiny, inconsequential Miss Swiss type errors.
This is the conundrum of the writer.
Will I ever get it right? Will I ever do enough research to make this story plausible? What if I’m found out? What if someone loves the story, the characters, the writing, but can’t forgive the fact that the wrong tree was flowering in chapter three?
And then there are the truly great works of fiction that inspire and cause despair all at once. I just finished reading the incredible Wild Island by Jennifer Livett. Historical fiction done to perfection, however I read in the afterword that she’d been working on that novel for forty years. And Hannah Kent, when she was researching Burial Rites travelled to Iceland and spent months translating documents from ancient Icelandic into English to use for her research. Is that what it takes to be truly great at this genre? Because I would rather not spend forty years per book, and I don’t speak ancient Icelandic (or for that matter Italian, which would be much more useful for my novel).
My Strategy So Far:
I’ve collected diaries and memoirs, watched documentaries and movies, spent a heck of a time on the Australian War Memorial website, talked to them briefly on the phone, nagged my arts-student sister for pointers, and have been gathering about myself people who can read over my manuscript (when it’s fit for human consumption) to give me tips on different topics. I feel like slowly, slowly I’m creeping towards a credible story.
But still the fear is there that it will not be enough.
What is your pet peeve as a reader? And for the writers out there, how do you approach the research question? Advice, tips, and complaints welcome!
Next Week on the Blog
Actually, this month I’ll be taking a break from my weekly blog posts. A new little member of the family is due to arrive any day now, so my hormone-saturated brain and I will spare you our mumblings and I’ll spend February putting in some quality time with my little people. I’ll be back in March with an update on the family and my manuscript (currently halfway through first edit. Lot of slashing happening, a lot of re-writing on the cards). I’ll have three little darlings under three at that point, so if I have managed to come up with some winning methods of balancing the motherhood/writing lifestyle I’ll be sure to share. Or — and this is the more likely scenario — if I’m a raging, weeping, sleep-deprived, under-achieving mess, that could be quite fun to read about too.
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