Dear Dr Darwin,
When a wartime-set story is all, “So I put the gravy browning on my legs as I drank my Camp coffee and sang along to Glenn Miller,” or similar? It’s so unsubtle that it ruins my immersion in the story. I know it makes sense to use things that I think lots of readers will know, but it’s all coming out as clichés. How can I use references like this to create a sense of period, while still getting on with the story?
Worried WWII Girl
Dear Worried WWII Girl,
If there isn’t a name for it, there certainly should be. How about “signalling”, in the same sense that, in many a story, open mouths signal surprise, shaking hands signal nervousness, and brand names signal that James Bond is cool and posh. In other words, we’re talking about using something concrete and particular as a neat evocation of something larger and more abstract: a historical period, an emotion, a particular personality. Concrete and particular is usually a Good Thing, when it comes to writing but when a particular thing works well, it quickly becomes merely an off-the-peg, standard-issue shorthand. It doesn’t evoke, it merely labels, so that what started out as a commendable effort to Show rather than Tell, ends up being a lazy cliché.
But if you don’t work with things the reader already knows, how are you to get the reader feeling the period, without pages of description, or resorting to explicit explaining? It’s an acute problem in short stories, where you don’t have the space to let small, less familiar details work together on the reader over time, but novelists need to worry about this problem too. Here are some ways you might overcome it.
1. Don’t use too many such references, and instead trust the reader to get it from fewer things. Remember too that readers read faster than writers write, so small evocations accumulate more thickly than you realise.
2. Rather than just sticking the references on as labels, for us to note and move on from, work a bit harder: use your imagination and prose to make them real for the reader. Did those gravy-browninged legs smell savoury? Did it wash off in the rain? How did the cat react?
3. Judge it partly by yourself: how many names very specific to your time would you use here (assuming you’re not the American Psycho)? Which things, and what aspects of them, are you more likely to notice or mention, and which would you not? By analogy, which of your narrator’s or viewpoint character’s things would they notice or mention, and it what terms?
4. Try tucking the reference into a sentence which is apparently doing something else: “I was in such a rush I laddered my last pair of stockings putting my bike in the shed – no time to darn them – and then for the life of me I couldn’t get the gravy browning smooth enough to paint instead! And then he knocked on the door.” Might you add “in the blackout”, as a reason for the muddle in the shed? Maybe – or maybe it would be one wartime reference too many.
5. Don’t be afraid to use references that very few readers now would get. If the few well-known ones are believable in how you write them into the story, your reader will come to trust you. We may even be more convinced by things which are strange: after all, the past is a foreign country.
6. With little-known references, quietly try to provide some clues. “My combinations were a bit damp but I got dressed anyway,” doesn’t give us much help. “My combinations were damp and clingy but they warmed up once I’d put my dress and coat on over the top,” does: we’re talking about underwear. But subtle is the key: readers of historical fiction love learning, but they much prefer to feel that they’re doing so by osmosis, not being instructed by teacher.
Emma Darwin has a PhD in Creative Writing (so she really is a doctor), was for several years an Associate Lecturer with the Open University, and shares her knowledge on her blog This Itch of Writing. She has been commissioned to write a handbook on writing historical fiction and is also the author of The Mathematics of Love, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book and other prizes, and the Sunday Times bestseller A Secret Alchemy.