Today the challenge for writers is thousand times greater than it used be. In the past ‘experts’ in particular fields caught errors but most readers didn’t. Today readers with access to the Google or any other search engine can and do read along and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, I don’t thing that’s right’. Off they go to check. If the author has marshaled the correct information the reader may be pleased to learn something new or gain a new respect for the writer. If the author’s facts are wrong the reader may mutter darkly to herself that although this is fiction the facts should be right.
In the past an author could fudge a lack of knowledge. She did not need to develop a keen curiosity and learn to accept nothing at face value. Now she needs to ask about the origin of a custom or the impetus to develop a product. She needs to question everything but not bog down in the need to know.
But access to a world of information has its hazards. The writer who enjoys research uses Google to delve much deeper into a topic than time and the availability of reference resources would have allowed her to do in the past. Whether the question relates to the medicinal properties of herbs, the ingredients in an arcane Mediaeval recipe or the sequence of events in a long forgotten military battle the information is available and easy to find. She builds files of useful details and then integrates them into her book.
I am reading At Home by Bill Bryson. In this book he uses his own home, an old manse in England, as the starting point to investigate the evolution of the house as we know it and in each chapter he discusses a specific room and how and why it evolved. Who knew that Mrs Beeton, the author of the much lauded book of household management, was celebrated because she included actual measurements of quantities to be used in recipes, something that had never been done before. An entertaining book, it is essentially a treatise in English and American social history. I marvel at the questions he has set himself to answer.
What does the readily available fund of knowledge do for literature? If smoothly woven into the story it adds a depth, a complexity and a convincing reality which pleases readers and takes them deep into the book’s world. If information is troweled on with a heavy hand it slows the pace and bores the reader. It can be a fine line.
The availability of information does allow authors to broaden the scope of their books because, following the adage to ‘write what they know’, they can become armchair authorities on almost any subject.
You have to wonder which fields that authors investigated provided them with the most stimulation and how many authors found inspiration for new books while prowling through the stacks of the internet.
Joan Boswell is a member of the Ladies Killing Circle and co-edited four of their short story anthologies: Fit toDie, Bone Dance, Boomers Go Bad and Going Out With a Bang. Her three mysteries, Cut Off His Tale, Cut to the Quick and Cut and Run were published in 2005, 2006 and 2007. In 2000 she won the $10,000 Toronto Star’s short story contest. Joan lives in Toronto with three flat-coated retrievers.