We writers are not the only ones who like to create a world of our own from a mixture of imagination and research.
This is my cousin Neil’s wonderful model railway layout – part of it anyhow; it’s large and detailed and still growing, as he told us when we visited last week.
Don’t make the mistake of equating model railways with “toy trains”. Enthusiasts like Neil go to enormous lengths to get everything just-so. It’s all got to fit together – I don’t just mean the physical scale, that’s obvious; I mean historically. Rolling-stock and stations must be correct for your chosen era, the 1950s in this case. And the surrounding landscape must be populated with period buildings, street furniture and cars, plus whatever else is needed to make it look truly lived-in. If you get those surrounding details wrong, however meticulous you are about the trains, you’ll spoil the effect.
This rings loud bells with me, and anyone else who writes historical fiction. Attention to the detail of time and place is a vital part of bringing an era to life. And come to think of it, that’s so in contemporary stories too, although less noticeable if the setting is familiar to us.
It’s only too easy to focus so completely on the main action and characters that you skimp on their context; like setting up a model train and track, with no houses or fields or backdrop of sky to complete the picture.
I don’t often like books where authors leave out a lot of background detail. I can’t say I never like such books, because I’m a Jane Austen fan. But she – writing what to her were contemporary novels of course – gave disappointingly little period detail, assuming no doubt that her readers didn’t need it because they knew it all.
I’d like to read descriptions of what her young ladies wore to a ball. I’m dying to know what they had for dinner at Northanger Abbey, and breakfast at Mansfield Park. Above all, I’d love more information about how the Napoleonic Wars affected her characters, especially the gentlemen in the army and navy. A long and gruelling war period must have had massive effects, even though the fighting was abroad. Do you get a sense of that in Austen? No.
Well, as I say, I’m still an Austen admirer. But I try hard to give my own novels a real sense of place and time, to fill in the background of first-century Roman Britain.
I remember when I was hawking my first novel around – that’s to say, sending it to literary agents hoping they’d take it to publishers for me. None of them did, but I received some encouraging comments, and one particularly excellent piece of advice.
An agent actually rang me, and she said, “You haven’t developed a real sense of place. When your characters are talking and moving about, can you see in your mind’s eye where they are, what the room is like, what’s outside their window?”
“Yes, of course,” I said.
“Then why can’t I? Write it so I can see it too.”
I still remember, and I do my best.