How do you know what you don’t know? Tricky, isn’t it?

My friend Pippi spent a year as an au pair in Aberdeen many years ago, and later a few months studying in Brighton, where we met. And like the witch she visited this country many, many times. But she doesn’t like filmjölk (sour milk), and that’s probably why Pippi didn’t know you don’t get it in Britain. Access to filmjölk would improve my life a lot, so I’m fully aware that you can’t get it here. But Pippi assumed you could, because to her it was clear that countries may be different, but they are mostly the same.

That would also be the likely explanation for the annoying column in the Guardian before Christmas. (See what a long memory I have when it suits me?) It was written by Father Christmas. Hah. If it had been, he’d have got it right. The G2 elves responsible don’t know anything, and didn’t think to think first. They assumed that wherever FC goes, he gets mince pies to eat. Do they really think the rest of the world eat mince pies? Think again!

So when writing fiction set in another time or place than your own, what do you do? Research? Or just use common sense? Or ignore idiots like me who get worked up about details?

Adèle Geras writes many books set in places she can’t possibly know about, but Adèle is canny enough to use her ‘kitchens and bedrooms’ theory a lot. They don’t vary much, if you keep it vague.

I recently came across a book set in Norway, today. It featured English children who went to live there, and what really got me was that they behaved as if they hadn’t left England. Your Norwegian neighbour won’t be addressed as Mrs (or even fru) Larsen. You’ll call her Mette (if that’s her name). If you need to make apologies for the informal Norwegian way of life, you could have your character remark on it. But only if you, the writer, know about it.

Katherine Langrish’s Troll books, also set in Norway, are in effect quite English, but I mind that less, because I don’t think many of us know quite how the Vikings addressed each other. That makes it fantasy, and so can’t be authentic.

A recent read was set in Berlin in 1941, in a posh flat, with ‘very proper’ people. I can’t visualise them with a kitchen notice board with newspaper clippings displayed. I could well be wrong, but it feels more like an English kitchen of today. And would the young girl really have played hockey? I’m willing to be convinced, but hockey is so English/British/Commonwealth/whatever. Most of us say hockey and mean ice hockey.

The ‘charitable’ theory, according to the person I grumbled to, is that things need to be slightly ‘translated’ to fit in with the modern reader. That’s fine as regards strict but normal Victorian fathers, but in many cases you can either find out, or leave it out.

We are all the same, but oh so different.

I hasten to add that I don’t know anything. Except for filmjölk. And Swedes don’t feed FC at all. There will be porridge by the back doorstep for the house elf. That’s all.

6 responses to “Authentic?

  1. I do come a cropper with my lack of research sometimes. Apparently there were no lemons in ancient Greece. My cooks in Ithaka were constantly using it….my bad, as the young people say. I should have checked it out. There are no lemons in Dido.

  2. My tolerance for lemons is high. So, it all depends on what we know, and then we can get annoyed.

    Interestingly, there is a very similar post in the Guardian today, complaining about Ruth Rendell.

  3. I blogged about this once when I had a blog to myself. How do you deal with the ‘Unknown Unknowns’ as D. Rumsfeld called them? It’s a constant source of anxiety for me.

    It’s not so much the issue of making mistakes – they don’t matter if no-one else spots them. But if you DO know something, then it’s wonderful; it brings the book to life. Katherine Langrish’s Vikings may talk in modern English, but the fact that she knows how to sail a longboat, and how to care for a sword at sea – now that is what makes a story work. But, if you didn’t know what questions to ask (or if you hadn’t actually sailed in a reconstructed longboat) then you might not imagine that a Viking ship was much different from a Tudor galleon in function. And you might guess, and improvise. And few would be any the wiser. But if you DO know… that’s magic.

    Funny Ruth Rendell article. I don’t care – she’s still great.

  4. I must must must read about the longboat! Know nothing about Tudor galleons. About four litres?

  5. What a wonderfully multicultural post – spot on!

    I agree with Nick though – Rendell has entertained me for most of my adult life so I am ready to forgive her for not being quite up-to-date.

  6. Dorte – I wonder if we ‘foreigners’ miss some aspects of British life when we read. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five have a totally different image in Britain than in Sweden, for instance. Whether things disappear in translation, or if we just don’t see things anyway?

    I insisted on reading Lulu in Danish, just to sample a real feel of Denmark.

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