Sunday, 3 October 2010

Making Assumptions

Last month I chaired an event for the Penzance Literary Festival.  One novelist, Jessica Mann, was talking about the memoir she is currently writing.  It's about the 1950s, and how life is so much better now than it was then, even though many people hark back to the 50s as a Golden Age.  She explained how, as a young woman she'd believed she was free, but her assumptions about life were coloured by the prevailing mores and in reality she had been constrained by societal expectations.

We discussed whether one could get into a character's head if they lived at a different time.  Rosemary Aitkin, the other panellist, who (as Rosemary Rowe) writes crime novels set in Romano-Britain, said that it was impossible to write about accurately, the writer had to adapt it.  Real life Romano-Britons would have had a mindset about, for example, the place of women in society, that would be unacceptable to us now.  

Closer to home, I find it hard to understand the mindset of many young people, for example, about drinking.  I just don't get the idea of going out with the intention of getting wasted.  Looking the other direction, I know my mother's expectations of marriage were quite different from mine, and what I might consider to be a bad marriage, she might see as a successful one. 

If we want to write about characters other than ourselves we have to examine our assumptions about other peoples behaviour.  We don't have to understand them - I am never going to understand why cars matter so much to some men - but we have to know that they're there.


womagwriter said...

This is where reading novels written in the time you are writing about, can help (though your Romano-Britain novelist will be out of luck). In the historical novel I'm currently writing, class expectations play an important part. This is something I find hard to understand - who cares whether he is higher born than she or vice versa. But by reading authors such as Wilkie Collins I'm getting an insight into Victorian attitudes which is really helpful.

Sarah Duncan said...

You've reminded me of a lovely passage in Henrietta's House by the wonderful Elizabeth Goudge when they lay out tea ready for some guests who turn up late. Different foods are added and subtracted at different stages as tea becomes high tea, then supper. I loved all the distinctions, even tho they had zero relevance for me.