Authorial Ignorance or: How to Find Out How Little you Know

Try and write a book about it. Especially something you are kind of familiar with and think will just take a wee bit more reading, a little skimming here and there, and you’re all set. Sucker. 

All you have done is inspire the Universe to gang up on you and reveal the depths of your ignorance. And they are very very, Marianas Trench deep. Studying for comprehensive exams for graduate school also works, but there you know the odds are against you. Guess what? No one ever taught you the history of US foreign policy! And you get 6 weeks to learn the literature, along with everything else you are desperately trying to remember, update, cram, and whack into a more-or-less coherent sequence. And you are not alone, although that may not be much of a consolation, depending on who else is going up for examination.

But, as I said, you know that you do not know. And if you say during Comps, “I’m sorry, Dr. [name], but I do not know that. I would look here, here, and there for it,” you may be allowed to slide past that little pothole. Readers and critics have no such mercy, especially readers. And that’s why it took me five months and another novel to get the WWI book done. And even then, I know it needs revision. (And it does not finish with the end of the war, because the characters rigged the game against me. But that’s for a different blog post.)

I knew that I knew nothing about the Eastern Front in WWI. Thankfully, a slew of new books appeared on the shelves last year, some very useful, some not so much, one useful but head-shakingly biased (I know someone who knows the author and he confirmed my take and said the gent is even more vehement in person.) Those books, and their notes, gave me a chunk of information, which augmented general histories of Hungary and Slovakia. There’s still plenty of room for English-language work, but I suspect we’ll see those over the next 5 years, for various centennial reasons.

Wow, I had no clue. Part of this is because Americans only participated in the Western Front, and then only briefly. The British and the Commonwealth troops fought in the Mediterranean as well as the West, but not in the Balkans. And most of what I read about eastern Europe was the Russians Vs. the Germans, Russian Revolution, and next chapter. A few things touched on food shortages in Germany during the war. Otherwise, the American reader can be excused for assuming that there was a little fighting in eastern Europe, Lawrence of Arabia, and everything else was in France and Flanders.

And so I launched into the novel, getting the beginning established, trying to clue the reader into the differences in history without doing an info-dump, and blithely writing away. And I hit a wall. My subconscious caught the problem before the rest of my brain realized what was going on. Instead I fretted, sweated, struggled through another chapter, assassinated Franz Ferdinand and stopped cold. Between the holidays and my brain block, I ended up writing Language of the Land and sampling a steampunk WWI YA novel (and rejecting it for a number of reasons, although the author has a good story. I just wasn’t in the mood). And I kept nibbling on WWI history, until I found two books that shook everything loose and gave me what I needed. I had not known what I didn’t know, but I knew that the pieces were not fitting. What was missing was the Russian advance into Galicia, and the home front. I needed detail that the books I’d read skimmed over. That was what these volumes provided, filling in the gaps. Now, building on the new-to-me material and what I’d seen in Hungary this past fall, I could pick up and run. If the characters cooperated. They didn’t exactly, but I’d planned on a second book, with a different antagonist, so it will work out.

But boy, the things I didn’t know! Where I got into trouble was forgetting that the Colplatschki books built on several years, if not decades, of intermittent reading and observation. I don’t have that for WWI, not yet at least. And the inter-war years? Ugh. It is not a happy time to read about. But neither are a lot of historical events. To mangle Tolstoy, “All happy times are alike in their happiness,” and so historians pass them by. Ditto novelists. After all, who would buy a book that starts with “Everyone was living happily ever after and stayed that way?” Even if it would be a lot easier to write!