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  • Writer's pictureClyve Rose

Writer's Tip: Authorial Leadership

As a historical fiction author, I do mountains of research. I invest hours in poring over maps of Regency London, the border movements in Europe during the Napoleonic wars, checking distances between York and London, or Bath and Cornwall, etc. Not just how far, but how fast? On a carriage, or on horseback? How fast does a well-fed carriage horse run? How poorly does an underfed animal proceed? What's the difference in travel time for a team of four and a team of six, if I assume a certain style of carriage and a vicious coachman??

Carriages themselves require a great deal of research, especially in my work. I've not yet come across a design that lends itself to sex, though this seemed to occur in Regency England with (dis?)respectable regularity. Like lovers meeting in Morris minis and Volkswagon bugs, libidos will find a way. I still need to do the research though.

However, you'll rarely read any historical work of interest that contains sentences like 'he drove the twenty-four miles from the inn to Mayfair, pausing to examine the stile at the twelve mile point. Once in town, he paid the forty pounds to stable his mount, and twenty guineas to house his carriage...'

This might read well in a historical treatise on Regency transportation, but it would be overly detailed for one of my stories. This said, it's important the reader feels I know my geography, and my history. For a reader to enjoy a story, they must feel in confident hands and that their storyteller knows the world they are about to enter. The reader needs to know I know my own research - but they don't need it all. One of the author's hardest tasks, is deciding what goes in, and what stays out (but in the back of your own mind and in the 'wings' of your story). All the great writers, from Jane Austen to Stephen King, offer this authorial leadership. It isn't genre-specific.

Show, not Tell:

It's true that paragraphs of exposition are challenging to read and undermine the rhythm of a story. This is also true of 'demonstrations' of period era research. If the author feels the need to constantly prove their knowledge and expertise to me as a reader I am more likely to doubt it, not less. This is why a good editor might suggest dialling back 'demonstrations' of research. It undermines the reader's confidence in the storytelling - and without that, readers become lost, confused and - ultimately - less entertained. They'll give up reading such a tale and move on to one that better leads them into another world.

Authorial Leadership:

In the world of your story, you are the leader. It's your world and your creation - and you are best placed to introduce it, and reveal it, to your reader. I used to be enamoured of narrative tricks - of withholding facts from the reader, only to drop them in later as a sly sort of 'gotcha' - and an early writing mentor pointed out how much of this was ego. Trying to prove to the reader how many narrative techniques I knew was an act of authorial bravado, and like most flarings of false confidence, it undermined my reader's enjoyment of my story.

I can know more than the characters, and I always know the world I've built, but playing games with reader confidence does not enhance the reader experience - and this is always be paramount in any work I create. The other advantage of this, is when I do have a big plot reveal (as in my new Soho Club novella), it can be a true surprise, a real gift, because it's not common that I gift surprises to my readers.

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