In the fourth in my series on "Why I Write," I reflect on my desire to teach.
In my experience, it is human nature to want pass on knowledge that we have gained. Certainly, when my research uncovers something particularly unexpected or significant, the first thing I want to do is tell others what I have learned. Since I like to research topics that are either controversial or less familiar to people, I often find myself turning up unexpected pieces of information. From the amount of complaints about historical novelist who bore readers by cramming into to many facts and details, I am not alone in my passion for teaching what I've learned!
The challenge, therefore, is to teach in a way that doesn't bore, irritate or distract the reader. Since each reader's level of knowledge and tolerance for education in a fiction book differs, there is no single answer. What I attempt to do, however, is to replicate my own experience in that I create a context for learning that makes discovery of new facts a force that moves the story forward.
An excellent example of this is my first novel about ancient Sparta, The Olympic Charioteer. Because this was my first novel about this topic, I had learned so much. Indeed, almost all that I knew about Sparta I had just learned and wanted to share. Rather than doing a data-dump, however, I chose to make my narrator a stranger coming to Sparta for the first time in his life and being shocked and confused by one thing after another.
The ability to step back and look at things from the outside is critical to teaching properly. No one who is completely familiar with a culture or period is able to see what makes it unusual. Here's an example. A very well-educated African, who traveled over-seas for the first time as an adult was amazed to discover that toilets did not need to smell. He had assumed that since shit smells, toilets had to smell, and it was a revelation to discover that if properly cleaned and flushed they need not do so. In short, no one who has grown up in the advanced industrial world is likely to comment on toilets that don't stink, while no one from Africa would comment on those that do.
The historical recorded is consistently distorted by this phenomenon, by the way. For example, because all boys who went to school in ancient Greece learned to read and write, none of the foreigners who described the Spartan school mentioned that the boys learned to read and write. That was obvious and didn't need to be said. Instead, they commented at length on the things that were unique about the Spartan educational system, e.g. the boys could be flogged, or elected their own leaders etc. Modern readers, not seeing reference to Spartan boys learning to read, often mistake this for proof the boys didn't learn when in fact it is only proof that the observer didn't think it was worthy of mention.
When teaching about the environment in which my novels are set I often find it useful, as in the case of The Olympic Charioteer, to step outside the perspective of my principle characters. This enables me to describe aspects of the setting that the principle characters would not naturally comment upon. In the latter Middle Ages, knights and nobles knew heraldry inside out, but if they described it as they would have done (or, a cross pate gules, for example), it is meaningless to us. Yet a peasant could describe the shield in terms we understand -- a yellow backdrop with a flared, red cross on it.
The utility of changing perspectives from time to time in order to teach better (and incidentally add depth of perspective) is one of the reasons I abhor the modern fashion for writing everything, exclusively in the first person. There is truly nothing wrong with the prose of John Steinbeck or Leo Tolstoy. The obsession with not changing points of view is a modern fad that will hopefully die a natural death -- soon.
Writers should be free to share their knowledge in whatever way is most effective and entertaining because it is only if the teaching is effective that readers will truly learn.
Discover topics you've always been interested in through my novels -- and don't forget that books make great Christmas presents!
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