As a new writer, the novelty of receiving letters and emails from readers is still fresh and wonderful. My favourite message to date came from a gentleman of a certain age, who wrote to thank me for the considerable pleasure my book had brought him and his beloved during the 1960s. I had to break it to him gently that I am not Sir Richard Burton, the 'fabulous lover, daring explorer' and translator of the classic erotic text The PerfumeD Garden, but a mother of two whose new book about the Spanish Civil War was named The Perfume Garden by my publishers after its original title 'The Perfume Box' was - ironically - deemed too suggestive. He was quite charming, and promised to read the novel.
Perhaps you've had similar experiences with both good and tough feedback? I've come to the conclusion that two readers can read the same passage and find completely different things. Leaving aside the gladiatorial online review arenas, the trolls and sockpuppets, for every reader who takes the time to send a handwritten note to say they liked the book, and yes, your fictional version of the person they knew was bang on, there is another telling you that you got it horribly wrong.
How do you deal with this? Do you engage? Argue your case? One of the most common complaints about my debut 'The Beauty Chorus' was that people didn't eat that well during WW2. This was my fault entirely, and I've learnt a good lesson. The food, in fact, had been researched religiously. All I needed to add was something to the effect of 'mmm this beef stew is delicious, but it's not a patch on the stews we had before the war', or 'aren't I lucky that shellfish isn't rationed and Daddy brings me care parcels from the fishmonger on Chelsea Green'.
The academic in me wants the historical framework of the story to be watertight, and only a fraction of the research is used. Perhaps it is the same with your novels? I hope somehow that all that work is there, shoring up the story, even if worn lightly in the final book. As Hemingway said:
'If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.'
Facts are one thing, but getting the emotional timbre of your story right is more subjective. One lady in her nineties who read 'The Beauty Chorus' reported back that I was wrong - no one ever cried, even when their friends were killed in plane crashes. And yet during the research, from talking to other people, and reading first hand accounts the reminiscence that affected me the most was the woman who opened up and said that women would often go to the cinema alone so that they could weep privately in the darkness. This touched me - and said everything about the lack of privacy then, and the need to keep a stiff upper lip in public.
Historical fiction with its blend of fact and imagination is a challenging genre, and I hope to keep learning something new with every book. When I read that even the great Bernard Cornwell admitted to putting snowdrops in Arthurian Britain, it was comforting to learn that even the writers I admire most are human. What are your favourite letters from your readers - have you had any snowdrop moments? Or have any readers made your day by letting you know when you got something right?
In the meantime, if you feel like rustling up a WW2 recipe for lunch, here is a lovely simple pea soup from 'War-time Cookery' 1940. Enjoy:
1lb of mixed leeks, onions and celery
½ pint cooked peas [soak overnight with bi-carbonate]
Fry together, put in I pint of cooked peas, minced, and 1 quart of water. Boil until tender, thicken with rice or potato flour, sprinkle a little chopped mint on top.