I was reminded the other day of an axiom that applies to research for writing: We don’t know what we don’t know. It’s a constant problem, especially when you’re writing a period piece. We have to check constantly that we’re not building in anachronisms that will jar the reader out of the illusion.
But how deep do you go? How do you know when to stop? It’s easy to think you’ve verified a fact but, with the best will in the world, you weren’t there at the time. And the unchecked error is always there, waiting, like a rake in the grass.
Misha Herwin, my fellow Penkhull author and great friend, was kindly editing my upcoming short story collection when she questioned a reference to ballet at Sadler’s Wells in 1914. I confidently pointed out that the theatre was opened in the 17th century by Richard Sadler.
“Ah, but were they doing ballet then?”
No, they weren’t. More thorough investigation revealed that ballet didn’t come to the Wells until long after WW1.
The lesson, apart from learning an unsuspected dislike of Misha, was that we don’t know what we don’t know, and we have to deepen our research to find and fill the gaps.
And, especially, once you’ve written a story, don’t show it to anyone.
There’s more about this sad event on my blog here.