Don’t assume your readers know what you know

Fiction writers often assume readers know what they know. Why wouldn’t they? For one thing, you might be older than your readers, so terms from thirty or forty years ago that make sense to you might have no impact on a 25-year old. For example, if I write that a character in a novel set in the 1950s made a station-to-station long distance call, that term is so long gone, few people will understand it today.

Ghost light. Wikipedia photo.

For another thing, your readers might live in another country. In the southern U.S., most of us grew up eating deep-fried cornbread balls called hushpuppies. Then, several chain restaurants that specialize in fish added these to their menus and the rest of the country became familiar with them. Yet, as a question from a reader of this blog indicates, this food is unknown in the U.K. She asked if I was talking about the brand of shoes named Hush Puppies. She hoped so because eating shoes seemed better than eating actual puppies.

Or, you might know a subject like the back of your hand and have no idea that some of its common terms aren’t that common to those who aren’t fans of that subject. A proofreader who was going through my recent short story about ghosts in an old theater stumbled over the term “ghost light.” I mentioned it in the story but didn’t define it. Was it an eerie light caused by a ghost or something else?

It was easy to change my sentence from “Bob put the ghost light on the stage” to “Bob brought out the ghost light, a bare bulb on a stand and turned it on.” I knew what they were because I’d seen people doing that in old movies about theaters and knew that the light served as a night light (for safety reasons) so that when the house lights were turned off, the place wouldn’t be pitch black. (One might trip over a set or fall into the orchestra pit.

According to an old superstition, theaters always have ghosts. This light gives them a welcome-lit stage of which to perform at night when the theater is closed.

I don’t particularly like slowing down a story and/or ruining the flow of the prose by describing objects or customs that I think ought to be clear to everyone–or, at least, clear within the context where they’re used. Yet, when a reader stalls on a word or phrase that’s important to the story, a parenthetical description is better than confusing a reader.

I’ve read enough British fiction to know that spotted dick is a suet and fruit pudding, not a man with a venereal disease and that cock a leeky is not a slang phrase for relieving oneself in the restroom, but a soup that includes chicken and leeks. The first time I saw those phrases, I thought they were crude jokes of some kind. There’s no problem with such phrases when they appear in the U.K. editions of a book, but in the U.S. editions, a bit of translation would help.

Okay, I missed “ghost light” in my short story, but more often than not I try to scan my work for words and phrases that might confuse or mislead the readers. And no, I’m not going to start using footnotes for them.


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