Yesterday I wrote an email to an editor about a book I have written for 5-8 year olds and which will be published later this year. I had realised that I had made a big mistake with what someone was wearing – and it was such a relief to realise this in time. It seems like a small detail – a question of a red sweatshirt with animal badges rather than the reindeer jumper I had described, but it has big significance for the character and the illustrations, and uncorrected would have made an unsatisfying nonsense of the end of the previous book about the character.
In a few minutes I am going to get back to writing my current novel. Like ‘Girl with a White Dog’, it has involved me in lots of historical research. I am finding that the small details are vital. They are vital for me to understand the story and really inhabit it – and they are vital, in a work of fiction, for truth. It DOES matter if a character in 1916 would have read a particular poem, or been taught a particular thing, or regarded others in a particular way. In one sense, it is perfectly possible to write an exciting story riddled with anachronisms, but as a writer I think it would be so less satisfying, and it would be letting down the reader big time.
Because small details do matter – and sometimes they are not always that small – just unregarded. If we are lucky some wonderful hardworking historian has found them – like Boria Sax in his book ‘Animals in the Third Reich’ – and it is a fiction writer’s privilege to be able to incorporate them into a story, as I did in Girl with a White Dog
So what are the ‘small details’ in our current culture which future historians and novelists will uncover? What will stand out for them as being unregarded, unreported, dismissed as unimportant, and yet, when looked at properly, will be seen to say so much about our values and how our culture is headed – which if not acknowledged will make a nonsense of our nation’s narrative?
There are many examples – not least, in light of International Women’s Day yesterday, the treatment of women in our world today and the fact that their needs are often relegated to ‘small details’ – but today I would like to look at the treatment of the disabled and the ill in our culture.
I think that you might deduce that the treatment of the disabled and the ill in our culture is a small detail if you look at the lack of public outrage about it. The money which is being spent by our present government to contest this legal ruling about the ‘bedroom tax’ is not commented widely on, nor is the distress this is causing people having to be involved with the Govt’s appeal after they thought they had won: here is a story which is huge for the people involved and yet a small detail in terms of news coverage – the story of those families involved
Then yesterday the government ruled in favour of cuts which will mean that disabled people will lose £30 a week – that is £120 a month – which anyone who has tried to survive on a low wage will realise is not a small detail at all. This has been widely criticised. by charities working with those involved, yet it seems that it is a relatively unimportant thing for those of us unaffected. If you click on the highlighted blue words you will get to a BBC report on this, and can watch a video clip of a disabled Peer’s consternation about the cruelty of these cuts.
So on one hand the welfare of those who are ill or disabled seems to cause little alarm, and yet the narrative that they are scroungers arouses great interest. Here is an example where big details (£30 a week loss for those who desperately need it) are being seen as small – and where small details (relatively tiny number of people defrauding system) are distorted into being big ones. So we have huge coverage of those who are not disabled pretending to be, and hardly any of those who are in desperate need and not getting the support they need. Just look at this excellent piece in the guardian about phantom cheats:
I love History and the work of historians. Historians can, with dedicated work, discover small details which can illumine our understanding of why things happened the way they did. I have to pay attention to the small details in my stories so that they have coherence as narratives – so that they are satisfying and truthful. We have to pay attention and talk about the ‘small details’ glossed over or left out in the mainstream news – in the narrative our media and politicians are writing for our nation – these details, left out, make an unsatisfying nonsense of our narrative as a caring nation with ‘British values’ – these unregarded details, omissions and contradictions may be the most important of all.