Blind Spots Revisited
Last week, I blithely blathered on about historical blind spots and the odd anomaly of my writing a book set in 1920s Kenya when my interest has always tended towards earlier time periods. (The Ashford Affair! Coming to a bookstore near you on April 2, 2013!) But as I was reading through the comments on that post, something struck me. My 1920s book wasn’t an anomaly after all. Every single major project I’ve undertaken has been a blind spot.
I spent years declaring loudly that I was a court intrigue kind of girl and the one part of the Tudor/Stuart continuum that didn’t interest me was the Civil War and Interregnum—and then I went and spent years working on a dissertation about Royalist conspiracies in the latter half of the English Civil War. I declared my allegiance to the eighteenth century and turned up my nose at the eighteenth—and then went and wrote a series of books set in 1803/1804. The book of which I’m proudest, The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, is set in another of those blind spots: Hyderabad, in 1804.
I could argue that these were all flukes, but I think there’s something else going on here. Blind spots provide a challenge. There’s a numbing feeling of familiarity to those areas we already know well, or believe we know well. I may adore the intricacies of Scottish politics in the mid-sixteenth century, but I’ve never been able to successfully set a story there. Trust me, I tried.
My theory—and you can contest this—is that it has to do with the joy of discovery. When we learn about a period specifically for a story, it’s all new and fresh and exciting. The details stand out to us in a way the details of more familiar areas don’t. That very freshness enables us to convey the scene with more clarity to readers. I believe that sense of excitement that comes with discovery comes through, too, a key ingredient for a successful story.
I don’t just do this as a writer; I wallow in my blind spots as a reader, too. Some of my favorite novels are set in places about which I knew relatively little until I read them. One of the prime examples of this is M.M. Kaye’s Trade Wind. I knew nothing of Zanzibar until I opened those pages and read of Hero Hollis’s fascination with Zanzibar… “fair is this land”…. Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency holds that same kind of fascination, as does Michelle Moran's The Heretic Queen and Gillian Bradshaw’s Horses of Heaven, which is set in Afghanistan in the 2nd century BC, an era and a place that was a complete blank to me before opening that book. The pleasure in reading those books was heightened by the excitement of discovering new worlds, represented in vivid, sensory detail.
So I say, revel in your blind spots! Today’s blind spot may be tomorrow’s great discovery.
Which are your favorite blind spot books?