It’s been a very long time since I worked – still as an office slave – in London and now, that I’m staying here for a few months, I recalled how back in the 1980s and 1990s I used to walk everywhere in London because of constant bomb threats from the IRA. Frequently, underground stations would be closed for several hours at a time, making you either hopelessly late for work in the morning or delaying you to such an extent that train services back to sunny Surrey, where I used to live, would practically pack up and go home for the night before one managed to get back to Waterloo Station.
Just as slowly as a medieval traveller on ox cart or on foot in air-conditioned sandals, the trusted cudgel by one’s side (which in my case tended to be a brolly), I would creep through the little rat runs and shortcuts of Soho to get back to Leicester Square and from there to Embankment, pushing through the crowds, the noise and the litter. Walking felt so much safer to me than taking the underground, even if it meant taking a risk in London’s dingy side streets.
Taking short-cuts in children’s writing is much harder to do, because their understanding of the world is less developed than that of adults. This has really hit home with me over the last few days, while I’m putting the finishing touches to my first German language novel for adults. When writing for grown-ups one merely needs to mention stiletto heels and the click-y-de-clack they make on the pavement and an adult reader will picture the type of person doing the walking perfectly. Finding child-sized short-cuts, as it were, is much harder.
If the writer takes examples from kid’s movies…those examples will date quickly…if one takes examples from classic literature kids might not have read those books yet. Be too long winded in the thing you want to say and kids throw your book away and head for a short-cut into the garden to play footie or go online to play games.
Medieval travellers, it strikes me, would probably have avoided taking short-cuts in real life, but they were masters at using metaphors in their paintings, illuminated books and swirly scrolls. Travelling was far too risky and best done in large numbers on well frequented routes.
If you wanted to get from castle A to fortress B, you joined a throng of pilgrims, preferably one with a few knights attached to their party, and hobbled along. Any creature of the night that might be tempted to drag you off to hell would think twice about attacking, for the throng of pilgrims might easily scare attackers off with a few well-aimed Hallelujahs, a punch on the nose and handy crosses aimed at the ghoul. Intellectual travelling, on the other hand, involved side-stepping a great deal of moral scrutiny, mostly from church leaders but also from an educated person’s peers.
What better way to avoid detection than using a few nifty metaphors of which only you and your mates knew the true meaning? Several hundred years later intellectual travellers looking at medieval paintings or books need an expert guide to help them find their way through the incomprehensible maze. Here taking short-cuts would have preserved the necks of those who painted or wrote something that the ruling order of the day did not approve of.
Getting lost in the Here and Now
Negotiating the short-cuts we take in our stories thankfully no longer means trying to hide from the ruling classes for most of us – unless you live in a dictatorship or other type of evil regime. However, our writing short-cuts will be just as incomprehensive to future readers, no matter what age, if we go with the trendy phrases, the metaphors of Hollywood or TV. Yes, trying to please the “ruling classes” of current readerships is just as oppressive. Be a rebel, avoid the trendy and stick to the timeless!
What does that mean?
Well, if you want to describe a character in your book as somebody who’s easily led and superficial you could use the metaphor of gadgets, mobile phones perhaps or tablets…but remember, in just a few years’ time, a new generation may no longer understand what you’re talking about because technology moves on so quickly. If you’re aiming to write a book that will stand the test of time, especially in children’s and YA markets, and allow future armchair travellers to enjoy it just as much as readers would today, your short-cuts should be recognisable as such by future generations of readers.