Sunday, April 12, 2015

Axminstering and Other Temptations

Whenever I finish writing a book, there are a couple of items which automatically go on my to-do list. 

The first is to clean up my office, because by the time the project is done, my desk looks like a tornado hit it. (And no, I’m not posting a photo of the mess. Things last forever on the Internet.)

The other is to look back at the job and assess what went well and what could have been improved. In this case, a novella which should have taken maybe three weeks to finish – especially because I’d written a good chunk of it months ago – took twice as long. One of those weeks was lost to a nasty case of flu, but another week or so disappeared because I was Axminstering instead of writing.

What’s “Axminstering”? I’m glad you asked.

In my novella, which is set in an English manor house in 1816, I wrote that my hero felt like the Axminster carpet in the drawing room had turned into quicksand and was pulling him down. Then I paused to wonder – were there Axminster carpets in 1816, or were they more of a Victorian than a Regency phenomenon? 

It’s a question historical authors have to ask themselves with practically every sentence. (Did French doors exist in the Regency – and were they called that, or something else? Did people say “bamboozle” or was that later? What really is the difference between a morning dress and a walking dress? Would the hero be wearing top boots or Hessians?)

But though we really do have to ask the questions and look up the answers, it’s not often that we need that bit of information right at that very moment. My hero could still have been thinking about quicksand if he was standing on a Persian carpet or a marble floor or just a plain old rug – and I could have looked up Axminster carpets at another time.

Instead, I went zooming over to Google where I discovered that the first Axminster carpet was made in 1755, in plenty of time for my drawing room to be decorated with one.

That much research wasn’t a problem. But then I followed the trail. What exactly would that carpet have looked like? What was the most likely combination of colors? What would it have been made of? How big might it have been? And since Wikipedia kindly offered a list of heritage properties where Axminster carpets can be seen, I wandered through those pages searching for pictures. And when I didn't see carpets there, I kept looking till I found images. (Here’s a new carpet, to give you the idea: AXMINSTER)

How much of that knowledge made it into the story? Zero. Zip. Nada. The line’s exactly as I first wrote it.

When I shared this story with my students at Gotham Writers’ Workshop, one of them said in glee, “From now on, I’m not going to call it procrastinating – I’m Axminstering!” (Thanks, Michelle!)

Do you Axminster? What are the temptations you face as you write?

3 comments:

  1. I didn't go quite to your depth, but I'd never even heard the words Axminster carpet until Cornelius Fudge landed on one as he came out of the fire one time. :) And I do plenty of meandering, too...

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  2. I'd forgotten about Fudge... Sometimes the best details come from serendipity, but it can be carried too far. Remember wandering through the volumes of the encyclopedia? I could end up with half the alphabet stacked up as I chased one idea after another!

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