Limitations of Common Knowledge

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Sep 01 2011

What are the limitations of common knowledge?

The better portion of my manuscript is about Ragnarok and at some point in my working query I mention it.

So while going around the AW and QT forums, one person so far has asked: (Who or what is Ragnarok? I’m left guessing and guessing isn’t good.)

I figure you would know better. I assume what is common for some isn’t common for others, but where do we make that distinction? Our education levels and personal experiences make us different.

Actually I didn’t know what Ragnarok was. And here I always thought I was a good Swede.

This is an interesting question because there are limitations to what all of us know or should know and we have no idea what limitations others might have. One of the most important aspects of writing fiction is the world building, not just in fantasy or paranormal but in any piece of fiction. Even in a contemporary novel the author is required to create a world the reader, any reader, can connect with and understand. The same holds true for a query letter. A common problem I see in queries is when the world isn’t defined and therefore I don’t understand the query.

It’s hard to give an opinion without actually reading your query, but I think that if even one reader questions an aspect of your query it’s worth assuming others will as well. I wouldn’t assume that this reader is less knowledgeable than your average agent.

The truth is that we all hold a vast amount of knowledge, and assuming someone knows something just because you do, or judging them because they don’t know something you assume is common knowledge, is always a mistake. I think in this instance rather than name Ragnarok in your query you might define it without using the name at all.


15 responses to “Limitations of Common Knowledge”

  1. I think this is a great question. I struggled with it myself.

    My first draft used words that I borrowed from myth. In my second or third edit, I removed all of those words and replaced them with new concepts that I defined in my MS.

    To use this example, "Ragnarok" would have become something like "The Cleansing" (but hopefully less trite).

  2. With something like Ragnarok, it's fairly simple qualify it with 2 words: Norse Armageddon. Most people would recognize Armageddon without context and the "Norse" provides the cultural association.

    There's no need to go into great depth, just set the boundaries.

  3. Avatar Phil Hall says:

    I've always heard that "before you use a term, you must define the term." Not everyone is up on their Norse myth, so give them a quickie primer.

  4. Avatar wry wryter says:

    My daughter and I had quite an argument when she read my manuscript for the first time. In the opening line I wrote, in part,
    “…River Road which ends at the Connecticut”.
    “Connecticut what?” She said.
    “Connecticut River, you dummy,” I said. “Like the Amazon, the Hudson, the Connecticut.”

    “Readers won’t know that.” She respectively said.

    “Well I’ll teach them.”

    “Mom, you’re an idiot.” She was right. I changed it.

    Once a writer assumes, the reader knows what the writer knows, the writer is in trouble.

  5. Avatar Lorenda says:

    Although the recent Thor movie may help with this issue. 🙂

  6. This is of course also a huge question in non-fiction: how much do you explain quickly because most of your readers probably have "common knowledge" and a handful don't; how much do you explain in depth (and how much of that can you explain with other terms and jargon – that you may then have to explain – and how much in analogies etc.).

    It is really challenging (at least for me) to find the line between simplistic explanation that may offend the reader's intelligence and necessary explanation to enhance understanding.

    Because, of course, you don't really know who the readers are for the book itself, at least not all of them. Maybe a bit easier for a query – or not.

  7. @Lorenda: I think the majority of the people who watched the newest Thor movie were either entranced by his godly abs or cursing the horrible storytelling too much to have caught any reference to Ragnarok. 🙂

    A lot of good authors were teachers before their writing career started. I think there are several reasons for that, one being that teachers' wages used to be so low as to really leave their recipient hungry for more. The relevant reason, though, is that teachers are used to searching through a topical tale with which they're already more or less familiar for points of unfamiliarity with their audience (or class, rather). It's what we do for a living. Well–that, and destroy students' weekend plans, egos, future chances for success, and entire lives (both past and future) by holding them to standards believed to be unnecessarily high by those who don't meet them. All the while, we sit around at our "work areas" cackling evilly with our work area mates, dreaming of making it big with the next book so we can actually, finally afford to get the car repaired.

    *ahem* All that said–yeah, as a writer, you have to look through the tale you're telling, whether it's a short story, a query letter, or a novel, and figure out what the audience isn't going to know, and then reveal that to them. It's harder than it sounds, but who said writing was easy?

  8. Avatar Redleg says:

    Someday I pray they will invent some kind of machine, an updated abacus of sorts, that will allow the average person to enter terms they don't know and come back with a result that answers your question. A sort of an "engine for searching," if you will.

  9. Avatar ryan field says:

    I knew it because I read a novel once a long time ago where the mc was interested in Old Norse.

    But I would imagine most wouldn't know.

    I listened to a podcast recently and they didn't even know what "treacle" was. And I had a scene in a book where I used the word "ganache." When the editor didn't know it I told her to switch it to chocolate frosting and keep it simple.

  10. Avatar Andrew says:

    This is where a good writer can deftly use careful sentence skills for a balance. Knowing that you don't want to seem too elementary, but that you also don't want to alienate readers who don't know the term, weave the definition somewhere into the sentence. Something like, "She wonders if the ancient Norse prophecy might be coming true, if this war is actually Ragnarok, as they predicted." That doesn't feel like it's pausing to explain, Lemony Snicket-style, but it also makes it pretty clear to a reader who doesn't know it that Ragnarok is, at least, a prophesied war.

  11. Avatar Robena Grant says:

    I wouldn't have known what Ragnarok was and would have googled it. But that said, yesterday I told a friend I'd bought delicious cold slices of rock melon, and she frowned. Even after thirty years of living in the U.S. when I'm tired I slip into Australianisms. Cantaloupe. Cantaloupe.
    So yeah, what is familiar to one is often a puzzle to another.

  12. Avatar Lorenda says:

    whoops, hit the publish button way too soon

    @The Other Stephen King

    "entranced by his godly abs"

    I know I was. 🙂 My husband has been reminded daily that he's been wanting to start P90X. I told him if he looked like that guy when he's done, I'm all for it.

  13. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I think it only matters what the reader knows, and I, as a reader, didn't know was Ragnarok was. As such, it's your job as writers to educate me – in a concise and understandable manner. I, as the reader, will love you for it and keep buying your books!

  14. Avatar E. A. Brass says:

    I would have made the same mistake about Ragnarok as this writer. I guess I'm more myth-nerdy than I thought. This is a good reminder.

  15. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    I read this post yesterday and haven't been able to stop thinking about it, because it's something that I run into a lot. SO many contemporary books refer to current TV shows. I don't watch television–have never seen a lot of the popular programs, don't know the actors and have essentially stopped reading a lot of authors who refer to them as a regular part of their story lines because I am totally out of the loop.

    I know I'm in the minority, but the post really does make an excellent point–don't assume your reader is familiar with everything. If it's at all possible to drop a hint that will explain a reference, it could make the difference between them understanding your point or missing it altogether.