The Tip of the Iceberg


Why writers know more than they let on.

It’s strange to think of a 100,000 or so word novel as the tip of the iceberg (just how big is that iceberg?!) but many writers suggest their stories are only a small section of the much bigger picture they have in their heads. In the words of American journalist and author Susan Orlean, ‘You should know more than what you put on the page. The reader can sense that.’

So just what should we know that we don’t put on the page? I’m currently reading – and thoroughly enjoying – Dear Mrs Bird by A.J Pearce, about a world war two agony aunt called Emmeline. I was fascinated to find out the background to this, and after a little searching, managed to find an introduction to the novel, by A.J Pearce herself. In this she writes:

My response to writing about Dear Mrs Bird for Mother’s Day was easy. I just couldn’t imagine the novel without the heroine Emmeline Lake’s mother, both on and off the page.

Knowing about her mum – and her grandmother – was central to writing the book. It’s the same for all the main characters. Understanding their families really well, even though most of them don’t appear in the book, helps me define why the characters are who they are.

I think what she is describing is research. Sometimes we do a lot of research that never makes it to the final cut as it were, but just a few well-chosen words here and there are enough to imply that deeper knowledge. That research can be social, political, historical – or, as Pearce suggests, imaginative –extending your knowledge of your characters so that they arrive fully formed and convincing.

Often it feels like a waste of time, never to use nine tenths of our icebergs. But then again, it’s usually that supporting material that makes the iceberg's tip so successful.