In my teaching box I have several objects from my grandfather’s business. You’ve already seen a dress. Now you can see a paper of pins. The dress was uncommon – it may never have been made commercially. The pins are common. This makes uncommonly useful for teaching.
It’s usually easier to get the big things right in a novel. When Australia was given its independence from the UK there are some things that can be ticked off with ease. Queen Victoria was on the throne, for instance. The vacuum cleaner was brand new and mechanical inventions were celebrated. The White Australia Policy was introduced into Australia, and, as a anthropological historian once pointed out to me, the Japanese were Honorary White and Jews (all Jews) were honorary Black.
It would be easy to say that these things are well-known because they left lasting impressions. Which they did. Australia is still ruled by a queen. Vacuum cleaners are everywhere and we celebrate inventions, but electronic is more fun than straight electric. And Jews in Australia are what I call off-White (we’re White until it’s convenient for mainstream Australians for us not to be).
The thing is that sewing pins also leave lasting impressions. Australian culture includes a great deal of sewing. A friend had a major birthday recently and a perfectly acceptable gift was an exceptionally nice piece of fabric in her favourite colour.
The problem is (for writers) that it’s easy to look up the name of a ruler and find out the political system. It’s easy enough (although not as easy) to find out what gadgets are used around the home. There are major museums that specialise in this latter, Powerhouse in Sydney, for instance. It is, however, almost impossible to find accurate cultural assessments of the relative favouring or other of specific groups in Australia. We’re far more comfortable with analysing using the words of others and the culture of others. We’re not at all comfortable with complex cultures or too many cultural variants in our minorities. Two ends of a complex spectrum: some things are easy for writers to find out and some things require a deep breath and a lot of work to reach a decent understanding.
So where do the pins fit in?
For writers, the ordinary and everyday is what gives flavour to a work. Frying an egg, for example, fills a character’s immediate needs but also gives the reader an instant ‘feel for the place and time. My father wanted a coal stove when I as a child (even though electricity was standard) because he lived in a major coal-producing state and he liked the thought of it burning always, giving hot water and… the capacity to fry that egg at any time. That was his official reason. He wanted a fried egg when he was hungry.
I still don’t know why he thought any of this was a good idea. As small children my sisters and I carried in the buckets of black coal. We had to navigate soot and spiders and lurking cats. And when the temperatures soared in summer, the kitchen and dining room were uninhabitable.
Suburban living is often described as flat and full of typical moments, but something like that stove and its gaping maw can bring even the most placid and standard family life alive on the page. No two families live precisely the same, which makes even the dullest suburb potentially useful for a fiction writer.
But the pins?
One of the problems many authors face (especially but not only new writers) is the tendency to fill gaps with things they knew. One of my novels (Ms Cellophane) has a character who is a fine seamstress and this is her hobby. How her sewing is set up in the home, what tools she uses, what clothes she makes… all of these bring her character to life. I don’t thrust long explanations in the novel: I try to find the most accurate description.
Pins help. Ms Cellophane is a near-contemporary novel, so my character would have used a wheel of pins, all thrust neatly into plastic. Fifty years earlier, she would have used the type of paper you see here. If she had lived in the Middle Ages, the pins would have looked more like this.
These two pins are modern copies of Medieval originals. They’re a bit different to modern pins (easier to use, a bit thicker, different metal, rounder head) but it’s still possible to describe a lot of sewing and the pins will be accurate. The storage of the pins, however, has changed a lot over the years. A pincushion, a paper, a card, a plastic wheel, or even loose pins: these things can bring a novel to life.
The pins themselves annoy my students, for they fall out of the paper and hide. This is perfectly good telling detail in the right novel, and another reason that paper goes to some classes.
So many students want Queen Victoria in a novel and will work on understanding a country’s racism in order to portray their characters better. Getting them to understand the importance of pins… that’s the tricky bit.