In Fishing in Foreign Seas there are over 100 footnotes. Nearly all of these footnotes deal with the technology of steam turbine-generators. At the time, I felt that if Jamie (the principal male character) was going to be deeply involved in a $300 million negotiation for two of the largest, most powerful machines ever built, I should not leave readers in the dark.
The good news is that non-technical people who have read Fishing in Foreign Seas tell me that they had no trouble understanding the issues. The bad news is that they feel there were too many footnotes, and that some were unnecessary and distracting. Point taken.
This raises a question: should there be any footnotes in a novel? In the novels I have written since Fishing in Foreign Seas (one published – Sin & Contrition; one about to be published – Bitter Charity; and one roughly half finished) I have reduced the number of footnotes to one or two. Several of these stories involve characters speaking in a language other that English sometimes. In these cases, I change font when the character is speaking in Arabic, rather than English. And when this first happens, I insert a footnote which reads: “this font is used whenever the words spoken, read or thought are in Arabic rather than English.”
One might ask: is this really necessary? Can’t the reader recognise that when character A (who speaks English and Arabic) is speaking to character P (who speaks only Arabic) that the conversation must be taking place in Arabic? Yes, the reader might recognise this, but having a distinctive font is a clear reminder of differences in not only language, but also of differences is culture and values.
Sometimes a character will use a word which is common in (Arabic), but which would not be used in English. For example, a character might say, “Aleesha was wearing a hijab.” Since the average reader might not know what a hijab is, I could put a footnote which says: “a headscarf commonly worn by Muslim women”. The trouble with this, of course, is that it distracts the reader’s eye to the bottom of the page. So what I would typically do in this case is to write:
Abdullah remarked, “Aleesha was wearing a hijab.” (a headscarf commonly worn by Muslim women)
In this way, the word ‘hijab’ is briefly explained, without distracting the reader, and from the structure of the sentence, it is clearly not something that Abdullah said, but rather an explanation that the author has added. The addition by the author becomes particularly obvious if what Abdullah says (in Arabic), within the quotes, is in a different font than the rest of the line.
So, I try to minimise the number of footnotes. If I were writing Fishing in Foreign Seas again, I would dramatically reduce the number of footnotes, probably by including an appendix which explains the technical vocabulary.
(For more information about my novels, see www.williampeace.net.)