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It’s funnier in Old English: the problems of historical fiction writing

November 18, 2012

“Not to know what happened before you were born is to always remain a child. For what is a man’s life if it is not linked with the life of future generations by memories of the past?” –Cicero

As I’m writing my senior thesis, I’ve been encountering some unexpected conundrums that all have to do with writing in the historical fiction genre. Seasoned historical fiction writers will probably laugh themselves to tears reading about my “newly discovered” problems, because they’re so used to it. Newbisms aside, if anyone’s interested in writing their own historical story, here’s some things you want to watch for that are not necessarily on the historical fiction tin.

For anyone’s who studied history, you know the past is different. Especially if your time period is ages ago, the people can almost be seen as “primitive” or “backwards.” This is more than ‘they used candles instead of flashlights different.’ Some of their actions don’t make sense to us because they value different things. For example, to the Invisible Ninja Cat my monks’ actions seem totally insane: who, in their right mind, casts off from their home in a very tiny boat with no idea where they’re going? I mean, suicidal people, maybe, but there are much easier ways to do that if you have qualms about holding the knife yourself (the Vikings are happy to oblige). When I first read about the monks, I thought their actions were hilarious–haha crazy Catholics lol–even though I understood the religious dialogue going on as well.

And so historians have made up this nifty metaphor: the past is a foreign country and/or universe. And it truly is, down to the basic biological sense. As my thesis seminar leader pointed out, while human bodies were built the same, they had completely different reference sets and cultural consciousness, and therefore different neural pathways and connections than a 21st century human. Chaucer’s medieval Canterbury Tales are 50 times funnier once you understand his tongue-in-cheek criticisms, which is only possible if you’re familiar with medieval euphemisms, expectations of those in certain professions, how to pronounce this one word in Middle English so to access the verbal wordplay etc.

So people thought differently: once you realize that you’re set, right? Not exactly. You can’t just realize it. You have to know it, put yourself into it. Surround yourself with it. You have to know how that will inform your characters and their actions. My teacher came up with great examples: today’s children would rather play ball than work, but a monastery’s children would talk about what kind of work they liked best; for hundreds of years it was expected that the young 18-year-old woman would marry the fat, balding 40-year-old man and she would have to bear his children and respect him. True love is a relatively modern notion: for centuries you strove for a suitable companion-marriage which would be the most advantageous for your family. This about blew my mind when my teacher first said it. And it’s so true. While there’s been many proto-feminists, feminism only started in the 20th century and even as late as the 1950s, the subordinate, domestic housewife was being lauded! It hasn’t even been a hundred years. In the grand scheme of history, it’s only been around for a twinkling. Sadly. That’s not to say that there weren’t any strong women in history (Queen Elizabeth I, hello), but the average Jane Doe is not going to be your strong, independent woman who dreams of a stellar career instead of a husband and kids. I mean, you can have that character, but to be historically accurate, you’ll need to explain what certain instances in her life and/or personality made her different.

While this historical imbibing is going to affect everything down to the words you use, once you’re in it, it pretty much sticks. You can ask yourself questions. Despite their vow of chastity, monks were still men: how did they deal with unwanted sexual energy? How/where did they channel it? Answer: into God, into work, into self-disciplinary measures (there’s one instance of a nun who, in her and her caretaker’s vigilance, didn’t know the opposite sex existed). Or they indulged, if they weren’t a particularly good monk (there are recordings of an English monk who would pop off to the nearby nunnery at night. He was eventually caught in the act, but it was so dark they couldn’t identify his face before he escaped).

The second difficult part about historical fiction writing is conveying all of this to the reader. It may make sense in your history-doused head, but you’ve got to explain to others in a manner that doesn’t slow down your story. Some readers of Anna Karenina like to skip chapters in which Levin, a gentleman farmer, contemplates how to improve his peasants and farms because to us those seem like very alien concerns. Granted, Tolstoy was writing to an audience much, much closer to his book’s time period, but you don’t want your book’s chapters to be skipped, unless you’re specifically aiming for tedium. Speaking of, the new Anna Karenina movie looks gorgeous. Have an advert.

Explaining to your reader means that you can’t be entirely in your time period. You have to be of two minds. Understand the century you’re working with, but also give the clues and hints necessary for the moderns to understand. It’s a bit like technical writing, I suppose, or perhaps the term “world-building” is more appropriate, though that term is mostly associated with fantasy and sci-fi writers. Sometimes the problem reverses: the moderns have concerns that you need to address, but didn’t exist so much in the past. For instance, certain Catholic priests in my area are having these huge lawsuits against child molestation. In one scene of my book, Suibhne and the (at this point very young) trio share sleeping space for a night. My teacher read it and warned me that I had to put clear signs that Suibhne was not molesting them in any way. In reaction, I turned red and fell out my chair because “whyyyyyyyy would people even–they’re like six–Suibhne is a good character. No one’s molesting anybody else!!!” *flails* Yeah, I’m super eloquent in real life. Not. But molestation is something that the modern reader would be wondering about and I have to make it super clear that it didn’t happen.

One aspect this might be a particular concern for is violence. The past was very, very violent. But that meant people were used to it. It was normal. Us moderns, no. We are not used to seeing multiple people’s skin decomposing with leprosy on our way to Tesco. Jack the Ripper is not chopping up bodies and leaving inconvenient blood puddles in the street. Factories on fire are not fun events to go watch on a Friday evening. We have much higher standards of safety than past peoples. They expected violence more; their lives were more constantly in danger. Certainly violent events left impressions, but having two Romans view two men kill each other is a fun gladiator game for them. So tread carefully on what a character views as traumatic. If they’re particularly sheltered then there’s that, but average Joe on the street has experienced firsthand more gore than a bad horror film by the time he’s 10. Viewer discretion advised.

On that note, I think I’ve said enough. Feel free to talk about your experiences in historical fiction writing in the comments!

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From → Thesis

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