by Michael Vorhis
Although I haven't written anything specifically set in old English history, I've read plenty and I enjoy writing works that weave into themselves historical realities of other cultures and times. For example, my own mystery-suspense thriller ARCHANGEL has to reconcile the realities of rural life a third of a century ago, Native American culture, Asian martial ethic, Catholic Church policies and practices, and accurately interpreted biblical fables, all into a tale that must ring true. It's not easy because many of the elements of our lives today can be so easily thought of as "staples" of daily living, even though a few short years ago that may not have been the case.
The obvious snares are things like electronics and modes of transport, of course, and we're on the lookout for those as we put a story together. You can hardly have the renegade Geronimo pause to answer his Android phone. But what of the little things? How far back in time can a character kick a tire? I don't believe that kicking them as a symbolic means of assessing value goes back quite as far as tires themselves.
I remember living in Italy back in the late '80s for a little over a year; it never occurred to me until I went to the grocery store to hunt for it that having a quick snack of a peanut butter sandwich wasn't really going to be possible. And no one at that time in that entire small city had ever heard of anything like a laundromat. These were elements of American life so common it never occurred to me they were not universal.
Same with writing stories set in English history. Errors abound in the literary world, especially if you include screenplays. The Robin Hood film starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett a few years back had them all planting corn through the night by tossing the precious seed kernels out like grass is sown. But there are major problems with that: First, it's an excellent way to feed whole flocks of birds and scores of rodents, and to lose virtually all your seed, and more importantly, the English back then didn't have corn to begin with. Corn, or "maise," is a New World species of plant. It wasn't fed to horses or eaten by people in Europe until well after America was discovered. Robin of Locksley planting corn is about as believable as King Arthur riding a kangaroo into battle.
Same with tomatoes and pumpkins: New World species. The next time you read a book or see a film depicting these vegetables in Ye Olde Englishe village farmer's market, you know you're in the hands of a writer who didn't do his or her homework.
Equestrian tack is another commonly overlooked area, and we'll often see modern bridle bits and saddle designs on Roman or Persian or Egyptian army steeds. Same with clothing--we don't even think of lacing on discrete items like leggings nowadays, but such articles were worn for purpose at one time.
What about other small things we tend to take for granted? Hardware forever evolves with materials science, and because of that provides us ample opportunity to make story-telling mistakes. Can your character hang a cherished portrait on a nail before nails were in use? Can an iron hinge creak when most hinges were still leather? Can that wisp of hair cling to a fence's barbed wire before wire was ever barbed? When did screwdrivers hit the human scene? Or zippers, or pocket watches, or panes of glass, or soup ladles, or even round buttons? And what of those tiny setting spars that bind a stone to an heirloom ring?
We'll never catch them all, but the trick is to catch enough that not one of our readers catches any. Some readers are astute, even peculiar--there was a famous review recently wherein an author's book was rubbished simply because he'd described the instrument panel of the Air Force version of a fighter jet, when the story had the plane belonging to the Naval Air Corps. Same plane, mind you, just a different gauge layout. The reviewer was clearly doing his dirty rating deed just so he could show off that he knew something no one else knew...but although that was plain to anyone who read the review, he still dragged the rating average well below what it probably deserved.
In the reader's mind, to be published is to be an authority. And they hold us to that rigid standard. There's a status associated with being a published author, but we have to earn it by wearing that authoritative mantle well.
One of the most difficult areas to excel in is language itself--especially dialog. We must write dialog so that modern readers will understand the nuance. But words themselves evolve. Sure, we avoid obvious colloquialisms such as "to the max" and "you bet your a(r)se," but what of phrases like "no doubt about it" or "swift kick" or "who would have thought" or "now or never" or "best in class" or "Tally Ho"? Personally I'd be leery of such wording, unless I saw it used in literature actually written at the time. I know that reading Dickens lends a completely different feel to the pace and tempo of English, as compared to what we hear today.
Note that the following example isn't related to English Period literature per se, but in my own debut novel I needed a huge mining truck, and my characters wrote it in (well, most people would say I wrote it in, although I know better), and then afterward I went off to figure out exactly what it was called--brand, model number, nickname--only to discover that it didn't generally exist in 1976. I researched for days, finally coming up with something that I think was called "the Titan," which was huge and would suit my purposes perfectly, and with triumphant excitement I proceeded to write that specific truck in...and then thankfully took one more look. Wouldn't you know it? Despite the plethora of photos and lore surrounding it, there was only one Titan ever built, and it never left its home mine somewhere in Canada! I had to settle for the next biggest thing, and go back and redesign the entire town so that the dimensions of that smaller breed of truck--the one that was generally in use at the time--would work right for that particular street when the critical scene came. It just illustrates the need to be sure of every little thing, even though we may think we have it nailed.
Debra Brown revives life in Olde Englande (and I guess I should have checked that seemingly historical spelling first, to make certain it's authentic!) with characters I like, plot line that has enough complexity for my tastes, and language skill. Her writing feels true to the period, to me anyway. (And I love the way her next novel, "For The Skylark," begins.)
Writing any period piece requires the same kind of diligence, almost regardless of the period. If it's very recent (such as the 1980's) we can take most details from memory and need only worry about specifics such as sports figure names, political events, car models, and other highly transitory elements. Likewise, if we go back in time far enough (stone age Druids, or whatever), we can rely on the fact that there's not much other literature to contradict us, and we can hope there may be fewer experts to offend. And writing about English culture at least allows us to consume a lot of other material (which might be difficult if we were writing about a period in Yugoslavian history, or anywhere the mother tongue is not our forte).
And then there is an antithetical point of view to the whole "research every little thing" mantra. And it's a very valid one. It's a school of thought that says a writer should research, yes, but don't forget to get on with the story. Don't get so hung up on authenticity that the book is never finished or the flavor is lost.
This wise premise involves the recognition that for fiction, the author-reader relationship is a partner arrangement--a consensual marriage, if you will. The author's job is to do a skilled job of crafting reality and packaging it in falsehood; the reader's job is to WANT to believe it. Unless that second role is played properly, no fiction can deliver anything worthwhile to the reader's mind or heart. Readers incapable of holding up their end of the partnership, of WANTING to overlook little things (like a Naval Air Corps jet with an Air Force instrument panel) so that they can absorb the heart of the tale, are cheated. By themselves.
I do love English culture--the intrepid, discovering nature of the Brits, the tension between Normans and Saxons, the ubiquitous capacity for cataclysmic, history-changing turbulence, the highly defined concept of Honor--and I actually promote their moral strength ethics in my own works, and seek to endow my own heroes--even the comic ones--with those traits. My debut novel ARCHANGEL is set not in England but in western USA, and I know that's because I love the Great American West so much and wanted to begin my own literature legacy there (where, like in England, Honor and moral strength were called upon to shape history)...but that's not to say I won't produce an epic tale of the English at some point. The English are enigmatic, enduring and heroic to a fault, and so as a people they collectively make a wonderful character for spellbinding literature.
Author of ARCHANGEL (mystery-suspense thriller)
Free Flight Publishing
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