Friday, March 23, 2012

Writing Period Pieces is Very Hard Work

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.

Michael Vorhis
Author of ARCHANGEL (mystery-suspense thriller)
Free Flight Publishing
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  1. Great hubby and i love to look for these little errors in film and i have run across them in novels as well.

    1. Thanks for the reply! Myself, in a way I kinda DON'T like to find these little booboos. When I do, it's a small distraction, and I do my best to ignore, as I prefer to feel what the author wants me to feel.

      But I know so many readers won't get past little errors, so part of my job as an author is to avoid them whenever I can, and even to avoid the perception of an error when I know I'm right. My blog post was thus more from the point of view of what we authors must do to guide our literary ship clear of shoals.

      I love to dwell on what a book does really well, and I love readers who do the same. In the final analysis we authors ae trying to reach other people with our voice, and to accomplish something larger than ourselves.

      Of course, some errors are comical and are fun to remember. I saw a fairytale children's movie a couple of weeks ago with my 7-year-old daughter. The actress was trying to be verrrrrry dramatic. With over-sharp pronunciation she likened someone to hiding in the shadows waiting to pounce, "just like a spyter!" I'm still wondering if I've ever come across a "spyter" in my lifetime. :)

      - Mike

  2. I don't remember that scene in the Robin Hood movie, and take your points except for one thing... a big BUT
    ...'the English back then didn't have corn to begin with'

    I'm afraid they did, and still do. 'Corn' is British English for the main cereal crop - usually wheat. I hear it used often and naturally to refer to wheat. A corn field is a wheat field, and would be used in preference to wheat field. As far as I know it is very ancient usage. In America it has been changed to refer to maize only.

    I totally respect your article, but thought you might value this being pointed out.

    1. Yes, I do value your point Doug, and will check into it. Thanks for the comment. FYI I responded to both you and Richard Denning in one longer comment at the end of one of Richard's comments.

      - Mike

    2. Mike you were right to begin with. Corn is American in origin.

  3. Good article - these little details are so easy to get wrong. Indeed when editing by books is going on my editor and I are often checking and counter checking these kind of things. It is important to get language right, the wrong use of slang for example can stand out badly in historical work.

    That said the corn example raises another point. Critics and reviewers should check their own facts before criticizing an author's use of language and detail. I know several reviews of fellow authors and my own that harped on about getting these details wrong when actually the author was correct. Sometimes this comes down to whether the author is English and the reader American for example.

    1. BY which I mean differences in culture and use of English. We are all aware of so many words use differently in England and America: Dirt/soil , trunk/boot, Football/soccer, to name a few. Given the differences TODAY one can see how easy a few hundred years can exaggerate different language use.

      So in early Saxon Times for example the British are NOT English - they are the Welsh (Romano-British) natives that the English (Saxons) are invading. That threw a few American (and quite a few British readers) of my Anglo-Saxon books.

  4. Great comments on the use of the word "corn" (which come to think of it might well be etymologically related to the word "kernel"...and that in turn could explain how it could have been used to mean various different grains throughout history). The comments on the use of the word in fact help make the point, because even I, who know the point in time when the various species came on the scene, am now confused by the word itself. Guess I'll have to watch the film again to see whether the grain depicted was wheat or maise. And either way it's entirely possible the author got it right, whether or not the filmmakers did. Plenty of opportunities to run afoul of audience reaction.

    Myself, I'd probably have avoided the word "corn" so as not to foster unnecessary doubt, but that's a personal choice. We've all struggled with words that are technically correct but that could be misconstrued, and my own solution is usually to change the structure of the sentence so as to avoid the risk entirely.'s true enough that the species itself is New World, and it seems it's also true the word derives from earlier. (I should have guessed; how many completely different species of fish have been called "perch" or "bass" around the world down through the centuries, each completely unrelated to the others?) It's our job to avoid confusions whether we're right or wrong...or to write so as to educate where we know our public will misinterpret.

    When I traveled the far reaches of Australia and New Zealand I came to realize just how evolutionary our so-called modern terminology is. Some regions refer to a "range" as a line of mountain ridges, while others use the word in terms of open pasture land...depending on the survival focus of the place and time. One of the most common examples is the meaning of the word "frontier," which implies a political boundary in Europe and pristine wilderness in the New World.

    Thanks for the education guys; Richard, this comment of yours rings particularly true:

    "Critics and reviewers should check their own facts before criticizing an author's use of language and detail. I know several reviews of fellow authors and my own that harped on about getting these details wrong when actually the author was correct."

    Myself, I don't hold out much hope for the public researching their fact complaints before making comment, as I feel part of the author's job is to predict and reconcile the problem areas in advance, and so head off any issues. But I do hold tightly to the principle that a reader has to want to appreciate and enjoy. I used the grain example because it came to mind, but even the depiction of huge ears of corn in Robin Hood's hands wouldn't have stopped me from thoroughly enjoying the story and dwelling entirely on what was done right about it. After all, as this discussion illustrates, the error could be in the beholder's eye. I've seen reviewers condemn a work because they lacked the vocabulary to appreciate it. Monstrously arrogant, but it happens with disturbing regularity.

    Again, I'll go back and take another look at that film (and if it's wrong it may well be the prop coordinator's fault rather than the author's). Just don't tell me the word "kangaroo" was used long ago to signify a war steed....

    - Michael Vorhis

  5. I have mentally compared writing in another time and place to walking a minefield. (And I do apologize to any who have to live with that real terror- I know that is a much more dreadful problem.) But writing historical fiction from a different land is fraught with difficulty. I grew up in Minnesota, learning about Lewis and Clark, lumberjacks like "Paul Bunyan" and Pocahantas. Now I am writing about dukes and English villages. It is a huge amount of work to learn the facts before putting the book out before an... ulp... English readership. The thing that makes it seem like a minefield to me is that: you don't know that the difference is there! You don't think to research something because nothing has tipped you off that there is something to look up. It can be something seemingly insignificant, such as mentioning an envelope before they existed (but for which you seem to deserve a round of "this writer does not do her research") or something major that your entire story hinges upon. In my case, I thought that aristocratic hereditary laws were the same in England as they were in much of the Continent and even in the English royalty. But no. And I am grateful to have learned that by accident as I read the many fabulous comments and blog posts that fellow authors and readers mention on FB and Twitter. But I am more than grateful to any who wish to point my errors out directly. It means I will not make them again.

    Michael, in your lower level comments here, you have made me realize something that will help in my current efforts. I have been dealing with the fact that American readers might criticize my comment that a person went up a flight of stairs to the first floor. They might review the book, saying that I was obviously drunk when writing and editing the book. But instead, as you mention, I should write it in a way that does not confuse anyone with the facts. Thanks for your great post and to all for the follow-up comments.

    1. Deb, your analogy to minefields is perfect. And whether I'm on enemy land or my own turf hardly matters, if I step in the wrong place.

      They say we should avoid pitfalls by writing about what we know, but that doesn't stop disagreements from the readership, and we too deserve a chance to stretch beyond our original upbringing into our fascinations, as you (and Fitzgerald and Hemingway and King and Asimov) have done.

      I'm going to think in terms of tiptoeing (or "tippin' toe" as my daughter called it when she was four) through a field of high explosives from now on.

      - Mike

  6. corn (1) Look up corn at
    "grain," O.E. corn, from P.Gmc. *kurnam "small seed" (cf. O.Fris., O.S. korn "grain," M.Du. coren, Ger. Korn, O.N. korn, Goth. kaurn), from PIE root *gre-no- "grain" (cf. O.C.S. zruno "grain," L. granum "seed," Lith. Žirnis "pea"). The sense of the O.E. word was "grain with the seed still in" (e.g. barleycorn) rather than a particular plant. Locally understood to denote the leading crop of a district. Restricted to corn on the cob in America (c.1600, originally Indian corn, but the adjective was dropped), usually wheat in England, oats in Scotland and Ireland, while korn means "rye" in parts of Germany. Maize was introduced to China by 1550, it thrived where rice did not grow well and was a significant factor in the 18th century population boom there. Cornflakes first recorded 1907. Corned beef so called for the "corns" or grains of salt with which it is preserved; from verb corn "to salt" (1560s)

    From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

    1. The line "locally understood to denote the leading crop of a district" says it all! Looks like the guess as to the relation to the word "kernel" was also on the mark. Thanks Deb, for corroborating Doug and clearing this up!

      - Mike

  7. I appreciate the spirit of your article and am a firm believer that when reading fiction there is a point at which one must not treat it like non-fiction. There should be enough authenticity not to bring the reader out of their absorption in the story with out bogging the plot down in detail.

    @Debbie- what helped me, as an American not think an author was crazy when they referred to the First floors as up was that they also referred to the Ground floor in the same sentence. I learned a great deal by reading certain authors who have a knack for explaining without getting tedious with it.

    Michael, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    1. Sophia, what an insight you offer; you go to the very heart of the thing:

      "...must not treat it like non-fiction...enough authenticity not to bring the reader out of their absorption in the story with out bogging the plot down in detail."

      "...explaining without getting tedious...."

      I think you're saying that details are there to support the main thing, but the main thing is still the story.

      For great things to happen, both author and reader have to go into this partnership honestly, open-mindedly, willing and wanting to make it work. We feel plagued every isolated time it falls short, but I think if we get there nine out of ten times or so, we're doing well and great author-reader connections are made.

      Thanks for the elegant food for thought!

      - Mike


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