Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Historical Urban Myths by Deborah Swift

As a writer of historical fiction I am fascinated by the stories we inherit about history. Quite a few of these are 'urban myths' - stories that travel orally usually via bars or other social meeting grounds. I recently came across an entertaining one which apparently went viral across the internet in the 1980's. 

image of Titanic from www.bbc.co.uk
A Russian destroyer was on manoeuvres near Iceland when the captain spotted a strange dark shape on an iceberg floating some distance away. They went in closer for a better look and saw it was a woman, dressed in a long black dress and lying on her back. She was encased in a thin layer of ice.

A party of men including a physician went to investigate and spent almost an hour freeing her from the ice. However her outdated clothes showed she had perhaps been frozen for fifty years or more. In the pockets of the woman's coat were found a brooch, a purse with old english money, and a number of documents including one that said she was a passenger on the Titanic which had sunk off Newfoundland in 1912.

Upon being 'defrosted' the woman apparently opened her eyes, but attempts to resuscitate her failed.

Allegedly this event was hushed up and did not get the media attention it deserved because the Russian vessel should not have been in those waters and was acting illegally.
Hearses lined up on Halifax wharf ready to take R.M.S. Titanic victims 
So how do I know it's a myth? Because of its unlikely nature. It is just too many unlikely coincidences. Yet this story could make a good novel with a little more detail and veracity. As a writer I am always attempting to make unlikely or dramatic events feel real to the reader. 

Most literature consists of unlikely events - too much plot for the average real life - yet good novels feel real. Some of this is to do with manipulating timing, so that unlikely events are spread well apart in the novel, some of it is because what could have been 'coincidences' are given good background reasons. For example it is a wild coincidence if the detective accidentally finds himself in the same hotel in a strange town as the killer, but not a coincidence if he has spent a whole book following him there. 

More detail, such as that found in old photographs like the one above of hearses waiting to carry recovered bodies away, helps to anchor the story in reality. Photo credit Of course (unsurprisingly) there is no photo of the woman found on the iceberg in the 1980's, but as a novelist I could use detail from old photographs such as this to help the reader imagine the scene.

Unlikely events feel more real if the characters act like human beings and acknowledge the strangeness and try to find a more plausible explanation.

But I think urban myths are fascinating and would love to hear your historical urban myths. (Bones of Richard III found in a city car park does not count!)

My two books are out now, click on the covers to read more about them.


  1. Wonderful post--you're right, I would love to encounter your urban myth in a novel!

    The one that springs to my mind isn't all that exciting but a myth nonetheless--people, including some historians, have been claiming for a long time that the word posh derived from Port-Out-Starboard-Home, meaning posh people could afford to be on the side of the ship away from the heat of the ship as they journeyed to India and then back to England. Here's a good explanation as to why this just isn't so. http://www.merriam-webster.com/help/faq/posh.htm

    1. Make that the "heat of the sun" not the "ship" - slip of the keyboard. :)

  2. i loved that post i thought it was wonderfully written

  3. Hi, that's an interesting explanation Jane. Thanks for the compliments Erica and EM.


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