Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Keeping it Real

by Rob Godfrey

You may not know it but I am a bit of a vegetable growing geek. I've spent years attempting to grow all sorts of stuff in the rather quaint hope of one-day feeding myself entirely from my own efforts. Never mind that I don't live on a smallholding or the fact that there's a very convenient supermarket less than 400 yards from the house constantly tempting me to eat all manner of processed food from all over the planet.

My curiosity of where these foods come from has lead me to get hold of and read some unusual books. For example, there's Tim Ecott's Vanilla, The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan or The Potato by Larry Zuckerman. If it can be eaten I've probably got a book about it. A lot of these books have a strong social history aspect to them that gives you some interesting insights into our past.

This growing obsession isn't restricted to my back garden though. Whenever we go on walks I'm always on the lookout for things to eat from the hedgerow. I can now spot a wild Sloe tree at over 100 yards and even recognise such exotic things as Chicken in the Wood (an edible wild fungus) growing out the side of an oak tree. There's plenty of different wild things to eat near where I live, it is just unfortunate that there's not enough of them to sustain me for more than a couple of meals once or twice a year.

What's this got to do with writing fiction? Well as every gardener/forager knows, everything has its season. For example, Blackthorn shrubs are literally smothered in perfect white blossom in early spring; to be followed in the Autumn with the near black and exceedingly tart Sloe berries (but an essential and very important constituent of Sloe gin). If the plum tree is heavily laden with its delicious fruit then you can be sure its September; Freshly picked strawberries mean its early summer. Are you following?

So when setting a scene or mood for a story you can include all sorts of clues as to the time of year other than the weather. I often use these sorts of clues myself when writing to give a sense of a time and a place. If its early spring the trees are still bare but there maybe daffodills, celandine, snowdrops and even bluebells in hte hedgerows and woods. Later in the spring there will be all kinds of fruit tree blossom and then in early summer masses of wild flowers in meadows. With a little knowledge you can tell what time of year it is , almost to the month, at a glance at what's flowering or fruiting. This works the other way too. If someone is writing about July you could expect to have roses in bloom, raspberries and strawberries to pick in the garden, etc.

This is all good fun until someone breaks the rules. Then it hurts. I recall watching Warhorse. A piece of drama partly set in France in WW1. But the thing I remember is a scene in a cottage; in the shot is a bowl of fruit. What's in the bowl? Strawberries, grapes and apples. Oh dear, is it early summer or autumn? There weren't supermarkets with refrigeration in France in 1916, were there? Perhaps I need a book on the history of refrigeration? But then it gets worse, the camera pans outside and the apple trees are covered in blossom as the birds tweet away in the background. Now I'm really confused. I learned this much at school: Fruit follows flowers, or it used to. Apples flower in the spring and then fruit in the autumn. Perhaps the French developed a fruit tree that produces flowers and fruit simultaneously? Something is not right and its bothering me.

What time of year did you say it was?

Ok so maybe I'm being a little pedantic (I'm just saying that, but I don't mean it). But if you are going to evoke a time and a place, please make sure it's consistent. Luckily we have the internet and you can find out about almost anything if you put your mind to it. Here's an example: A feature of my Year of the Celt books is a small diagram at the start of each chapter. This indicates the time of year and the phases of the moon:

Moon phases 499-498BC

I imagine that the moon was an important part of people's lives in the past, not least because it was a useful source of illumination at night; with a little knowledge it could also help people predict high and low tides on the coast. Of course it has many romantic connotations too. So off I went searching on the internet. Luckily I located a NASA website that actually has tables of moon phases going back 6000 years! So here was a really useful find. I have set my story in the year 499BC. It begins just after the Samhain festival that traditionally was held at the end of autumn/beginning of winter. To us that's October the 31st. The NASA website tells me there was a full moon on October 28th 499BC. So when my young lovers end up outside at night in the snow a few nights after Samhain, I can safely say there was a full moon in the sky.

But how far do you take this? There's one thing you can't do, and that is ignore all the details, you could seriously undermine the credibility of your writing. I admit that I've probably gone a bit overboard here, but if I spot a television aerial on top of a chimney pot when I'm supposed to be watching a Jane Austen drama it just makes me think the producers have been sloppy.

How can you be sure you don't make these mistakes? Firstly, if you are not sure that something should be included in your story because it's in the wrong location (continent?), it's the wrong time of year or it's not been invented yet, then don't include it unless you can find some supporting evidence for it. It might be easier to check things out in advance:

Not Now Dear!

Bear in mind that most growing things look different through the seasons. A lot of native trees lose their leaves in the winter and of course this is often used in describing a backdrop (barren, gaunt branches, creaking under a fierce winter storm, etc). But remember that in the past the British Isles supported a different and much smaller set of trees than it does today. Horse & Sweet Chestnuts for example did not arrive until the Romans brought them.

Here are some trees that are only recent introductions: European Larch, Horse Chestnut, Sweet Chestnut, Walnut, Sycamore, Cedars, Cypress, London Plane, Douglas Fir, to name just a few. Even desert Apples and Pears are Roman introductions and not widely available until past the 13th century. Many flowers and flowering shrubs are introductions from the Americas and beyond; so beware of scenes with Tudor royalty resting on a summer's day against a backdrop of Bougainvillea and Magnolia, they had been dead for nearly 200 years before the shrubs were first planted in Britain.

The ghost of Henry VIII in the park.

Food glorious food.

I mentioned in a previous article the likely diet of Iron Age Britons. Of course not everything was available in any one place and in particular in any one season. You could be forgiven for thinking that fruit and vegetables are available all year round. All you have to do is go down to your local supermarket and you can get fresh strawberries, aubergines, chilies, etc any time you like.

However we can do this because have two major advantages over our ancestors. The first is refrigeration, so we can keep produce cool or frozen and so extend its travel and storage life.

The second is because we have access to food from all over the world because of the availability of reliable and cheap bulk transport; so much so that we take for granted many foods that people as recently as the 1500s would never have heard of. The discovery of the Americas eventually made available to us the potato of course, but also sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers (sweet and chili), Cashew and Brazil nuts. Turkeys were first brought to England in 1526 when an enterprising young trader called William Strickland imported six wild turkeys into Bristol.

Male wild Turkey.

So look out for a medieval knight feasting on a pile of potatoes and one of these big birds - spot the Turkey now?

Talking of refrigeration, it is of course a method of preserving food. However, go back just a century and you find that both the fridge and freezer have disappeared. Head back a little further in time and the tin-can has vanished too. Not only that but bottles and pottery become relatively more expensive and only available to the rich. You would soon find yourself (unless you were seriously rich) essentially limited to smoking, salting or and/or drying your food to store it. Even beer did not start to be bottled commercially until the second half of the 17th century.

What about bread? In the middle ages food was served on squares of older stale bread (trenchers). When the meal was finished the bread could be eaten (having absorbed the flavours of the meal) or perhaps thrown to the dogs in richer households. What were people using to eat their food with? Knives have been used for many thousands of years to kill or harvest food and then carve it up prior to cooking and eating. Spoons have a similar long history of use. The fork however is a much later introduction and it was not in widespread use until the 18th century. Don't forget that for the vast majority of people a knife and hand would have to suffice. The rich as always might well be using ornate cutlery when tucking into their banquet; all the while their fellow peasants would have to make do with the bare minimum.

All at sea

There are many fine stories of epic sea voyages on sailing ships or of great sea battles. However, here is another area where it's easy to get your facts wrong. Sailing ships have been used for thousands of years of course. However, the technology available for navigation has only developed slowly. Did you know that the magnetic compass was not widely available in Europe until the 14th century; it was another century before reliable charts became available. These early charts lacked any grid for longitude and latitude as these measurements were not widely available.

Fra Mauro map c1450. Note no longitude or latitude markings.

The astrolabe dates back to ancient Greece, when it was used by astronomers to help tell time, but was first used by mariners in the late 15th century. It was used to measure the altitude of the Sun and stars to determine latitude.

Astrolabe made in Paris 1400AD.

Even the telescope was not available until the 17th century. More sophisticated aids like the sextant arrived in the 18th century when around 1730, an English mathematician, John Hadley, and an American inventor, Thomas Godfrey, independently invented the sextant. The sextant provided mariners with a more accurate means of determining the angle between the horizon and the Sun, moon, or stars in order to calculate latitude.

Early Sextant.

Latitude then, could be found relatively accurately using celestial navigation. However, longitude could only be estimated, at best. This was because the measurement of longitude is made by comparing the time-of-day difference between the mariner's starting location and new location. Even some of the best clocks of the early eighteenth century could lose as much as 10 minutes per day, which translated into a computational error of 242 kilometers (150 miles) or more.

Finally in 1764, British clockmaker John Harrison (1693–1776) invented the seagoing chronometer. This invention was the most important advance to marine navigation in the three millenia that open-ocean mariners had been going to sea. In 1779, British naval officer and explorer Captain James Cook (1728–1779) used Harrison's chronometer to circumnavigate the globe.

So if you are thinking of writing a swashbuckling tale of the adventures of Christopher Columbus, please don't have him peer through his telescope across some unknown sea, you know I'll only get upset.


Rob Godfrey’s website

Author of the Historical Fiction set in the year 500BC: Year of the Celt: Imbolc
Amazon US
Amazon UK


  1. Thanks for this fascinating post! I didn't realise turkeys were available in Europe as early as 1526. But yes, you do have to be careful. Isn't the Internet wonderful for looking up stuff? Think how hard it was for Tolkien to look up phases of the moon and such(and he did). He knew perfectly well there wouldn't have been potatoes or tobacco in the early Europe-equivalent of Middle Earth, but that didn't stop him from having Sam Gamgee talk about fish and chips. He mostly called tobacco pipeweed to get around that problem, though there was the occasional reference to a tobacco jar. Really, film makers do need to be careful. There is nothing wrong with setting up a scene in the season you want because you have to film when you can, but they should have known better with the fruit bowl. There are glitches now and then, too. I remember a scene in the TV series Robin of Sherwood where Will Scarlett, climbing a cliff, displays red underwear! In another episode, two twelfth century Arab Assassins fight in Sherwood with katanas - very silly! The underwear was an accident, but katanas in mediaeval Europe?

  2. The apples in the fruit bowl, though, could have been from the previous autumn. Apples winter well if stored properly. The weather provided the refrigeration.

  3. Its true that some apple varieties store longer than others but in northern France/Belgium in the early 20th century the chances of them lasting until the first strawberries are ready in June are slight.

  4. Too true--enjoyed this piece immensely. Thanks much!


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