I thought I might commence a series of posts about the intersection of history and fiction. I realize that some readers like their historical fiction to read like modern people dressed up in period clothes. Language, attitudes, all serve modern sensibilities—the good guys all have present day values, and oftentimes the bad guys have period prejudices. Modern language and attitudes are sprinkled among the pretty (or entertainingly peculiar) historical bits.
Hey, if that’s what somebody wants to write and somebody else likes to read, writer meet audience.
My target is the reader who wants historical fiction to convey the time machine vibe, though I know that few fictions get it all right.
Some readers accept historical inaccuracies because they don’t know any better. When I look back over my lifetime of reading, I recollect assuming veritas in novels which later turned out to be suspicious at best. But I remember the book fondly because the story pulled me in and extended my interest to the time.
When people ask, “Why are there so many books set in Shakespeare’s era? Why not, say, in Lithuania of the 1350s?” well, first I’d think that some writer could carry off a novel about the spread of the plague but I’m probably not going to read it, second, there might be a truly great novel but it hasn’t been translated into English so I’m unaware of it, which leads to third, popular periods for fictions usually have either a charismatic set of people behind them—or popular fiction. And who has more endurance for English-speaking readers than Shakespeare?
I’m surely not the only person who has been inspired to learn more because I loved some novel or play set in that time and place.
When I travel, I love to visit period houses, and envision life there. I like to look out windows and try to see what people once saw. Writers can’t be truly authentic without a time machine (and there is also the accessibility factor, like, a novel successfully written in Chaucerian English might be hailed as brilliant and daring, but the audience is probably going to be small) but I appreciate something that shifts my imagination to a historical (or fantastical) setting.
The art comes in when writers blend modern accessibility with historical fact. This is dramatically illustrated in the Chaucerian novel example, but it can work not only for historical novels, but for fantasy and science fiction. Writers who most successfully evoke another time and place begin with the deceptively simple things, the fundamentals, such as how people view time.
For example, some readers can’t settle into a novel in a pre-industrial setting that measures time in seconds. “A few seconds later, they ran . . .” “They agreed to meet an hour later . . .” The visual reader is poked out of the story, wondering if these characters in their homespun and leathers all have watches? How does this world keep time? Is urban time-keeping the same as rural, which historically functioned according to season and to sun’s travel?
Farmers didn’t need clocks, because their crops and animals didn’t need clocks. In cities, time keeping used to be a public issue, everyone in earshot of bells. And later, huge clock faces oriented the city dweller.
This program does a lovely job of giving modern people a glimpse into the history of time keeping. And here’s another article that, in exploring the subject of walking, raises a lot of questions not only about how Romans regarded walking, but how difficult it can be to pin down period attitudes even when we specifically go investigating.