When I first started writing science fiction, my workshop buddies and I talked a lot about aliens and whether it was possible to write from a truly convincing alien mindset. In the years since then I’ve come to the realization that I don’t have to write from the viewpoint of dolphins or martians or vampires in order to create someone who doesn’t think like me. I just have to write someone from a time other than now.
What was the world like when you were a kid? I grew up in the tail end of the 50s and the 60s, when the imminence of nuclear war was a toxic, ever-present fear, when girls went to college to get their MRS. degree, and equal civil rights for persons of color, or for gays and lesbians, were pipe dreams.* And that’s only half a century ago. Things have changed; things are always different from the way they were. And there’s the joy and the challenge of writing historical fiction.
Which brings me to Sold for Endless Rue.
Rue is unlike anything I’d written before: it’s a retelling of the Rapunzel story, set at the medical school in Salerno, Italy, in the early 1200s. I did not start out knowing much about medieval Italy, and most of what I knew–the “everybody knows” stuff–was wrong. So I set out on a serious course of study, until I could tell you a whole lot about medieval medicine, university education, and the politics and warfare of 13th century Italy, about Salerno and about medieval family structure. I learned a lot about the practice of religion at the time, about saints and feast days. I have files and files of information. But all that is just the skeleton of the story; I still needed the flesh: characters who could carry the story. To understand them I needed to understand, for want of a better word, faith. Because faith suffused life in medieval life in a way that–well, it certainly never has in my life. I needed to remind myself, with every word a character spoke, that belief in God and (for the majority of the characters in the book) in Christianity was not an intellectual thing, but a matter of bedrock certainty. I had a little cyber-sticky on my desktop while I was writing Rue that said: God is, to remind myself of this very alien mindset.
In writing Rue I wanted to be very careful not to condescend to the people of that time or sneer at their quaint ideas, in the same way that I didn’t want to give my medical personnel unusually advanced notions of germ theory or antiseptic procedure. Writing human characters from another time is both easier than writing aliens (I don’t have to worry about how my alien scientist feels about his prehensile tail) and more difficult (it’s so easy to fall into thinking that because I, as a human, feel one way, my character, as a human, must feel the same way). The Olden Days are not just like now but with fancier clothes, and it would do the characters in the book a disservice to treat them that way.
Now I’m wondering if the next time I try to write an alien, I’ll treat it as if it were an historical character. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
* In the same weekend I saw Ginger and Rosa, a film set in London during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when everyone thinks the world may be on the edge of annihilation, and “Twenty Four Hours in Tyrantland,” a Very Special Episode of Father Knows Best which…well, go watch it. To watch either or both of these is to be reminded of how very different the mindset of the past, even a half-century-ago past, is from today.