An on-going exchange about writing historical novels intersected with my reading of an ARC which the research into houses and weapons and clothing is impeccable . . . but everyone in early 1900s Great Britain sounds American. Occasionally modern American.
I was talking this over with a couple friends with whom I share some historical favorites. One had already decided to avoid the author based on previous work, claiming a ‘tin ear for period,’ to which the other claimed that period verisimilitude doesn’t matter—unlikely any American reader would even notice, and that might even go for British readers who only read work published in their lifetimes, and it wasn’t any different, really, from YA novels in which the teenagers sound like they’re fifty years old. You accept the limitations up front, for the sake of the story.
“In that case, the story should have been set in 2016 Denver, or wherever the writer lives,” the first person argued back. “If the writer can’t give me a setting and characters I can believe in, then I can’t believe in the story.”
One is willing to immerse, the other can’t.
This is a topic I’ve explored before because I like both period writing and historical novels that immerse me into a different time and place, but when asked how to define my own immersion point, I can’t, really. It’s easier to talk about my reaction.
Person B is the type who prefers historical fiction to read like modern people dressed up in period clothes. The good guys sport present day values, the bad guys express period prejudices. Everybody says “Okay,” and use current expressions like “I’m bored of that,” and “You’re not the boss of me,” mixed with familiar old-fashioned expressions like “bloody” and “blighty”—both sexes using them in every social situation, along with first names.
If that’s what somebody wants to write and somebody else likes to read, writer meet audience. As another person put it in a later discussion, “These kinds of books seem to be less of a shift to another paradigm and more like being at a costume ball in story form—which is equally entertaining.”
The important phrase being equally entertaining.
To which the original complainer responded, “I ask again, why not just set it today, in present day London, or Los Angeles, if everyone is going to think and talk like us?”
“Well, you don’t get the great clothes,” someone said, delivering a Parthian shot before dropping out of the discussion—and the discussion continued between a few of us by e-mail after we all left the con where it started.
Defining Immersion, or How Willing is your Suspension of Belief?
In another forum, a while back, I asked participants to define their immersion parameters for historical fiction (the context was world-building, so could be extended to what immersed them in SF and F). Not surprisingly I got a range of answers, sometimes overlapping, but never repeating the same points. A useful definition seemed impossible, though we could all point to examples that had immersed us as individuals.
One reader praised a book for its realistic portrayal of the time, but then someone cited that same book for being difficult to get into because of all the custom howlers, inaccuracies in setting and language. The first speaker was a little put out, admitting that they hadn’t read much Middle Eastern history during the Caliphate period.
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 that later turned out to be rife with error, some of them deliberately chosen to fit the story, others because of the lack of availability of period sources when the work was first written. Like Annemarie Selinko’s Desiree, which I discovered and fell in love with before I turned fourteen.
But discovering those errors isn’t a guaranteed touch of rust by the Suck Fairy; I might still remember Desiree fondly because the story pulled me in and extended my interest to the time, so immersing in it on subsequent reads is like visiting an alternate universe, my negotiation with belief-suspension happening beforehand because I knew and liked the story and characters when I was a kid.
Another thing we talked about was how certain time periods and places seem to draw more writers. For a while, everyone seemed to want to write about Christopher Marlowe or John Dee, while overlooking a pantheon of truly colorful figures on the continent. But a lot of the best sources on these are not written in English.
When people ask, “Why are there so many books about London in 1600? Why not, say, in Prague of the 1350s?” My first response is, maybe 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 very well be some great works about late medieval Prague out there, but they haven’t been translated into English.
The Shakespearean era is popular for English speaking writers because Shakespeare is still popular (including the fictions about Shakespeare’s work being written by someone else), and Christopher Marlowe has been irresistible to a lot of writers for being gay, doomed, and iconoclastic.
Then there is also the accessibility factor, like, a novel successfully written in Anglo-Saxon pastiche might be hailed as brilliant and daring, but the audience is probably going to be small.
I find it easier to talk about the experience of immersion than to define what I require in the text. Immersion feels like I’m taking a trip in a time machine—that is, I am aware of being modern me as I dip into the pages, with my modern language and outlooks, but I want enough of the past’s language and outlook to make me feel like I’m invisibly walking among the people in the past.
I don’t think it’s possible to make me feel like one of those people; when I read a period source, the farther back I go, sometimes the more alien I find customs, outlooks, expectations. There are words difficult to define because they refer to concepts we don’t have anymore, but everyone did at that time. But I also find it thrilling when the past writer and I share reactions and emotions: the alienness is as thrilling as the moments our minds meet.
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, but I can’t reclaim their true experience—what was really out there, the smells, the sounds, how one’s body feels in the clothes of the period, with period food inside it. How one believed the world one saw worked.
I think it’s fascinating to talk about the details that make or break an immersive read. Most of the time, readers seem to agree that writers who most successfully evoke another time and place pay close attention to the simple things—but not everyone agrees on what minor errors will break the immersion.
I recall one reader saying that for them, they’re thrown right out of the story when the narrative voice assumes that people in the past view time the way city dwellers with electricity do. As soon as this reader read “A few seconds later, they ran . . .” the immersion broke. Ditto, “They agreed to meet ten minutes later . . .”–as that reader put it, he was suddenly seeing characters in homespun and leather synchronizing their solar-powered watches.
That sparked a discussion about time keeping in history, and in pre-industrial fantasy. 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 relied on sundials and water clocks and candles for centuries before the gradual turn to the ecclesiastical calendar and its bells. Then finally, huge clock faces oriented the city dweller, before carrying pocket watches became something ordinary folks could afford.
Who laid roads where and how they were maintained—what kinds of foods were grown, and how they were brought in—ship design, the (re)invention of the wheel—the printing press—the mechanical loom all changed life fundamentally; many of us are old enough to remember life before cell phones, GPS, and the internet. So many little aspects of life were very different–and likewise so many of the tools of living we had grown up with, and thought would always be there, vanished.
At the end, about all we agreed on was that novels that explore the furniture of daily life can help immerse the reader as much as bending a story around great events or famous people.