April 26, 2010
Posted by kcotoner under history
As one of the hundreds of thousands whose travel plans were scuppered by Icelandic volcano ash, I thought I’d make this post before making the most of what was left of my holiday (curse you, unpronounceable Icelandic volcano!).
Etna erupting in 2001
Long before the recorded eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull, Krakatoa, Etna, Vesuvius, and sundry other volcanoes that have caused chaos, destruction, and provided fertile soil for really good wine, there was the mother of all historic eruptions on the Cycladic island of Thera (Santorini).
The island of Thera today
Located at the south-east of the Hellenic arc (a less volatile version of the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’) that starts at Kameino Vouno on the Peloponnese, Thera was, until the first part of the Mediterranean Late Bronze Age (beginning c.1600 BCE), an island of roughly circular shape. During the Late Cycladic I (c.1600-1500 BCE) period, Thera had a thriving population with strong cultural and trade links to the Minoan civilisation on Crete, which lies 70-odd miles to the south.
The exact date of the eruption is still contested (see below), but the magnitude of the event is fairly certain. Following a series of earthquakes over a two-year period, the volcano erupted, sending a rain of pumice up to five metres thick to cover the island. This initial explosion was followed by a plume of ash around 30km high when the side of the volcano exploded outwards as seawater mixed with the magma. Rocks were hurled out of the volcano and acted as ‘bombs’, destroying buildings. Surges of ash, pumice, and stone blocks were expelled laterally over the weeks following the first eruption, causing the volcano to collapse in upon itself to leave the distinctive half moon-shaped island we see today.
The eruption triggered a tsunami of an estimated 35-150m height that smashed into northern Crete, variously affecting several of the palace sites. Ash and pumice from the eruption have been found across the Aegean region and into south-western parts of Turkey. Prevailing winds blew the ash cloud to the south-east, though the heaviest ash-fall on land is to be found slightly to the north/north-east of Thera. A large wodge of tephra dating from the eruption has been found outside the Straits of Kythera (the area between the southern Peloponnese and westernmost Crete), dumped there by the currents running through the central Aegean.
On the Volcanic Explosivity Index, the Theran eruption is estimated at a 6-7 (on a scale up to 8). It threw out four times the amount of rock and ash as Krakatoa’s eruption in 1883. In comparison, Eyjafjallajökull’s recent eruption registered at a piffling 4.
The volcanic island Nea Kameni in the Theran caldera erupting in 1950
Specifying the exact date of anything during the Mediterranean Bronze Age is troublesome to say the least, relying in the main on the relative chronology of the Minoan, Helladic (mainland Greece), Cycladic, Cypriot, and Caananite civilisations, all of which overlap to varying degrees (e.g. most of the Late Minoan II-IIIa covers the same chronological phase as Late Cycladic III).
Based on relative chronology, archaeologists suggested a date for the Theran eruption of LMIa/LCI/LHI —around 1500 BCE. This was contested by scientific study of tree-ring dating and radiocarbon analysis. As evidenced by samples taken from North America and across Europe, normal tree growth was stunted in around 1628 BCE due to climactic change, a result of the colder temperatures that usually follow a major volcanic eruption. Carbon dating on wood, seed, and bone samples from the Aegean, including an olive tree buried beneath the lava flow on Thera, point to a date between 1627-1600 BCE with a 95% probability of accuracy.
However, as with almost everything in the field of archaeology, this is not certain and opens up a whole new can of worms as the scientific date contradicts archaeological findings that place several Egyptian artefacts discovered on Thera to a later period. Egyptian chronology is reckoned as being generally sound, though arguments have been made for its dates to be reassigned. If the radiocarbon dating is correct, the chronology for the Mediterranean Bronze Age would need to be reassessed.
The town of Oia, perched high on the caldera cliffs
The Theran eruption obliterated the Bronze Age settlements on the island, including the ‘town’ of Akrotiri, seemingly the centre of Minoan influence within the southern Cyclades. Most inhabitants of Akrotiri (and presumably the rest of the islanders) had fled following a massive earthquake that partially demolished the settlement. There is evidence that some people returned to Akrotiri as squatters (no real effort was made to rebuild the damaged properties), but by the time of the eruption, the majority of the inhabitants had left the island.
The layers of ash and pumice that covered Thera effectively killed off every living thing, turning the island into a barren wasteland. Thera remained uninhabited for almost 300 years.
Across the sea in Crete, the effect of the eruption is another hotly debated point. Originally, prehistorians believed that ash-fall blighted the eastern half of Crete, causing crop failure and starting a migration of the population. However, the actual ash-fall on Crete has since been found to be insignificant. Another theory is that the tsunami was the cause of the destruction of the Minoan sites and palaces on the northern (especially the north-eastern) coast of Crete, many of which suffered extensive fire damage. Stone walls at some sites were moved by the force of the tsunami, but it’s unlikely that the wave caused the wholesale destruction found across Crete—instead, it’s probable that the damage was due to the massive earthquake preceding the eruption.
Regardless of the physical destruction that may or may not have been wreaked by the volcano, the psychological effect must have been far more devastating. Minoan power was waning during the Late Bronze Age, and as the Minoans were a major sea power at that time, it’s likely that many of their ships, naval and mercantile, were destroyed in the aftermath of the eruption. It’s believed that the Theran eruption provided the impetus for the newly emerging Mycenaean civilisation to expand southwards. Certainly by LMII (1450-1400 BCE), the Mycenaeans had conquered the Minoans and held control of Crete.
Of course, one can’t talk about Thera without mentioning Atlantis. For millennia, people have discussed whether or not this island kingdom, mentioned by Plato in his dialogues Timaeus and Critias (written in 360 BC), actually existed. Some of Plato’s successors believed Atlantis was a real place; others thought it was allegorical. The same debate continues today, with many people believing that Atlantis is/was Thera or Crete.
Atlantis is described as an island ‘larger than Libya and Asia’ (Asia being what is today Turkey) amongst other islands, surrounded by an ocean and ruled by a confederation of kings—a description that (apart from the size!) matches the Minoan civilisation. According to Critias, his account of Atlantis originated with the sixth century BC lawgiver Solon, who visited Egypt and heard the tale from a priest. The empire of Atlantis, Critias says, flourished 9000 years ago (i.e. 9600 BCE) before coming to a messy end:
But at a later time there occurred portentous earthquakes and floods, and one grievous day and night befell them, when the whole body of your warriors was swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner was swallowed up by the sea and vanished; also the ocean at that spot has now become impassable and unsearchable, blocked up by the mud which the island created as it settled down.
It is entirely possible that the Theran eruption and the destruction of the Minoan civilisation was preserved as a folk memory and passed down through the centuries until Plato recorded it in this form as the myth of Atlantis.
April 13, 2010
I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently and one thing I’m beginning to notice more and more in the world of gay historicals is that some books are seeming very familiar.
It’s a bit of a worrying trend, and while it’s not “wrong” per se, it’s not exactly something I’m keen about, and something I really hope doesn’t continue.
What seems to be happening is, as writers think “what shall I write next?” or “I’d like to write gay historicals, but what about?” some are taking pre-existing ideas and simply converting it to “the gay.”
This impatience with this trend has been growing in me for a while, and it reached a head this week when I was reading “Checkmate” which is about gay musketeers. Now – if I had tackled this subject, I’d be very conscious of the huge fanbase of the Dumas books and the great (and the not so great films). I think I’d probably write about one musketeer, on the fringes perhaps, who meets someone in the course of his duties–defnitely being careful not to take more than “he’s a musketeer” from the era. But what the authors of this book have done is to have – no surprise – THREE musketeers who meet another man who (shock) isn’t a musketeer. The three amigos are hard drinking, hard shagging types too – and one of them has a Dark Past™. Sounds familiar?
Now, while I haven’t read further than that, and I’m pretty sure that the plot won’t include the Queen’s necklace, the Duke of Buckingham and a mysterious ex-boyfriend of the musketeer with a Dark Past™ with a fleur-de-lys tattoo, you can’t be too sure…
"Bum for All and All for Bum!"
What I’m saying is that no book is original, unless you are some kind of mega genius, and within the Romance genre it’s pretty hard to do something that hasn’t been done before. If you are writing hetero-romance, particularly historical hetero-romance then it doesn’t matter what era you choose, Vikings, Romans, Pirates, Civil War – it’s all be done before. But it doesn’t mean that you take “Gone With The Wind” and make your book about a feisty southern anti-heroine who has a crush on a man she can never have and gets married a bazillion times before finding the man she truly loves only to lose him. Or in the case of gay historicals that you take GWTW and simply keep the main plot but make it gay.
I know that this sounds obvious, but as I say, I see more and more of it. Without naming more names and offending more people, I’ve seen almost direct copies of films and books galore (including The Gay Witness, a contemporary book I reviewed for Jessewave recently) and it makes me a little sad.
Look – I’m not saying that any of my books are original. Standish is probably stuffed full of images and tropes etc that have stuffed themselves into my head during my life. Every Gainsborough film, every Austen book, every historical mini series, I’ve probably taken aspects from them and put them into the book. There’s a duel in the Bois de Bologne, complete with a misty dawn and horses clinking their bits. There’s Venice and love in gondolas. Transgressions has star-crossed lovers who end up on different sides in a Civil War. Familiar aspects, yes – but the over-arching storyline is mine.
After all, people don’t write “The Straight Charioteer” do they?
April 9, 2010
Posted by markprobst under publishers
*But were afraid to ask
1. How do you choose what to publish? (Or what makes author X’s book better than mine?)
It’s not as easy as you would think. First of all, the story really has to grab us, keep us enthralled, and present a world that we find fascinating. But it also has to have a unique quality to it. The publishing industry and Hollywood have this flawed ideology that if something is successful, you should make a hundred more just like it. We look for stories that haven’t been done before or utilize a fresh take. Give us something that’s not familiar.
2. Why do you specialize in certain genres? (Or what do you mean you don’t publish cyber-punk-paranormal-alternate universe?
Simple answer: It’s easier to compete in a small niche than it is to try and compete against well-established publishers in less specific genres such as paranormal romance, police procedurals, thrillers, or fantasy sci-fi. By specializing in gay historical fiction, that narrows the playing field and we can strive to offer the best product in our field.
3. How do books generate profit for the publisher? (Or if you publish me, I’ll be rich and famous, right?)
Well, books cost money to produce. There are many expenses that add up. Once a story is selected and the contract has been signed, we have to pay an editor, a cover artist, a book designer, and then there are set-up fees for the printer, cataloging fees and ISBN registration. It usually comes out to somewhere between $1000 to $2000 per book. Of course all that is paid for by the publisher and is not counted against author royalties. So when a book begins to sell, the author gets his contracted percentage from the sale and whatever is left over goes to the publisher to start recouping those expenses. If a book sells really well, a publisher can recoup his expenses in a few months, but more often than not it will take considerably longer before a book starts to show an actual profit. In any case the author earns royalties for each sale even if the publisher never turns a profit for the book. I’ll bet you’re wondering how much of that $14.99 retail price goes straight into the publisher’s pocket, aren’t you? Well after subtracting the retailer’s and distributor’s cuts, the printing and shipping costs, and the author’s royalties would you believe there is often less than $2 left?
4. How important is promotion for a small press? (Or once my book is on Amazon, it will automatically sell and because it is good it will soon be a bestseller, right?)
How important? Very. Without promotion your title wouldn’t sell a single copy on Amazon. I’m not kidding. Without reviews, a brilliantly-written synopsis, and eye-catching cover, no one would buy your book.
5. What is the most annoying thing aspiring authors do when they want you to publish them? (Or how can I get you to notice me without pissing you off?)
The most annoying thing is when writers feel the rules don’t apply to them. Publishers always post submission guidelines. Read them and then follow them. But also do yourself a favor and do a little research about the publisher first. Look through their catalog of titles and determine if your book is even remotely compatible. Submitting a raunchy, scandalous heterosexual memoire to a publisher that has only published gay historical fiction is probably not going to fly. And when you receive a polite rejection letter, don’t get all huffy and write back demanding to know what is wrong with your story.
Well this was going to be a top ten list, but I could only think of five.
April 7, 2010
Posted by Jordan under research
| Tags: locations
(This is a crossposting, at the suggestion of Erastes.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about researching locations for writing purposes ever since my visit to Los Angeles last month. I don’t believe you need to have been somewhere to write about it. When we write historical there’s only so much we can do to see an actual location. Even if we visit a place, the feel has changed. The look has changed. The people have changed. All the same, I think most authors would agree that, if at all possible, we want to see those places, whether we’re setting a story there in the past, present, or future.
Writing something set in a existing modern or historical geographic location, which we have never been to ourselves, creates many challenges. For me, it also creates a huge sense of inadequacy. I have this terrible, screechy voice in my mind telling me other people will see right through my shallow words to the nonsense underneath and know that I have never set foot in my own setting. If travel expenses were no issue, I would personally visit every place I have any interest in setting a story, and take detailed photos and notes. But this is not an option for me. As well as for a lot of writers.
On the other hand, making stuff up is what we do best. Authors do not need to have been somewhere to tell you what it was like. That’s one reason they’re authors.
My own sense of feeling frustrated that I cannot visit every location I wish was increased by the aforementioned trip to LA:
I was in LA for less than 24 hours, yet came away with a strong sense of the city that I will never forget, and which I could never have gained from just reading about the place. There is a universal theme in California, north (which I have much greater knowledge of, having lived there for some time) or south, of examining people.
Appearance is not just important in LA. It is you. Everywhere you go, everything you do, from the way you walk to the way you dress to what you order in a restaurant, is under intense, constant, and completely unabashed scrutiny. Not exactly the surprise of the decade, right? This is Hollywood after all. Yet, it was a surprise. Not the fact that everyone was image-obsessed in LA, but the feel of that obsession. There’s a thick, palpable cloud of stares and fleeting glances; eye contact and body-sweeping gazes; and the unceasing edginess of people who know they are being sized-up just as they are sizing you up.
For someone used to Seattle, where eye-contact with anyone you pass on the street, or in a coffee shop, is about as common as talking clams, this experience was pretty horrifying to me. It’s not something I could have ever imagined the intensity of without being in with it. The cool indifference of one human being to another based on snap visual assessments, and the instant decision of whether of not this person can do anything for them, cannot really be appreciated without going in person and feeling the force of this collective energy.
Then there are other things you wouldn’t learn about LA from a guide book: Cabs not stopping for red lights: Every car in the city being no more than two years old: The atmosphere of a pool-side party after dark: And the lying. As noted, I was there for a very brief time. But in that time, I was lied to often.
These kinds of details give us a feel for location that can be duplicated even if we have never really been there. It just makes writing about the place a whole lot easier and clearer in our own minds if we have been there.
Here’s to lots of research trips down the road. :-)
You can find Jordan at http://www.jordantaylorbooks.com
April 6, 2010
As before, two men and a title. The rest is lunacy.
Robert Scoville and Jonty Stewart in The Shade on a Fine Day (Charlie Cochrane)
Tall, slim and devastatingly handsome Robert Scoville has only one rival for the title ‘Britain’s bluest blooded stallion’ – Jonty Stewart. Jonty has eyes as blue as Laurence Dalaglio’s manties and hair the colour of Strongbow cider. His chiselled good looks send women into ecstasy and men into Boots the Chemist for a facial kit.
Will their rivalry erupt into violence? Or will the dreadful secret they both hide – that they’d both rather run with the geldings rather than the mares – be revealed by sulky temptress Charlie Cochrane who wishes either or both of them would come and share her jelly babies?
Garnet Littleton and Jack Darling in Lessons in Prevarication (Alex Beecroft)
Charming but feckless rich boy, Captain Garnet Littleton is being
blackmailed for his affair with the First Sea Lord by the Sea Lord’s
corrupt manservant, Jack Darling. But when Garnet sends the Impress
service after Jack, dragging him on board ship and imprisoning him in
the hold, the tables are turned. Will he enact a bloody (and possibly
titillating) revenge on the man who threatened his life for so long?
Will they succumb to the fellow feeling of men who have both suffered
the stigma of silly names? Or will Garnet just put off dealing with the
problem for so long that Jack starves to death in the dark? Find out in
the psychological thriller, Lessons in Prevarication.
Orlando Coppersmith and Etienne Beauchene in Aftermath
When brilliant but moody Etienne Beauchenne, star of the Sorbonne Applied Mathematics department, loses his lover in a duel over the correct way to pronounce Moet et Chandon, he flees Paris for Brighton. There he finds Orlando Coppersmith, once a numerical genius but now a curator at the geological museum, heart-broken because his lifetime love has run away to join the Tiller girls.
Will Etienne’s steady hand make itself felt on Orlando’s Arsinoitherium? And will they discover that there is, indeed, life after math?
And this one has to be today’s winner, for the last line if nothing else.
Jack Darling and Garnet Littleton in Lessons in Prevarication
Jack spots Garnet across a crowded auction floor and falls desperately in love with his bloodshot eyes and his air of lank Byronesque lassitude. He can’t bring himself to broach the subject of his infatuation but goes home and writes letter after letter none of which he posts. Desperate for Dutch courage, he takes brandy laced with laudenum, finds the muse within him, writes and writes letter, none of which are perfect, but still he strives for the PERFECT words to express his love for the beautiful Mr Littleton.
Sadly, the drug takes hold, he forget to eat and drink and he’s found
crushed to death beneath a hundred weight of shifted papers he was too weak to push off – and clutching a badly drawn picture of Garnet.
The story is told in blank verse.
April 5, 2010
You know the form. Take two random gay historical romance heroes plus one random title. Add nutty authors.
Robert Scoville and Jonty Stewart in The Shade on a Fine Day (Alex Beecroft)
High powered government scientist Robert Scoville is trapped when his lab is hit by mysterious objects falling from the sky. Rescued by handsome fire-fighter Jonty Stewart he falls head over heels in love at first sight. But the falling objects are debris from a huge comet hurtling towards the earth, blocking out the sun and causing tidal waves and earthquakes throughout the globe. And it might be love, but they’ve only got 14 hours to save the world…
Edward Easterby and Adam Hayward in Hard & Fast (Charlie Cochrane)
When Edward Easterby suffers a career-ending injury to his sideburns and has to retire from first class rugby, he seeks to end it all by drowning himself in a vat of Magners’ cider. As he suffers the slow death – emerging for the third time to go to the loo – he encounters smoulderingly sexy Adam Hayward, who’s had to sell his body to see his little sister through drama school.
Their roller-coaster romance takes them through the back streets of Derry and the front pages of the tabloids when it emerges that Adam is really the long estranged heir to the HardnFast SuperGlue empire. Will they stick together or is the solvent of distrust too strong?
David Archer and Hugo Lamont in Mistaken Identity (Charlie Cochrane, who really needs to get a life…)
Hugo Lamont has it all – brains, looks, money, and the biggest didgeridoo this side of Bell’s Beach. But his urbane frontage hides the painful secret of a heart broken in several places, at least one of which was Cardiff.
David Archer hasn’t got nuffink. One minute he was on a Georgian frigate, warming the captain’s hammock, and the next he’d found himself in Plas Roald Dahl, being touched up by a handsome man with botox and a military greatcoat who thinks he’s someone else entirely. Only Hugo can rescue him from a fate worse than playing for Newport Gwent Dragons.
Can love really blossom between two such disparate souls? And will a Mr Whippy 99 with chocolate sauce be the catalyst to romance?
And, possibly the star of today’s offerings:
Aftermath – starring Ioan Griffith as Orlando Coppersmith and Gerard Depardieu as Etienne Beauchene (Bruin Fisher)
Shy academic Orlando Coppersmith, having survived the First World War with the loss not only of his eyesight, one leg and most of his lung capacity as a result of surviving a mustard gas attack, is now searching for his greatest loss, his lover and life partner, Professor Stewart of Cambridge University.
In France without a guide, his search initially leads him round and round in circles until he chances upon the massive bulk of Etienne Beauchene, local baker and gastronome, who clasps him to his bosom in the mistaken belief that he is his long-lost cousin from New York. Thus begins an unlikely relationship which blossoms into near tolerance as the two find ways to communicate, although neither speaks a word of the
other’s language, Orlando is blind and Etienne is very deaf.
Follow the story to see how Etienne bakes his world famous croissants, how Orlando learns to ride a bicycle despite his shortage of limbs, how they both career through the rural French countryside with strings of
onions over their handlebars and how true love gets jammed between the spokes.
April 4, 2010
On April Fools’ Day, some of the Macaronis were playing at Speak Its Name, taking various pairs of historically romantic lovers, mixing them up and allocating them to the Macronis’ book titles (some real, some ridiculous).
We were inordinately proud of our efforts at plots and blurbs which ensued and would like to give the world the benefit of our lunacy.
For your delectation, batch one:
Nehemiah Gillis and Gideon Frost in False Colors (Charlie Cochrane)
When feisty Nehemiah Gillis opens ‘No Fail Nails’ in the sleepy backwater of Echidna Creek, how can he know that fate will deal him the equivalent of a smack in the puss with a wet sock full of sand?
How will stunningly handsome, if myopic, Gideon Frost cope when he enters the nail salon mistaking it for the local branch of Ladbroke’s?
And will their love survive the shocking discovery that Gideon doesn’t suit Kylie Pink?
Harry Thompson and Finbar Thouless in Transgressions (Alex Beecroft)
Uptight hell-fire preacher Harry Thompson is determined to stamp out
vice across the Bible Belt of America. So why is it that everywhere he
goes there’s a bank robbery, a rash of break-ins, a sex scandal and a
prison breakout? Could it have anything to do with his PA, the soft
spoken Irishman with the laughing eyes, Finbar Thouless? And why does he find himself so reluctant to find out?
David Caverly and Rafe Goshawk in Ransom (Erastes)
David Caverly falls asleep in a fairy ring and wakes 200 years later to find that he’s still hot and his hair has grown back and yay! no-one speaks in thees and thous any more.
While admiring his hot self in a river he’s discovered by Rafe Goshawk, who mistakes him for a river nymph and thinks “well, if it’s not human, it’s not TECHNICALLY infidelity” and much shaggage is had and no-one bothers to get David any clothes.
When Rafe’s live in lover, Ambrose disturbs their smexxing he curses them and the fairy king emerges from the river and takes them off to fairy land saying that only a Ransom of a true heart and sacrifice will save the pair of them.
Will Ambrose recant and work to save the man who has betrayed him AGAIN? What do you think?
April 2, 2010
Posted by Alex Beecroft under history
A Middle Way
I’ve been thinking about realism in historical fiction recently as a result of a discussion on the Macaronis yahoo group in which I was in the unusual position of arguing for less of it.
I do think that my opinions about realism versus fantasy in fiction have shifted a little towards the middle, so I’m going to subject you to me thinking out loud about what has changed in my head and why.
I’ve been reading a lot of Age of Sail romance recently, and have noticed that many of the books which I have found difficult to read because of the lack of historical realism are still books which are thoroughly enjoyed by some romance readers. I wondered how that could be. Didn’t they care about realism or quality? Did they want only wallpaper history? Did they actively prefer stories in which the unpleasant things about the past were brushed under the rug? What was going on?
Last weekend I went to the re-enactor’s market up near Coventry, and it occurred to me that re-enacting was like historical fiction in the way that re-enactors attempt to portray people from other historical periods but can never get away from the fact that they are, underneath, as 21st century as anyone else.
We drive to shows, we wear modern underwear, we sleep on modern camp beds and bring out the camping gas stoves in the evening to make our instant coffee. Some of us (heresy) machine sew the invisible parts of our clothes and only hand sew the bits you can see. And we have modern ways of looking at the world and understanding things, which we have to painstakingly put aside in order to try and see things as our ancestors would.
In addition to my 18th Century group, the Mannered Mob, I belong to a re-enactment society called Regia Anglorum, which recreates life during the Anglo-Saxon and Viking periods:
Both of these societies are well known in their respective fields for the extreme seriousness with which they take the idea of presenting an accurate picture of their period of choice to the public. Both have officers whose job it is to check people over to make sure they are not wearing or using or being seen with any out of period artefact, even if that’s as easy for the public to miss as rubber soles on your shoes.
One of Regia’s clothing rules is that black clothing is right out. No one gets to wear black. This isn’t in fact strictly historically accurate. It is possible to dye cloth a dense black with the methods available at the time. But it was extremely expensive and it was not at all colour fast, so it rapidly faded to grey. The society’s rule is in place because, before they had that rule, everyone said “oh, but they could produce black cloth, so I’m doing nothing wrong” and everyone wore black. With the result that, overall, the society ended up giving a false impression of the kind of clothes that would be in general use at the time.
In the same way, the Mannered Mob is well aware that there were some women in Georgian society who disguised themselves as men and entered the Army or Navy. It would be historically accurate if they were to allow their female members to cross dress in this way. But they don’t. And they don’t for the same reason as Regia – because if they did, everyone would do it, and the overall level of realism would go down.
So what’s this got to do with fiction?
Well, what this made me think about was that (another heresy coming up) possibly strict accuracy was not what fiction is actually aiming for. After all, to realistically portray even a contemporary event, we would have to include the parts where the main characters went to the toilet, spent five hours playing Farmville because it was Sunday and they were bored, spent six hours of their day every day at their job and the remainder worrying about their bills. Even contemporary fiction abstracts from the real world only those things which make a good story. It just presents them in a way where the reader doesn’t even notice they’ve gone. It gets across the impression of contemporary life, while actually severely restricting and re-ordering incidents in a way that never would happen in real life.
That goes double for historical fiction. Realism might seem to demand that the story be told in the original language. My Saxon freedom fighters should be speaking Old English. But then the modern reader wouldn’t understand them at all.
My 18th Century gentlemen, if they’re going to be typical of their breed, should be fat, have bad teeth and the pox, keep slaves, cheat on their wives as a matter of course, loathe sodomites and enjoy nothing better than a public execution.
But, frankly, then they wouldn’t be very heroic. Of course, I could write heroes who are the embodiment of every modern virtue, and excuse those heroes by saying “well, some people in the 18th Century had surprisingly modern attitudes.” And that’s true. But in a way, it’s like the black cloth. If you’re going to do it at all, you have to do it sparingly or you give a false impression. Some middle way is required – a way to write heroes who are men of their time and yet still sympathetic, likable characters.
So I think the aim in fiction, as it is in re-enactment, is not complete re-creation. I think that it is to create verisimilitude. To keep the past and present in the kind of dialog where they’re working together to create an impression that “it could have been just like this.” To give the reader enough detail, enough accuracy and enough flavour of the period so that they feel they are really there. And to do that without either giving a false impression of the historical period, or damaging the flow of the story, so that they not only feel they are really there, but they’re having a whale of a time while they’re at it.
That brings me back to the puzzle I talked about at the beginning: Why are some readers so tolerant of such a low standard of historical accuracy in fiction, whereas some throw the book at the wall if the writer gets the thread count of the knotwork on the character’s epaulette wrong?
Well, verisimilitude is one of those things that depends as much on the reader as it does on the thing being read. Suppose your reader is someone who loves romance, doesn’t care that much about history and has a powerful imagination of their own. It isn’t going to take much historical detail to create an impression of verisimilitude for that reader. Throw in a cutlass and everyone saying “yarrr” and their imagination has probably already leaped in to supply the rest, leaving them happily transported to their vision of what it must have been like on a pirate ship. The reader is still experiencing that feeling of being swept away to a different time—it just didn’t take a lot of effort on the part of the writer to achieve that.
The problem for the historical romance writer is that while it is easy to create an impression of a cool historical setting for readers who are prepared to suspend much of their own disbelief, some readers are reading historical romance because they like to learn about the history as well as the romance, and those readers already know a lot and expect the writer to know more.
For those readers, creating the illusion that they are right there in that historical time is going to take a lot more historical accuracy from the writer. Those readers are the ones for whom it’s necessary to check your facts and get your details right.
The more an author knows about a historical period, the more of those picky, knowledgeable historical readers he or she can sweep away under the enchantment of “I feel like I’m really there”. The trick, of course, is to do it without turning off the reader who doesn’t like history and is only in it for the love story.
If you can suspend the disbelief of both sets of readers and give both of them a satisfying love story too, well, you’ll have twice the readers. If you’re a writer who doesn’t particularly care about the historical details and only wants the atmosphere of the time, it’s still got to be worth putting in that extra bit of historical research, because it will mean that your stories appeal to a whole new audience.