How do writers make historical novels seem authentic?
I love reading, and writing, historical fiction. My Meonbridge Chronicles, set in 14th century rural Hampshire, are not about politics or war, or kings or heroes, but are rather the “everyday stories of country folk”, and my particular writing pleasure is trying to recreate that distant world for readers to immerse themselves in.
To make that world feel natural requires both “authenticity” and a little “strangeness”, so here are a few thoughts on how I try to achieve this…
I enjoy depicting what we know, or can deduce, about how people lived – their homes, clothes, food, tools, working practices – showing everyday life as faithfully as possible. For example, in my depictions of peasants’ homes, I try to show how generally cramped, dark and smoky they were and, in bad weather, cold and damp. I don’t dwell on the unpleasantness – partly because I feel that the characters themselves wouldn’t necessarily notice it – but I don’t shy away from it either. Trying to put myself into my characters’ shoes, to experience the minutiae of their daily lives through their eyes, is what I find so fascinating about writing about the past, and what I hope contributes to that sense of authenticity.
Some readers might think I’m obsessed with weather! Weather does seem to play an important part in my novels, for it surely affected mediaeval people’s daily lives far more than it does ours (here in England, at any rate). If you owned only (at most) two sets of clothes, how miserable was it to work outdoors in the rain and come home all wet, with just a small hearth fire (no radiators or tumble dryer…)? Drying clothes must have been a nightmare! No book has yet told me exactly what they did so, putting myself in their shoes, I imagine them arranging their clothes around the fire, on some sort of rack, perhaps, and possibly sleeping in their damp clothes – sometimes, anyway – to help dry them out. A pretty ghastly prospect! Yet what else could they do?
Depicting the physical aspects of daily life is important, but almost more important – and yet more difficult – is portraying the intangible aspects. Sexuality, religion, superstition, ideas and sensibilities in general are more tricky. The difficulty lies in transporting oneself as a writer into their very different mindsets. Fourteenth-century people must have been like us in many ways – they fell in love, adored their children, had aspirations, enjoyed a joke and suffered the pain of loss – yet were also unlike us in many others. Trying to tap into those dissimilarities is both a challenge and, perhaps, one of the principal points – and pleasures – of writing, and reading, historical fiction.
For example, the Church was central to daily life, influencing people’s view of their position in society, and directing how they ran their lives to an extent that we would consider deeply interfering. The 14th century was also a world where what we consider natural (or man-made) disasters – ruinous weather, famine, plague – were presumed to be God’s punishment for man’s sin. These aspects of life must be portrayed in a way that shows the differences in people’s thinking, yet without making them seem alien – they were still “people like us”, with ambitions and concerns, emotions and desires, and it’s important that the reader feels a connection with them.
Historical fiction is sometimes criticised for failing to portray the past’s strangeness (the “foreign country”). Beyond religion and superstition are aspects of belief that modern readers are likely to find obscure or even bizarre: religious charms, relics, magic and spells, monsters, weird concepts and seemingly fantastical happenings that today can often be explained or dismissed. All of these were normal to people of the time, yet they need careful handling in a novel. If “magic and monsters” were part of a mediaeval person’s ordinary belief, they are typically the opposite for us: we tend to consider them fantastical, not commonplace. And the danger of introducing such elements – however natural they might have been to a mediaeval mind – is that the novel might seem to the modern reader to be less historical fiction and more fantasy.
Nonetheless, one must certainly not eschew the “strange” altogether, for it is the very difference, or “otherness”, of the past that makes writing historical fiction so intriguing. And it is why I am so enjoying writing it, and expect to continue doing so for many books to come.
So, a bit of a different post today, about the challenges of writing realistically when there is little information to go on. As I seem to be on a bit of a run of historical novels of various types at the moment it is a really interesting piece, and I am grateful to Carolyn Hughes for providing it. Good luck with De Bohun’s Destiny – the Third Meonbridge Chronicle- I look forward to getting my hands on a copy!