History: getting it right

and another old post finds a new home.

Yesterday is history. It’s the past. I am informed that for a novel to qualify as “historical,” the past has to be at least 60 years ago. So my first novel, A Time For Silence definitely falls into that category, as it begins in 1933, but my third, The Unravelling, dealing with events in 1965, won’t qualify for another five years.

But such a division is artificial. It doesn’t matter what moment in the past you want to write about, you still have to get it right. There are the facts, of course. You have to know what was happening, economically, politically, socially, in the period you have adopted. Whether you are writing about an actual historical figure or a purely fictional character, you still have to make sure they are performing on the right stage.

Then there’s language. This can be a difficult one. Set something just ten years ago and are you using the right slang? Go further back and whole patterns of speech change, as well as vocabulary.
‘Did not you greet me with the word “Hello,” Mr Darcy?’
‘No, madam. I did not summon the hunt to chase you.’

Go further back and English becomes more and more of a foreign language. What do you do? Try to write in Chaucerian English? Only if you don’t want the reader to understand a word. Use antique phrases, perhaps?
‘Egad, she’s a buxom wench and lusty bed sport, I trow.’

Don’t do it unless you’re writing a script for Blackadder and you want your reader to burst out laughing. The best option is to translate it all into simple modern English. Not too modern, no glaring anachronisms, but no ancient obsolete terms either. Your characters would have been speaking what seemed normal to them, so make it sound normal now.

Perhaps, though, there is something more important than language or facts, and that’s the ability to understand the head-space of your characters. It is very easy to transfer modern sensibilities, understanding, attitudes and beliefs onto the people of three, five, seven hundred years ago. Authors of historical fiction find it painfully tempting to give their doctors a miraculous understanding of hygiene and the inefficacy of blood-letting because they seem so obvious to us now. Nor is it easy to grasp that doctors weren’t the most important people to call upon if someone fell ill. Even through the 19th century, death was so much a part of everyday life that being prepared for it was far important than faffing around with possible cures.

The past is a foreign country and the author can’t wander through it like a drunken tourist looking for the nearest bar. Many things were understood so differently in the past that we have to switch off and switch on again to begin to understand. Love, marriage, deference, allegiance, magic, race, sexuality, religion…

When it comes to religion today, people believe what they like, disbelieve what they like. In the past, the pressure to conform to a universal truth, absolute and unquestioned, was so much greater that it is hard to wriggle into that mindset. There’s a monument in the middle of Haverfordwest (I wrote a short story about it) commemorating William Nichol who was burned at the stake there in the smokey reign of Bloody Mary. Nobody thinks twice about it now. Anti-papist Victorians admired his martyrdom so much they raised the monument but if people bothered to stop and read its inscription today, they’d merely shudder at the horrific cruelty of a long-lost age.

The forces that drove that execution have mostly vanished beyond recall. But as a writer of historical fiction, can you think yourself into the heads of people so obsessed with the precise meaning of bread and wine that they’d face being burned at the stake rather than renounce their beliefs. Can you enter the thoughts of people who felt heretics had to suffer the agony of burning in this life in order to protect them from the flames of Hell that would follow? Or that people who held variant beliefs on bread and wine had to be expunged as a violent example, in order to maintain the integrity of the realm?

Getting inside medieval faith is essential in order to bring any aspect of the Middle Ages to life. Religion was not an optional extra, it was at the heart of everything. It was the meaning of everything. Death without warning was always so imminent that what awaited you beyond was as great a pre-occupation as where the next meal was coming from, and it was the church that dictated where you would be heading when you passed through that dark doorway. Heaven, Hell, Purgatory or Limbo for unbaptised children. The church had as great a control of people’s minds as the king had of their bodies.

It didn’t mean everyone did believe, but if you didn’t, you were well advised to keep quiet about it. Play your cards right and you could make a fortune from the gullibility of others When things went badly wrong, doubts would start creeping in, but usually in the form of heretical questions, not of atheism. The world was too dangerous to be manageable without a god.

Alis Hawkins’ latest book, The Black and White, set at the time of the Black Death in the mid 14th century, does a brilliant job of getting into the head of a devout young man of the era, seemingly absolute in his faith, his fear of consequences if rites are not performed, his terror of demons and his trust in saints and miracles, even when their connection to the all-powerful church is somewhat questionable. But he’s riddled with worries and doubts too, as he weaves his way across an England gripped by a pandemic, with all the attendant desperation and paranoia. Martin’s companion, Hob, is a perfect example of a man who manipulates the faith of others though he has none himself. And manipulates their doubts too. Some characters, like Martin, need to be entirely of their time. Some, like Hob, can be found in any period. A chilling read.

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