Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

480368486

In just the last few hundred words of our work in progress, THE LAST FAERIE GODMOTHER, my daughter and I moved our heroes and our story from modern day America (with fairy-tale creatures) to Northern Ireland in 1507 (chock full of faeries).

From a writer’s standpoint, this is like waking up on Mars.  Without a spacesuit.

How did people talk?  I don’t mean just how to write an Irish accent, but what words do they use?  Many, many turns of phrase we take for granted when writing modern dialogue didn’t exist 500 years ago.  And things had different names.  Not to mention, they had an entire vocabulary of words for objects and activities that no longer exist today.  They had different greetings, different common expressions, different superstitions.  And they surely talked about other things than we do today.

What did people wear?  Believe it or not, there are not a great deal of books with pictures or descriptions of what average people wore in Ireland in the 16th century.  I know; I’ve looked.  I can tell you what nobility or soldiers wore in England in the early 16th century, but that doesn’t quite work, does it?  I’ve read that the Irish of that time wore yellow, since the association of green with Ireland is a much more modern occurrence.  But I need slightly more detail to describe what my characters are wearing than “yellow.”

What did they eat?  What was their daily routine?  How did they travel?  Where did they sleep?  How did they treat strangers?  What did a house look like?  A castle?  A dungeon?  What did they buy and what did they make themselves?  Where did they get money?  What did a market look like?

I was so excited when we finally got to this much-anticipated point in our book.  This is the “inciting incident” that sets up the whole rest of the book, in which our heroes must pass for natives and figure out a way to get home to the present.  But as my fingers hovered over the keys, itching to write the next scene, I found I could not make them type.  I don’t know where I am!  I can’t describe anything, write any dialogue, or even understand what my characters should see upon waking up.

Gah!  It’s like being a virgin writer all over again, except without the benefit of that cocky naivete that lets you just bully your way through a story despite your utter ignorance.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: virginity [in a writer] is overrated.

image

There is a growing trend to set books in unusual times and places – gothic woods, outer space, another county, another century, etc. This kind of thing has actually been going on for as long as there have been books. What I think is happening more and more often these days is putting ordinary people from ordinary walks of present day life in those settings.

In my experience as a reader there are two distinct versions of this: those that are believable, and those that are not. And for me, this believability factor is really all about one thing – Does the writer make e feel like the character is really there?

I read a book recently which takes place largely in free-fall. Where it fell short for me was in the details that were missing. The author told me it was free-fall, made things float around, had characters navigate themselves around the habitat by pushing off of things, and so on. And maybe that would have been sufficient if the characters were raised in free-fall. But these were characters new to the experience. And what was missing for me was how did life in free-fall feel different from the life they were used to? How did it feel to swallow? What was it like trying to go to sleep with no “down?” Did it annoy them to have their hair floating around them like they were under water all the time?

Are these details important to the plot? Not necessarily (although an of these could be the perfect thing to hinge a plot-turn around), but that’s not the point. These kind of little details anchor your reader in your setting, in your character’s head, and in your story. This worked for Harry Potter; everyone at Hogwarts had grown up with pumpkin juice, but for Harry it was a brand new experience. Being in Harry’s head we got to be introduced to this new taste sensation. If we had been in Ron’s head, this would have been glossed over, like what it feels like to put on socks.

In the book my daughter and I are writing now (about to be writing; we’re plotting), the contemporary main character is transported to Ireland in 1507. Broadly speaking, everything is going to be vastly different. It would be overwhelming to dwell on every detail. There will be a period of reverse future-shock (“past-shock?”) when she realizes nothing about this world is familiar, but after that, after we move on, we must find ways to make the experience of daily life in sixteenth century Ireland seem real. And this is where we must put the “life” in daily life.

Not in the big things – traveling everywhere on-foot, no telephones, everyone talks funny – but in the small things. What is it like getting dressed when you don’t understand how the clothes work? What does it feel like after you haven’t had a bath in week? How does the air smell different? What does the water taste like? Why does everyone keep looking a me funny?

The thing about future-shock (and past-shock) is not the big changes – you expect those. It’s the little changes. Hair styles. Food. Popular music. Think of it another way: what if you only travelled ten years into the future? You wouldn’t expect to suddenly see hovercars or countries with completely different borders. But remember, the iPhone is only eight years old. If you arrived here from 2005, you would be astonished to find everybody walking around with mobile devices that respond to voice commands and that can make video calls in the middle of nowhere. If you told a story about that time jump and only mentioned that we now have a black president but didn’t mention mobile devices, you would be missing a huge part of the daily life experience.

The problem as a writer, of course, is that in this particular case, most history books deal with only the very big things, and do not give you a lot of details about what beds felt like 500 years ago. Or what shoes felt like, or what soap smelled like. And those are the details I need most of all.