Wednesday, May 4, 2011
I once read a book set in the Middle Ages in England. I don’t remember the title of the book, but it was by a well-respected author. I was enjoying the book -- it had good characters, nice conflict, and I really wanted to see how it all worked out. And then it happened. The main character, possibly an apothecary, was doing up some poultice or potion or what-have-you and -- gasp -- she added witch hazel.
And it ruined the whole book for me. Because witch hazel is from America and, unless this thirteenth-century apothecary had some sort of as-yet-unrevealed powers of teleportation or possibly a portal to the future (I was open to it!) it sure as hell didn’t belong in that book.
And just like that the author’s whole world unravelled for me. One tiny detail, and it broke the spell. And I wish I could forgive it, but I can’t. And maybe some people wouldn’t have noticed, but I noticed, and it mattered.
Writing historical fiction means doing a lot of research. A lot. And not just in the obvious stuff like political leaders and dates and whether or not that building was actually there yet, but on the day-to-day minutiae of ordinary life. And, personally, I need to have the following covered:
What sort of underwear did they wear?
What did they use instead of toilet paper?
What did they eat?
What did their bedroom look like?
What sort of stuff would they own?
What did their shoes look like?
Birth control? Yay or nay?
And this doesn’t mean that you’re going to be subjected to a three page toilet visit in Ancient Rome including a whole paragraph on bum wiping (sponges, in case you’re interested, cleaned with vinegar and shared by all members of the household - ugh) but I need to know these things to feel confident I have a handle on that world. And yes, I’m sure that I’ve made mistakes as well. There might be some absolute clangers in mine and I guess that’s the problem -- just because I haven’t spotted them doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
When you’re building your own world you can call all the shots -- flush toilets in an otherwise medieval society, why not? Heaps of fantasy books have surprisingly advanced sewer systems and waste management -- but in historical fiction you’re at the mercy of historians, astute readers, and people who happened to read “Product of the USA” on a bottle of witch hazel the week before they picked up your book.
Have you found any anachronisms lately?
And for the historical fiction writers out there, what questions do you need answered before you can begin to feel comfortable in your world?