More tips on writing about the past...

Yes, I know I keep harping on about this subject which I seem to have strong feelings about, but this article (found courtesy of a link on Roseanne E Lortz's blog) highlights two issues which to me, seem important in historical fiction, or at least points 2 and 3 do anyway.

The author says:

"2. Inhabit the mind and skin of your characters
Unless you can get under the skin and inside the heads of your historical characters, all your painstaking research will remain mere window dressing. People in the past had completely different sensibilities than our own. When you write historical fiction, you have to remind the reader, again and again, that they’re not in Kansas anymore.
Reveal to the reader what it would be like to live in an era where marriages were arranged, not based even remotely on our modern notions of romantic love. Imagine leaving our secularized world behind to live in a time and place where your religious faith permeated every aspect of your daily life—and where deviating from this faith could quickly make you an outcast...

3. The language has to match the setting
The language in your narrative has to convincingly mirror the period and place. That doesn’t mean you have to use archaic speech patterns and pepper your dialogue with thous and thees, but it does mean being thoughtful and creative. Your every sentence must evoke the period...Above all, avoid anything that sounds too jarringly modern. Nothing rudely awakens the reader from the narrative dream like clunky anachronistic language."

Since I started reading Christian Historical Fiction and fantasy I have come across a number of novels which don't always do the above. That does not mean they were all bad, but having words like 'Yeah' and 'Okay' coming out of the mouths of Medieval people just does not sound right, and I must confess I do not like Medieval novels in which the characters are too 'Americanised' (no offence meant to those inhabotants of the USA who might be reading this) in terms of their speech, or indeed their attitudes.

That is not to say I think that all characters in Medieval novels should go around speaking Middle English, but really, how many Medieval Europeans were in favour of booting out their King and creating a republic- and how many spoke in in the same way as 21st century Texans, using words which did not even exist until hundreds of years after their time?

I don't know about anyone else, but I find that speech which is too modern can make it difficult to take such characters seriously as Medieval people.

Then there were the books I have read in which characters espoused values and ideas which really seemed to stand out as way too modern for their time. There was the 4 times married and twice divorced Medieval 'Lady' whose attitudes towards the opposite sex and sexual morality seemed to resemble those of a modern liberal feminist, lording it over men (or generally believing them to be morons) whilst refusing to allow any to tell her what to do.

Then there was the way that the 'Lady' in question had the astounding ability to still be regarded as a model of honor, repsectablity and virtue by all those around her in spite of being utterly shameless and wanton in her conduct, both publicly and privately. So her boasting about her promiscuity (including an affair with a close relative) in front of everyone at a feasting table, is not seen as in any way tarnishing her 'good name' or her 'honor'.

Nor did it apparently did not occur to any of the other characters that such behavior as passionately kissing men a person is not married to in public, making 'close physical contact' with them on a balcony in full view of everyone below, or making advances towards them in front one's husband might not generally have been considered very becoming or appropriate behavior for a High Born Medieval Lady who was concerned with protecting her 'reputation'.

There were her and her fellows bemoaning the evils of arranged marriage, the condemnation of a 'tyrannical' ruler whose 'crimes' included having his daughter's lover (a high official whose actions represented a betrayal of trust and loyalty) castrated, and not letting them marry, and making her marry a 'repulsive' man for political reasons.

Of course, there may be other books which suffer from such deficiencies, but there are some which do not (which may be mentioned in a future post) and it can perhaps be hard to strike a balance when writing a novel set in a time in place in which people's values may have been so vastly different from our own.
Also, there likely were Medieval women who did exhibit some of the behaviors highlighted above, nor do the attitudes I have mentioned necessarily represent Universally held values and beliefs.  However, having too many Modern people in fancy dress espousing modern ideals populating a Medieval world just does not seem right to me....

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