The Cheese-mite theory of Historicals

I had a great time at the UK Meet this year, though the intense (and wonderful) experience of being in a room with 40 odd other people who are all buzzed and happy and excited at being with kindred spirits did lead to me being utterly exhausted the next day.

There have been several write-ups of the day that cover the excellent talks, sumptious food and the excitement of all being in this together.  For example this from Jenre’s blog, Well Read:

http://jenre-wellread.blogspot.com/2011/07/report-from-uk-meet-2011.html

and this one from Erastes

I would like to mention that the free anthology the attending authors contributed to is getting some great reviews!

http://kassa011.wordpress.com/2011/07/26/review-british-flash/

So if you haven’t got a copy it might be worth checking out.

I was involved in the panel on how to write the gay historical, alongside Erastes and Charlie Cochrane.  (I was glad they made me speak first or I would have been too intimidated after their contributions!)  We each spoke for about 5 minutes and then took some questions.  Rather than doing another round-up post of what happened, I thought I’d post the text of my speech, as a kind of hard backup.  I understand that all three will be available on Speak Its Name and/or The Macaronis by next week.

Anyway.  I wrote this down, then I read it out, then I practiced the speech three times without the text.  Then on the day I dispensed with paper or notes and just talked, trying to get the same main points across.  So this text and what I actually said are certainly not identical, but I believe that the gist of the two things is the same.

 

The Cheese-mite theory of Historicals

1. What makes a historical feel like a historical? Characters.

If you were to ask me “what is the most important part of establishing your book as a historical?” I would have to say “it’s the characters.” I really don’t think that any amount of scene setting, even if it’s done in the most exquisite detail and with scrupulous historical accuracy, can convince the reader that they are in another era the way you can by having a character whose attitudes are historical and firmly embedded in their time.

I have read books where the setting certainly appeared to be 100% authentic and full of detail, and yet the characters who moved through that setting were so modern in their thoughts and actions that the overall experience of reading the book was similar to going to a mediaeval theme party. Where the character doesn’t match the setting you get a sort of cognitive dissonance that just screams fake fake fake, and it’s almost worse – imo – when the author has clearly got all the other stuff right. If they’ve gone to all that trouble and researched their physical world so well, it makes it even more jarring and unpleasant to see it populated by characters who would fit right at home in a contemporary if they only changed their clothes.

Some historicals I’ve read go as far as having aggressively modern main characters – characters whose role appears to me to walk through their world criticizing the way everyone else behaves and holding them up to 21st Century standards. These are the characters who are horrified at the barbaric practices of the doctors of their era (forgetting that these practices are the pinnacle of modern knowledge to the rest of their society,) who are unaccountably squeamish about standard forms of discipline (such as giving a child a thrashing, clipping a disobedient wife about the ear, or flogging a criminal) and who, for some reason, know better than everyone else in their society about matters of hygiene and diet, and are not ashamed to look down on their ignorant compatriots with all the smugness of a different century.

I mean, yes, if you really hate a particular era so much that you’d enjoy writing a book about how rubbish it was, by all means do so. But don’t create a character who could not have existed in that time to do it with. It would be far better to use a modern main character, who came by his attitudes honestly, being sent back into the past by freak wormhole incident or TARDIS.

2. So how do you write characters who don’t think like modern people?

This is tricky of course because you as an author think as a modern person does, and – as a modern person – you abhor many of the attitudes of the past (such as gay people are rubbish, women are rubbish, slavery is necessary, leeches are good for you etc.)

The first thing you have to do is to parcel all that up and leave it aside for a while, while you read as many of the original sources as you can get hold of. If the original sources exist, then listen to the voices of people from that century. You usually find that in some things they are indistinguishable from the voices of modern people – they still worry about their appearance and their income and what their families are up to. They have the same needs for love and wealth and respect that we have. But if you listen harder you can start to pick out the framework of assumptions that governs the way they go about fulfilling those needs.

For example, I read a journal of an 18th Century woman bewailing the sexual double standard between men and women – so far so modern – but she concluded that men ought to behave with more chastity rather than women with less. So far so unusual, so strange – so much an attitude that if you read it in a book you would be instantly convinced that you were in a different time. Just a little throwaway thought, and it’s different enough from what we take as written nowadays to make you feel like you’re in a different time.

Or, for a different example, it’s become quite fashionable to claim that Ancient Greece or Rome was a sin-free happy time for gay people. But that’s because we’re modern and we’re not paying attention to the nuances. Suppose you’re an Ancient Roman senator, and you fall in love with a barbarian gladiator – you’re fine if you want to be a top, but shame, shame upon your name and your ancestors if you don’t. There’s another attitude that makes no sense today, but if you based your characters internal or external conflict on it then the book could only be a historical, because it’s a conflict specific to that time.

3. Modern attitudes in historical characters.

This doesn’t mean that your characters have to have some kind of standard set of era-specific beliefs. In no age has everyone all believed exactly the same thing. For example, in the same century, there were people who loathed slavery enough to dedicate their lives to fighting it, people who dedicated their lives to fighting for it tooth and nail, people who might not have campaigned but who bought slavery-free sugar when they could, and a large set of people who were too busy with their own lives to have a position either way.

You can give your characters almost any attitude you wish, so long as you can show how they came by it given the conceptual framework within which they have to work. For example, gay people in the past had to come to some kind of reconciliation or rejection of their society’s views that allowed them to accept themselves, but how they achieved that will be specific to their time and society. They can’t – eg – say “God is love, therefore my love is holy,” before Christianity. They can’t say “this persecution is against my human rights,” before the invention of the concept of human rights.

On a less serious note, your characters probably shouldn’t say “ew, this cheese is full of mites, take it away!” in the 18th Century. In fact they should probably say “ooh, lovely, I do like to see a cheese with a bit of life to it. Bring me a spoon!” If they did, you’d certainly know you weren’t in 21st Century Kansas any more. And that is my whole point.

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4 Comments on "The Cheese-mite theory of Historicals"

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Sandra Lindsey
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Thanks for putting this up, the bit about the woman bewailing sexual double standards is a lovely and succinct example of how attitudes have changed 🙂

Stevie Carroll
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Thank you for putting that up. The attitudes are one of the most fun things about inventing a family history that goes back centuries: many generations of back-stabbing thugs in various guises followed by a long period of attempting to appear respectable, and then a partial revival (by certain family members) of the old traditions in a slightly different form.

Some of the Hundred Years War detail I’ve been sent in horrifying in terms of the differing attitudes towards prisoners (the English don’t come out in a good light, and my lot were typical examples).

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