Things that Annoy Historical Fiction Readers
by Michael Bolan
I was chatting with a (historical-novel-writing) friend the other day. When I say ‘chatting’, I actually mean half listening and wearing an interested expression while she ranted. Apparently she had read the term “OK” in a Tudor romance (cue audience gasp). Now, perhaps you’re like me, and that’s not such a big deal, but for her, and for many readers, that’s a game-changer. A deal-breaker. Just. Not. Right. At least, not until after 1840.
That set me to wondering if there were other issues that alienated readers of historical fiction. I contacted a raft of authors and reviewers and asked their thoughts on the matter. Here are the results, in no particular order…
I seem to spend half my writing life checking the origins of words and phrases, and usually end up swearing vociferously. The Devil’s Bible Series is set in the mid-17th century: nearly four centuries of progress has changed our language almost beyond recognition. This is where a sharp-eyed editor earns their money, pointing out phrases which are historically inaccurate. Don’t worry, all is not lost. The phrase “going swimmingly”, which I thought was a modernism, dates from 1622. I use it a lot.
The flip side of the coin. We know they said thee and thou – you don’t need to remind us every few lines. Too many archaic language forms can interrupt the flow of a story and over-challenge the reader. Using a few here and there is fine, and indeed can add a richness to your prose, but overdo it and you will lose all but the most ardent fans. If you don’t believe me, just read some Chaucer. He wrote in English, apparently…
A valuable part of any language, profanities add a dash of flavour to a story. The only problem is – they have to be the right oaths. During the Middle Ages, the power of the Church was so strong that most (Anglo-Saxon) swearing was religious, as opposed to the sexual swearing that is prevalent nowadays. There’s also a great difference across cultures: for some, your mother is the target, for others, you will be likened to an animal. Get it wrong, and you’re pretty much guaranteed that someone will point out your mistake. If you find yourself stuck, Calling someone an embossed carbuncle works in most circumstances.
This should be an easy mistake to avoid by running a simple image search on Google to look at the fashions of the time. A little common sense, however, is also required. Having braved the wilds of a Siberian winter, I’m constantly amazed by people traipsing through blizzards in forty below, wearing nothing more than a doublet and tunic. When it’s that cold, your tears freeze your eyes open, your beard becomes a forest of icicles and you wear everything you can.
I remember when Yugoslavia broke up after the fall of Communism how people were amazed at the “creation” of new countries, as if the changes on the atlas were a personal insult. How dare they? But countries are as fluid as everything else in our world and their borders change over time. There are several excellent videos which show this phenomenon (YouTube: 1000 years of European borders). And yet people write about Italy when it was Spain, or about Belgium when it was Spain, or about Portugal, when it was Spain. Hold on – did Spain own everywhere? (Pretty much yes, until the turn of the 18th century).
Tied in with geography this is a particular pet peeve of mine – travel. More specifically, how people and armies covered vast distances without getting tired, or indeed eating anything. Roman legionaries referred to themselves as Muli Mariani (Marius’ mules) due to the amount of gear they had to carry – as well as their weapons and armour, they took rations for 15 days. And they wore metal-studded sandals or boots because they walked so much. When researching the Devil’s Bible Series, I found myself disappearing down the rabbithole of how far a horse can travel, at what speed, with what rest, etc. And yet, all too often we see the hero gallop hundreds of miles with no food and no shelter in a matter of hours. Impressive!
They say the exception proves the rule, and history is littered with strong women who have exercised enormous power. Before the 20th century, some matriarchal cultures did exist, but these women tend to have worked within the boundaries of their society, influencing rather than confronting, manipulating rather than forcing. Most of our history has been dominated by men, who have systematically treated women as second class citizens. Straying away from this norm is not without risk, as readers regularly complain of 21st century attitudes transplanted into historical characters.
Hand-in-hand with sexism goes racism. The Founding Fathers – polymaths and polyglots, educated men – were slave-owners. Across the world, victors have enslaved the defeated – it was the accepted structure of society for millennia. When a person has no rights, it is easy to look upon them as subhuman. To deny or gloss over this is not only unrealistic, but anachronistic. We might not like it, but many of our favourite characters behaved in a way that would appal us now.
So remember writers, the next time you want to put Marie Antoinette in jeans and high heels, someone might just call you out over it.
ABOUT MICHAEL BOLAN
Michael Bolan is a nomadic Irish storyteller.
It took him over two decades of running in the corporate ratrace to realise that all he actually did was tell stories.
There was no Damascene revelation for Bolan which caused him to pen his first work of fiction, “The Sons of Brabant”. An avid reader, he simply felt that he could do as good a job as many of the authors he read and decided to put his money where his mouth was.
Living and working in many countries left him with smatterings of a dozen languages and their stories, and his love for history focused his ideas on the Thirty Years War, the most destructive conflict that the continent has ever seen.
Now living in Prague (again), Michael brings alive the twisted alleys of the 17th century and recreates the brooding darkness of a fractured Europe, where no-one was entirely sure who was fighting whom.
Michael writes while liberally soused in gin, a testament to Franz de le Boë, who was mixing oil of juniper with neat spirit while the thirty Years War raged around him.