HistFic in the Weird West: An Interview with Jeff Oberg 

By Jon Black

Recently, I had the pleasure of receiving an Advance Review Copy of Desecration, the new HistFic/Weird West novel by Miami-based author Jeff Oberg. Not only is it a great story, it is a great example of how to write HistFic. Jeff was kind enough to sit down with me (electronically speaking) to discuss his book and process for writing historical fiction.

1) Tell us a little about Desecration? What inspired you to write the story?


One night I was online and stumbled across a clickbait list about the five most badass lawmen in the Old West.  It was an honest list and included none of the usual suspects popular culture has made symbols of the old west.  Number two on that list was a Deputy Marshal named Bass Reeves.

Marshal Reeves became the inspiration for Ulysses Bowden.  I’m a speculative fiction writer and enjoy hard science fiction, fantasy, and horror.  In this case the idea of a freedman, taken in by the displaced tribes of Indian Territory serving as a US Marshal gave me the kind of iconic hero it’s fun to tell stories about.

In Desecration, Ulysses, his cook Jim, and his friend Che, are doing what US Marshals did, finding and arresting criminals in Indian Territory.  The story starts to go off the rails when a talking raven finds Ulysses and adopts him.  The further Ulysses gets from the Dead Line (what the historical Fort Smith marshals called the boundary where the outlaws would post wanted posters for the marshals) the more the world he knows is changed by the man on Raven Hill.  The story contains a lot of traditional western elements, chuck wagon cooking, horseback chases, tracking, homesteaders, ghouls, six-guns, and mindless horrors from beyond space and time.  It was a lot of fun to write, and I hope people find it fun to read.     

2) What was your research process for the historical elements? Were there resources you found particularly useful.

U.S. Marshall Bass Reeves, inspiration of Ulysses Bowden.

There is a reference to Marshal Bass Reeves and the excellent book about him, Black Gun, Silver Star, by Art Burton, at the end of Desecration.  Mr. Burton dug deeply into court documents and newspaper accounts for stories about Marshal Reeves.  Like many people of color, Marshal Reeves was not well documented during his life.

I have some family friends from Arkansas who I talked to about dialect and history.  Then I started looking at the records of the Marshal’s service and maps.  The real treasure trove turned out to be the National Park Service.  When writing about American history, the NPS keeps huge amounts of information online, including monographs, papers, photos, and reports.  The Fort Smith Court House is a National Historical Site administered by the National Park Service.  I found floor plans, photos of court in session, reports about the jail (which appears in the sequel coming this Fall), pictures of furniture, criminals, marshals, and the people of Fort Smith.

I’m even more convinced the National Park Service is a national treasure.  I tried to use as many primary sources as I could, without the NPS this would have been a much poorer book.

3) What are some of the challenges, expected or unexpected, you encountered either in the research or the writing for Desecration?

There were a few that were minor.  I made some choices with dates, Winchester didn’t offer a .45 option in its rifles until 1876, so I pushed that back a year after debating it a bit just to simplify my book keeping and because Marshal Reeves was an early adopter of the .45 Winchester so he only had to carry one type of cartridge.  Fort Arbuckle closed in 1870, but in Desecration it’s still open in 1875.  I’ll be closing it in the course of the series, and there will be an appropriately weird reason for it.  For the most part, people attached to real places in the novel are historically accurate.  Due to the great, white man school of history, most of them are famous white men.  As I learn more, I’m sure that will change.

The biggest challenge turned out to be language.  One of my alpha-readers, chosen because I’m a middle aged white guy writing about a black protagonist, told me, “Dude, black people, we don’t talk to each other that way.”  It was in reference to an early draft of the conversations between Ulysses and Ernie that take place in the first two chapters.  He went on to tell me that the slang used between black people is a way to indicate that they haven’t forgotten where they came from.  It started a whole new line of research.

Fortunately, there is a treasure in the Library of Congress.  In the first half of the 20th century, a group of researchers and grad students lugged a 200-pound mobile recording studio around the south and recorded conversations with some of the last living people who had been enslaved before the 13th Amendment.  There is a link to those recordings in the back of Desecration as well.  One thing I learned from those recordings is that all of them refer to emancipation as “The Break”.  Of course, I had to include it in Ulysses’ speech patterns. Getting the language right is important to me.  I don’t like including phonetically spelled dialect, so the cadence, rhythm, and word usage needs to be right.  I’ve probably spent a hundred hours listening to those recordings at this point.  You can find them at the Library of Congress site, under Voices of Slavery.

4) You’ve got a nice touch for incorporating the fine details of 19th century life in ways that are interesting and don’t slow down the narrative. Can you talk about your process for this?  

Authentic chuckwagon cooking.

To be honest most of it has to do with writing what I know.  Jim’s cooking rings true because I’m a classically trained chef who grew up in Texas.  I know how to cook because I’ve spent thousands of hours practicing and studying it.  I was a Boy Scout and learned outdoor cooking in Texas.  Part of my decision to make Jim from Texas was to let me use my knowledge of Texas cooking to enrich the book.

A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to take a traditional blacksmithing class.  Travis’s forge has the feel it does in part because of that class.  For me it’s a very tactile thing.  As writers, we get accused of living in our heads.  I find the more I get out and do, the more things I touch and try, even if I am terrible at them, seriously the results of my blacksmithing class are kept as an object lesson to keep writing, the more it informs my writing. 

The other piece is to not write what I don’t know.  I don’t know how to make a horse shoe, so I don’t include a detailed description of a horse shoe being made.  My experience is that if I can get a few details exactly right, it makes it much easier to evoke the feel of the time and place than if I try to throw everything at the wall and hope some of it sticks.  I will always have readers who know much more about history than I do.  I just try to get the things right that I include.  If I am not certain, I don’t use it.

5) What advice would you offer to those interesting writing HistFic and related genres?

For me it’s about the unexplored corners of history.  Everyone knows about Washington crossing the Delaware.  Don’t write about it unless you have a truly new and unique take on it.  You might, but I know I don’t.  It’s more fun to find the stories that haven’t been told.  Mansa Musa was the King of Timbuktu and possibly the richest man in history.  The Varangians were Norsemen who served as the personal body guard of the Byzantine Emperor from the 10th to the 14th centuries.  Bass Reeves was the greatest law enforcement officer of all time, but almost no one knows his name.  The Silk Road was in use for centuries before Marco Polo.  If you find the history that no one is talking about, you can tell amazing stories that are new to most of your readers.  That makes the stories more interesting and new, even though they are set in history.

6) Tell us a little bit about the man behind the keyboard?

Oh heck, umm, I have a web site? You can visit me at jeffobergwrites.com.  Beyond the web site, I grew up mostly in Texas and have ADD.  I have a ton of interests and along with the cooking and the blacksmithing, I do some woodworking, I read a lot, I am a gamer of the pencil and paper RPG variety, I’m a terrible geek that loves some western in my Sci-Fi.  I have a beard that borders on wizardly.  I have two huge dogs, three kids, and I’ve been married for nineteen years.  As a side note you officiated at my marriage, which turned out to be a good choice.

Jeff Oberg’s new novel, Desecration, is now available on Amazon . Find him online at Jeffobergwrites.com and @Jeffobergwrites.

Literary Archaeology: Books within Books – Part 2

Jon Black

This is the second part in a series I began back in March (http://18thwall.com/literary-archaeology-books-within-books/) examining real books that may be useful for writers of HistFic or other genres.

Not only are books excellent vehicles for exposition and an intriguing element of stories in their own right, they play on the inherent bibliophilia of most readers. We love not just good stories in books but good stories about books.

I contrasted this with classic fictional tomes such as the Necronomicon, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, or Cultes des Goules. There is nothing wrong with using such devices (I recently submitted a shorty that prominently features the later tome). The purpose of this series is to highlight the existence of actual works which offer backstories, mysteries, and possibilities every bit as rich as their fictional counterparts.

My first article focused on three works largely academic or scholarly in nature: Frazer’s Golden Bough, Murray’s Witch Cult in Western Europe, and Fry’s Pantographia. This time, we will examine three texts that are more esoteric: Donnelly’s Atlantis, Jung’s Red Book, and the anonymous Voynich Manuscript. As a caveat, these books may be better suited for historical fantasy or weird tales and pulp with a historical setting than conventional HistFic.

Atlantis: The Antediluvian World

Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis: The Antediluvian World

Author: Ignatius Donnelly. Congressman and Lt. Governor from Minnesota. Author of a variety of unconventional works on topics ranging from Atlantis, to the Great Flood being caused by comet colliding with Earth, to Shakespeare’s plays actually being written by Francis Bacon.

Publication: 1882, Second Printing 1920.

Summary: The book sets forth Donnelly’s theories about the O.G. of lost continents. Much of the “New Age” conception of Atlantis originates in this book with Donnelly’s ideas of Atlantis as a cradle of lost ancient wisdom as well as an imperial power whose subjects (including Mayans, Egyptians, and all the usual suspects) retain “hidden” evidence of their Atlantean colonizers/overlords. He uses archeological evidence that was groundbreaking (pardon the pun) in the late 19th century but now appears highly suspect. Donnelly theorized the catastrophe destroying Atlantis was the same one responsible for the Biblical Flood and that the Irish are decedents of the original Atlanteans.

I probably don’t need to add that nearly every word in Atlantis has since been dismissed as pseudoscience.

TANGENT ALERT: The inside covers of my copy of Atlantis are stamped with “Grace Baptist Church,” making me wonder that particular place of worship was getting up to back in the day (Was there a Grace Baptist Church in Innsmouth, MA?).

Possible Uses in HistFic: The tomb becomes a source of inspiration (or places to insert interesting information) for stories about sunken continents and civilizations, kaiju, Cthulhu, R’yleh, Deep Ones, and underwater weirdness in general. The various works of the British explorer, occultist, and eccentric James Churchward are the usual go-to in this capacity. Donnelly offers writers a fresh alternative.

Text Online: https://archive.org/details/atlantisantedilu00donnuoft

The Red Book

Carl Jung’s The Red Book

Author: Carl Jung (yes, that one)

Publication: Compiled circa 1915-1930, not published until 2009.

Summary: The Red Book began in the years following Jung’s final split with Freud. During that association, Jung actively suppressed his mystical bent and fascination with myths and mythmaking. Finally free from his domineering Austrian mentor, Jung’s interest in dreams, myths, and mysticism returned with a vengeance.

In addition to carefully recording his dreams, Jung actively plumbed the deepest depths of his psyche through exercises which combined aspects of meditation, guided visualization, and actual auto-hypnosis. Scholars often tamely refer to these exercise as “imaginative journeys” but, based on Jung’s descriptions, it seems appropriate to describe them as mystical journeys or even vision quests.

Frequently, Jung met “beings” on these journeys and would not let them go without asking who they were and what the purpose of their crossing paths was. The results of many such encounters were recorded in the Red Book.

The book is also remarkable for its physical characteristics. Arguably, nothing like this folio had been created since the popularization of the printing press. The text was hand-written on sheets of parchment by Jung in elaborate calligraphy using German, Latin, Green, and English. It is hand illuminated with multi-colored inks and gouache paints. Jung’s original Red Book was bound in hand-stitched red (obviously) leather accented with actual gold.

Possible Uses in HistFic: Any sort of mystical, occult, or illuminated secret might be concealed within the Red Book. Jung’s elaborate illustrations could include clues to magic spells, the lost temples of the masters, or even something as prosaic as a cache of Swiss gold. Through stories of Jung’s encounters, information about who knows what beings might be available. Finally, parallels between Jung’s journeys preserved in the Red Book and Lovecraft’s Dreamlands are self-evident. As such, it may contain practical “how-to” information on entering the Dreamlands or similar parallel realms.

Text Online: https://www.stillnessspeaks.com/carl-jung-red-book-advaita/ (scroll to bottom of page).

The Voynich Manuscript

A page from the Voynich Manuscript with its mysterious language and distinctive illustrations.

Author: Unknown (possibly Wilfrid Voynich)

Publication: Unknown. Materials carbon dated to early 15th century. First mention, early 17th century.  Continuous provenance from 1870. Purchased by Voynich in 1912.

Summary: The Voynich Manuscript may be the most mysterious book in existence … assuming the whole thing isn’t an elaborate forgery or hoax.

The codex is handwritten using an unknown alphabet or cipher. A translation or decryption remains elusive, despite a century of attention from linguists and cryptographers. This leads some to speculate that the characters may be a written form of glossolalia (the technical term for the phenomenon known as “speaking in tongues”) and have no actual meaning. That interpretation is far from universally accepted.

The Voynich Manuscript is equally known for its elaborate, colorful, and diverse illustrations that include plants, astronomical or astrological images, animals, mythological creatures, images suggestive of occult themes, and, of course, a considerable number of nude women.

Many believe the manuscript is a pharmacopeia, medical text, or treatise on natural science. Though why such a text should need to be made so inaccessible remains unexplained. As an interesting twist, a few experts allege the codex depicts New World plants that should have been unknown at the time of its composition. Conversely, plant illustrations combined with astrological imagery might make it a grimoire or book of magic. Certainly, that would better explain the author’s need for secrecy.

Possible Uses in HistFic: Almost anything could be contained within the codex. An actual grimoire is an obvious possibility for historical fantasy. Preserving a record of pre-Colombian contact with the New World is another. It may contain information about forgotten herbs or medicines offering a “miracle cure” for a medical crisis confronting the modern world. The manuscript might be full of information deemed dangerous, damaging, or heretical but the Church a la Dan Brown. Or maybe the whole thing is just an elaborate red herring.

Text Online: https://www.jasondavies.com/voynich/#f1r/0.373/0.422/2.00 or, if you really want it, on .pdf at http://awesta.sibirjak.ru/files/Voynich.pdf

Literary Archaeology: Slang Shots

By Jon Black

So, I have a new crush. A new book crush, I should specify. At a second-hand bookstore in San Antonio, I discovered copy the Dictionary of American Slang: With Supplement, edited by Dr. Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner (Crowell, c.1967). Since then, I have been utterly enchanted by this look into American slang of precisely half a century ago.

My New Crush.

So, rather than starting with some overarching theme, as most of my Literary Archeology posts do, I’m going share some of the thoughts and reflections this book has prompted and see where we go from there.

Revolving around slang, this post explores some of the same themes as my Words, Words, Words post from April. While that post dealt with mainstream language, this focuses on slang. It should be recognized, of course, that there is a revolving door between the two. Many words come into mainstream usage from the slang of some demographic or subculture. Less commonly, a specific population will retain a word (possibly with its original meaning, possibly not) long after it has fallen out of common use.

Slang offers all the advantages and pitfalls for HistFic that period language does in general. It also allows for the representation of specific subcultures or regional or ethnic demographics. A short listing of sources for the words appearing Dictionary of American Slang include “hobos and tramps,” immigrants, jazz musicians, the military, “narcotics addicts,” “show-business workers,” students, and “the underworld.” Interesting how even the names of those categories show the passage of time and evolution of language.

For all slang’s ability to bring sub-groups to life, it can be a double-edged sword. Even more than most period language, overuse of slang can slide into stereotype and caricature (How many books/movies/TV shows have we seen featuring one-dimensional portrayals of characters speaking Cockney, Jive, Valley-Girl, etc. that are a subtle as an iron maul to the brainpan?).

In fairness, the Dictionary of American Slang is not the beginning of my love affair with period slang. It’s something I’ve dabbled with in writing HistFic before.

In my novel Gabriel’s Trumpet (scheduled for release later this year from 18thWall), an entire chapter revolves around a group of Hep-Cat musicians teaching the protagonist the elaborate slang of jazz-age Harlem. It is more than just a colorful interlude or fish out of water moment, the lesson is essential if the protagonist to be able to communicate and make sense of the alien (to him) environment in which he now finds himself.

In another recent project, I found myself dealing with the slang of two different (if often interconnected) subcultures in 1910s Paris: the bohemian set and the criminal underworld.

reefer, gage, Indian hop, pot, tea, etc.

Most of us know the anecdote about the Inuit/Eskimos have X number of words for snow. Depending on who’s telling the anecdote, the number of words varies. The real point is that each of those words has a slightly different meaning. And that those (to us) relatively trivial differences are worth communicating indicates how important snow, and being able to describe very specific properties of snow, are to the Inuit.

A similar process is at work with slang. Early jazz culture had a seemingly endless number of terms for marijuana and its aficionados. Likewise, I lost count of Montmartre’s euphemisms for prostitutes and places where alcohol was served. And these weren’t synonyms; each term had very specific connotations setting it apart from the others. Likewise, the underworld argot of the ladies and gentlemen of the Parisian milieu used terms that were often frighteningly specific for thieves, murders, etc. (The word for a thief who stole watches was entirely different from one who stole goods from unattended wagons, etc.)

And, because I’ve got a little space left over, I thought I would share some of my favorite discoveries from Dictionary of American Slang.

Some Ham-And-Eggers in their Meat Grinder.

Beard: an intellectual or egghead; conversely a beat, bohemian, or other “far out” person.

Bug Man: A circus or carnival concessionaire who sells lizards, turtles, or insects.

Ham-And-Egger: an average or dull person, a worker competent only at routine tasks

Know one’s beans/Know the beans: to be well-informed on a subject or skilled in one’s chose field.

Meat Grinder: an automobile (1940s, student slang).

Red-light or Redlight: To push a person out of a moving locomotive, specifically to intentionally kill someone by doing so.

Suffering Cats! A socially acceptable expletive (allegedly in place of Suffering Christ!).

Sunday Thinker: A self-proclaimed genius, an impractical person, or an eccentric.

Yesterday, Today, and Forever: lunch-counter slang for the house hash (implying that the daily leftovers had been added to the same hash pot since the establishment’s opening).

Literary Archaeology: Food for Thought

Jon Black

As writers of historical fiction, we are always looking for tools which provide information about settings by showing rather than telling and that allow us to engage a readers’ other senses when bringing worlds to life.

The First Thanksgiving, an example of the powerful connection between food and history.

Food is distinctive by time and place, but eating is universal. All of us require sustenance. That means that eating is something readers can relate to … which is important in a genre like HistFic where relatable events and activities cannot always be taken for granted. At the same, because eating is universal but what is eaten and how it’s eaten are not, food allows HistFic writers pair the familiar with the exotic. In addition, I think there’s at least a little bit of a foodie in all of us and, therefore, we are fascinated by descriptions of what and how people at in the past.

As long as it is not overdone, descriptions of food and eating offer writers a very powerful tool. While not HistFic, consider the scene in The Hobbit where Bilbo and the Dwarves meet for the first time as an example of how a meal can powerfully set mood and atmosphere.

Below, I’ve expounded on a few thoughts about using food in HistFic.

The Columbian Exchange

For most of history, many foodstuffs we today think of as universal were known only to the Eastern or Western hemisphere. And those barriers did not instantly come down in 1492. Except as rare novelties, it is not realistic to have a food from one hemisphere impacting large swaths of society across the ocean until (generously) 1500 or (more conservatively) 1525 or even 1550. Potatoes and tomatoes, two of the ultimately most successful, took centuries to catch on after being labeled poisonous, un-Christian, or actively satanic.

Beware the “Devil’s Fruit.”

Select List of Foods Exclusive to One Hemisphere, Pre-1492

Eastern Hemisphere Foods: barley, cattle, chickens, coffee, cultivated honey, goats, millet, oats, okra, olives, onions, oranges, peaches, pears, peas, pigs, rice, sheep, sorghum, sugar cane, wheat.

Western-Hemisphere Foods: beans, coca, chilies, maize (corn), manioc, paprika, peanuts, pumpkins, potatoes, squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, turkeys.

It should be noted the above lists are somewhat deceptive. In the century and millennia before the Columbian exchange, a given food was not necessarily known throughout its hemisphere. For example, the potato was unknown to North American groups and coffee generally unfamiliar outside of Arabia and parts of Africa. A regional breakdown of foods is, however, beyond the scope of this humble blog post.

Please, Sir, May I Have Some More?

Descriptions of food and dining in HistFic are often portray opulence or at least variety. Conversely, they can be shorthand for poverty, privation, or oppression. Consider the weevil-infested hardtack and salt pork (skin and hair often still attached) of the pre-industrial sailor. Or Oliver Twist’s celebrated gruel. Or the perpetually simmering porridge (“peas porridge hot”) that was standard fare for medieval peasantry.   

Eating Local

For most of history, food has been an intensely local affair except for the very wealthy. Refrigeration and improved transportation have conspired to gradually change that, making foods from around the around available to most people. For we who take such things for granted, therefore, it is worth briefly examining the history of refrigeration and transportation.

Ice harvesting in Massachusetts, circa 1850.


The use of snow cellars and iceboxes used to preserved food dates back at least 3,000 years, with the earliest discovered examples coming from northern China. The systemic, widespread use of this process (known as ice harvesting) dates from the 1830s in North America. Inefficient and a largely experimental refrigeration machines, actually predate ice harvesting back to 1755. Such machines did not achieve commercial viability until the 1850s and didn’t really take off until the turn of the 20th century, when costs came down and concerns about pollution in naturally harvested ice grew.


An expansive global shipping industry begins in the 18th century and accelerates drastically with the industrialization and advent of the steam ship in the 19th century. Effective inland transportation networks date from the construction of country-wide rail systems in the mid-19th century (slightly earlier in Britain, slightly later in some other locations) and enhanced by the emergence of comprehensive highway systems in the 1930s.

Home Cooking

On a practical level, what did all this mean for food before refrigeration and effective transportation? Canning and other forms of preservation like smoking and salting were practiced nearly ubiquitously. During winter months, such preserves could represent a significant portion of local diets. Unless preserved, meats and, especially, seafood were very much localized. The old maxim about “Only eating shellfish in months with an ‘R’ in them,” was not a quaint bit of folk wisdom. It was good way to avoid getting potentially lethal food poisoning (notice that months with ‘R’ tend to cluster in cold months and scrupulously avoid summer).


Let’s admit it, part of the fun of using food in HistFic is researching the recipes, drooling over them, and wondering “Hey, could I make that at home?” I’ll conclude with three good online resources for historical cooking.

The Historic American Cookbook Project: http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbooks/html/browse.html

Historic Cookbooks Online: http://www.angelfire.com/md3/openhearthcooking/aaCookbookindex.html

Savoring the Past: https://savoringthepast.net/2014/08/28/18th-and-early-19th-century-cookbooks-digital-searchable-and-free/

Literary Archeology: Forgotten Festivals


Jon Black

“Frost Fair of 1814” by Luke Clenell

Last fortnight’s post dealt with, in part, the Frost Fairs … periodic London revelries occurring whenever the Thames froze solid. A semi-regular part of London life in the 16th – 19th centuries, the Frost Fairs stopped when the global climate warmed and the Thames stopped freezing. Since writing that post, I’ve been curious about other lost or forgotten holidays and festivals that might make a colorful backdrop for historical fiction. Here are five:

Akitu/Zagmuk (Ancient Mesopotamia)

Marduk and Tiamat

The Mesopotamian New Year Celebration, it was known as Akitu in Akkad and Zagmuk in Babylon, its celebration is attested to at least 4,000 years ago. Lasting 12 days and culminating on the Spring Equinox, Zagmuk celebrated the victory of Marduk, god of the city and civilization, over Tiamat, the embodiment of primordial chaos. The centerpiece of Zagmuk was a passion play reenacting Marduk’s triumph, with the role of Marduk played by city-state’s king. In some versions, Marduk was slain by Tiamat on the festival’s first day and resurrected on the 12th day (with obvious similarities to the story of Osiris in Egyptian mythology).

This passion play was accompanied by daily religious rites and pageantry as well as feasting and drinking by the rest of the populace.

Traditionally, planting began on the first day after the conclusion of Zagmuk. Some scholars have suggested that aspects of Zagmuk/Akitu can still be found today in Nowruz, the Persian New Year.

Festival of Drunkenness (Ancient Egypt)

Harvesting Grain for Beer

This annual (or possibly biennial) revelry gets points for honesty and cutting to the heart of things. At the end of the day, isn’t this is a big part of what most festivals are really about?

Yet at its heart was the serious purpose of commemorating humanity’s salvation from destruction. To make a long myth as short as possible: the gods were angry with humans (again) and sent the goddess Hathor (in some versions, Sekhmet) to wipe them out. At the last minute, Ra took pity on humanity. He commanded 7,000 jars of beer to be brewed and mixed with hematite so it resembled human blood. Seeing the ruddy beer poured out in a field, Hathor mistook it for human blood (Why? Who knows?) and consumed it all. Becoming intoxicated, she fell asleep and humanity was saved.

To commemorate their deliverance, at the festival Ancient Egyptians would emulate the goddess by getting absolutely sloshed and falling asleep. Other participants would dance wildly with torches in hopes of receiving an ecstatic vision from Hathor. The following morning, revelers were awoken by musicians playing drums and horns (not, I expect, to everyone’s great delight).

Some scholars suggest the festival has its roots in an older agricultural celebration; its biennial occurrence corresponding to the harvesting of summer and winter crops along the Nile.

Plough Monday (England)

Plough Monday

Up through the early 19th century, Plough Monday, celebrated on the Monday of the first full week in January, marked the beginning of the English agricultural calendar. While that might sound relatively dull, many traditions surrounding Plough Monday were not. Villages hosted processions led by a young boy dressed as an old woman (called Bessy) and an old man dressed as an animal (simply known as The Fool). Accompanied by musicians, Bessy and the Fool dragged a plow from house to house while asking for gifts and money for the harvest (It has been suggested that, originally, such gifts were intended as offerings to secure a bountiful harvest).  Celebrations continued until the next morning with drinking and dancing. Some dancing was ritual, in the fashion of Morris Dancing, including a very specific variation, Sword Dancing.

St. Crispin’s Day (England)

Now known primarily through Shakespeare’s Henry V, St. Crispin’s Day (October 25th) once served as a vehicle for social sanction in communities throughout England. In traditions persisting until the 1880s in some areas, on St. Crispin’s day villages fashioned an effigy in the image of a resident who was particularly ill-behaved or notorious over the past year. The dummy would then be hung from a tree, signpost, or other high point as way of expressing communal displeasure with that individual. The effigy was left hanging until November 5th (which happens to be a Guy Fawkes Day, another holiday in which an effigy plays a significant role … so I can’t help wondering if there is a connection).

Evacuation Day (New York and Surrounding Areas)

Let Your Freak Flag Fly (Evacuation Day 1783)

The curiously named Evacuation Day was an annual celebration of British soldiers’ November 25, 1783 withdrawal from New York at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. Evacuation Day was celebrated with parades, martial displays, flying flags, formal dinners, and speeches by local officials.

A more unusual aspect of Evacuation Day, flagpole climbing contests, had its roots in an apocryphal story that the British had left their flag flying over New York but greased the flagpole in hopes of making it impossible for the Americans to remove their banner. After several failed attempts by others, a young man succeeded in shimming up the pole, removing the Union Jack, and raising the Stars and Stripes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Evacuation Day waxed in direct proportion to the increasing popularity of Thanksgiving, another late November holiday. It’s a shame about the flagpole climbing contests, though.

Literary Archaeology: Writing the Wind: Weather, Climate, and HistFic

Jon Black

The Frost Fair of 1814 by Luke Clenell

This started out as a post about the promise and peril of writing HisFic in which I used the recent Doctor Who episode “Thin Ice” as a case study. But watching the episode, seeing the Frost Fair over the Thames and the elephant making its way its way across the thick ice, I kept veering off into reflections about the possibilities for using weather and climate in historical fiction. Ultimately, I surrendered to these tangents.

The Frost Fairs, fetes held in concurrence with irregular freezings of the Thames (which largely brought London to a standstill anyway) were a real thing. Even the elephant was liften from the pages of history, homage to an actual pachyderm who bravely crossed river near Blackfriars Bridge in 1814.

Another aspect of the 1814 Frost Far was disappointingly omitted by Dr. Who writers: the production of a commemorative book, Frostiana; or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State by printer George Davis. As an added gimmick, with modern aficionados of meta will appreciate, all the books were typeset and printed in a stall erected over the frozen river.

The Frost Fairs occurred, in years the Thames froze solidly, across a broad swath of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. Unsurprisingly, these dates coincide with a period known as the Little Ice Age when mean seasonal temperatures in most parts of the globe fell significantly.

That makes Frost Fairs the kind of exotic yet specific element that brings historical fiction to life for readers … and is fun for authors to write. The Little Ice Age is hardly the only distinctive weather/climate event with potential for writing HistFic. I have expanded on it, and provided a few others, below.

Event of 535 A.D.

What remains of the Ilopango Volcano today

A brief but devastating period of global cooling and violent weather that is now tied by many scientists to a Volcanic Winter caused by the catastrophic eruption of either El Salvador’s Ilopango Volcano or Indonesia’s Krakatoa.  Consistent cloud cover and cooler temperatures created famine in locations as diverse as China, Ireland, Mesoamerica, and Peru. Famines begat plague as well as touching off a wave of often violent migrations as hungry populations went off en masse search of sustenance. Among the civilizations believed to have fallen or been weakened at least in part by the Event of 535 A.D. are the Byzantine Empire (largely from the Plague of Justinian), India’s Gupta Dynasty, Mexico’s Teotihuacan, sub-Roman Britain (as consequence of the movement of hungry Saxons and Vikings), and the Sassanid Persians.

The Little Ice Age

Depending on the specific location, the Little Ice Age might have begun as early as 1300 or ended as late as 1850.  Several explanations have been advanced for the age and, operating over so long a period, it likely resulted from multiple interrelated factors. Whatever the causes, the effects were dramatic.

That one could sometimes walk from Manhattan to Staten Island over the ice seems unremarkable when the parts of the Bosporus and the Bay of Galveston occasionally froze solid. Snow was taken for granted in Lisbon, Portugal.

Further north, effects were more serious. Frequent flooding altered coastlines and river courses in Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. Iceland was isolated, famished, and lost half its population. Norse populations in Greenland vanished entirely. In Asia, China saw its agricultural zones shift southward and its coastal regions battered by intense typhoon activity.

Blame it on the Rain.

All this had profound social consequences. The hungry, displaced, and weary populations of the Little Ice Age have been linked with everything from increased political radicalization (English Civil War, American Revolution, French Revolution, Revolutions of 1848, etc.) to witch hunting panics stretching from Salem to the Harz Mountains.

Of course, every Little Ice Age has its silver lining. A number of musicologists have suggested that that the old, dense woods of Little Ice Age forests may explain (at least in part) the superlative acoustic properties of instruments made by Antonio Stradivarius.

Year Without a Summer (1816)

As with the Event of 535 A.D., the Year without a Summer was caused by a Volcanic Winter, in this case resulting from the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora. Piggybacking on the effects of the Little Ice Age, it overtaxed already strained agricultural systems. Europe saw shortages and food riots in France, Switzerland, and the UK. A typhus outbreak occurred in Ireland. Freezes occurred as late as August while severe storms and torrential rain flooded major rivers. In North America, crops in New England and Canada failed. While there was no widespread famine there, food prices (and social unrest) rose sharply. China saw regional famines accompanied by widespread desertion from the army.

William Turner’s sunset paintings were made possible by a disaster half a world away.

Conversely, the dense atmospheric particulates of the Year Without a Summer led to brilliant sunrises and sunsets, captured in landscape paintings of the period. It also stimulated widespread interest in scientific agriculture such as mechanization and chemical fertilizers.

A few parting thoughts about how climate might play into historical fiction:

First, as the above examples indicate, climate has a significant impact on the rise and fall of civilizations, cultures, and nations. This is true of gradual long term change as well as cataclysmic occurrences like the Event of 535 A.D. or Year without a Summer. With the glacial (see what I did there?) pace of climate change, land is often settled which is cultivatable under favorable climate conditions. When climate shifts again, however, the land proves to be inhospitable. This kind of sudden decline in carrying capacity has been pointed to as a factor in the fall of the Anasazi (or, if you prefer, Ancestral Puebloans), classical Mayan civilization, and civilization’s first blush in Mesopotamia (possibly catalyzed by widespread deforestation).

Don’t Have to Be a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind is Blowing.

Second, humans have always understood weather … but they haven’t always understood meteorology. A Neolithic farmer might actually be a better weather prognosticator over his or her little bit of dirt than a trained 21st century meteorologist. But the Neolithic farmer (and, indeed, most humans until the early 20th century) don’t really see the big picture and don’t understand what drives weather. For much of history, extreme weather is likely to be viewed as divine omen, direct evidence of God’s/gods’ displeasure, or the work of the black magic or infernal forces.

Literary Archaeology: Words, Words, Words

Jon Black

Language changes over time. Consider the following examples:

  • “The very first thing I noticed was my awareness of the susurrus of the house and rock, now one with the sea’s slow movement.” August Derleth, The Mask of Cthulhu (1958).
  • The word whisky signifies water and is applied by way of eminence to ‘strong water’ or distilled liquor. The spirit drunk in the north is drawn from barley … it is strong but not pungent and was free from the empyreumatick taste or smell.” Samuel Johnson, Journey to the Western Islands (1775) (Not fiction, but it’s what I happen to have at hand.)
  • “When I did hear the motley fool thus moral on the time, My lungs began to crow like chanticleer, That fools should be so deep-contemplative, And I did laugh sans intermission.” Shakespeare, As You Like It. (1599).

Go back much farther and you’ll bump into questions of mutual intelligibility…already thorny and ponderous by the time of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and absolutely opaque by the time we hit Beowulf.

The point to all of this is that different times and places have very different methods of speaking–and ones that we as readers can identify even if we don’t know all the rules.

Using archaic or obsolete words, phrases, or manners of speaking are a potent tool for writers of historical fiction and historical fantasy. It adds color, flavor, and can provide useful shorthand. Dropping period vocabulary or idioms into conversation or description help set time and place.

While some authors (and their loyal fans) will disagree, for most readers a little period language goes a long way. Remember the goal is to draw readers into your work and make the setting more colorful and vibrant. Your goal is not to send your readers scrambling for reference material after every third word, like Middle Schoolers encountering Shakespeare for the first time!

For me, the most effective formula is to lay it on a little thick at the beginning but then only periodically afterward (and ramp it up a little bit whenever there is a scene change that would feature a similar shift in language).

Fortunately, a number of resources are available to help you get the most of out of period dialogue and vocabulary … with minimum investment of time and money.

Online Resources                                                                     

A search will turn up any number of clickbait articles with headlines like “You won’t believe these 20 shocking words nobody uses anymore.” They’re fun, they’re not necessarily wrong, but caveat emptor, baby! A more targeted search, including the name of the era and possibly a few weightier terms such as “lexicon” or “vocabulary” will bolster the quality of your results. Of course, if you want the platinum standard, it’s hard to get more authoritative than the OED, which maintains its own lexical graveyard at https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/explore/archaic-words.


If you’re willing to lay out a little cash, a number of books on the topic are available as well. I have a fondness for W.R. Runyan’s 1,001 Fun and Fabulous Forgotten Words and Phrases and, especially, Jeffrey Kacirk’s Forgotten English. The latter takes a quality-over-quantity approach, drawing on Kacirk’s talent for tale telling as it digs deeply into the etymology of each word presented.

You can also try a more targeted search leading you to things like Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words From the Fourteenth Century.

Getting really deep into it.

Remember, most of the books are written with a broad audience in mind. Any serious writer or philologist will look at some of the entries in these books and say “People don’t know what that means?”

Period Resources

There’s no reason to limit yourself to what other contemporary writers and historians have said about the era you’re writing in. You can go directly for sources from the period in question.

Period Books

When trying to use period language, an obvious angle is to look at the books of the time. Want the sound of a world-wise, and rather world weary, nineteenth century American? Look at Twain’s words. Hoping to cop the elegant language and sharp slang of Lost Generation dilatants? Dive into Fitzgerald, Barns, Joyce, or, for a more harrowing take, Elliot. Need to channel the feverish musings of a brooding intellectual in the last days of Tsarist Russia? Look no further than Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Journals and Diaries

Of course, there is a limitation on using period books in this fashion. All fiction and most non-fiction presents a stylized reconstruction of natural speech that is designed to impact the reader in some way. For a real emphasis on authenticity, focus on journals and diaries. These sources are the most felicitous to the way people of a given time period actually thought and spoke.

The Samuel Johnson quote above is instructive in this capacity. Nothing beats Johnson and Boswell for capturing the tone of a witty erudite gentleman of eighteenth Britain, especially one believing his words are relatively private.

A surprising number of such texts are available without having to dive into a distant archives (though, if you want to, go right ahead).

A special variation on this theme are transcripts. If you want to know what a meeting of the Royal Geographic Society in 1837, and the kind of people who attended it, sounded like, you can go look it up! But remember, any event that merits a transcript was probably sufficiently formal for that to be reflected in how people spoke as well. Don’t confuse it for casual conversation or the language of the street–any more than people using Robert’s Rules of Order would be a good insight in twenty-first century colloquial English.


Peter Mark Roget, creator of the modern Thesaurus

One of my favorite possessions is a 1962 Thesaurus that I consult regularly for sheer novelty value. Without it, I never would have known that a “standpatter” was an obstinate person or that “green good” could refer to either groceries or counterfeit. If you can’t find a thesaurus that perfectly matches your project, do not despair. Because the goal of a thesaurus is to present a reader with all the optional synonyms, words often continue to appear in a thesaurus for a decade or two after they’ve fallen out of common use. Modern thesauri date only from the mid-19th century, you’ll need to look at one of the sources above.

Literary Archaeology: It’s Writing Cats and Dogs

Jon Black

They loved their owners very much

The use of domesticated animals is nearly universal across human culture. Nevertheless, the specific uses of such animals, preferences regarding species and breed, and attitudes toward such animals shift across time and place. As such, they can be a wonderful part of the background in HistFic. No domesticated animals are more useful for writers, and more interesting to readers, than those that blur that line between work animals and companions: cats and dogs. Even when treated realistically, these creatures can very nearly become characters in their own right. As pets, they provide a goldmine of opportunities to convey information about their owners. The kind of animal chosen as a pet, what it is named, and how it is treated say a great deal about a character.

This week’s column looks at those two delightful species. It examines the where, when, and how of their domestication as well as offering a few fun facts which might prove useful or inspirational to HisFic writers. Obviously, it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what could be said about cats and dogs…so this may turn out to be first in a periodic series of articles.

To head off any angry feedback from either the dog-people or cat-people, I’ve presented them alphabetical order.

CATS (Felis catus)

Origins: Evolved from the near-eastern Wildcat (Felis sylvestris lybica). The earliest confirmed archeological evidence for domesticated cats dates from 9,500 years ago in Cyprus. Genetic evidence suggests slightly older origins, around 10,000 years ago in Middle East. Interestingly, there is evidence that the Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis, closely related to the Wildcat but, its name notwithstanding, not the leopard) was undergoing the process of domestication in China by 7,500 years ago (and possibly as early as 10,000 years ago) but, for whatever reason, the process was never completed and no semi-domesticated populations survive today.

How the Relationship Started: The initial interaction of humans and cats likely began when after the former started engaging in systematic agriculture that produced significant surplus. The humans’ stored grains and seeds attracted rodents which, in turn, attracted the ancestors of domesticated cats. A symbiotic relationship developed, with the cats benefiting from plentiful food and the humans benefitting from reduced grain loss as well as, although they didn’t know it, reduced their susceptibility to rodent-borne pathogens.

Everybody Loves a Cat Lady

In popular culture, “cat lady” has evolved from a term disparagement to one that is often a self-proclaimed badge of honor. While the term is of relatively recent vintage, the archetype itself is not; although, there seems to be no academic consensus on when it first emerged. Certainly, it was alive and well by the Victorian era, when multiple cat ownership and spinsterhood were already linked. (Fun Fact: Florence Nightingale was a real-life a cat lady, owning as many as 60 felines throughout her life, most of them named after popular political figures of the day).

Cardinal Richelieu, one of history’s great “Cat Ladies.” (Image credit: Detroit Institute of Arts via The History Blog)

Other alleged historical Cat Ladies include Louisa May Alcott, Clara Barton, all three Bronte sisters, Vivian Leigh, and Harriet Beecher Stowe (It would appear that something about authors and nurses overlaps with cat fancying). If one takes a non-sex/gender specific approach to the term then Cardinal Richelieu, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemmingway must be added to the ranks of Cat Ladies. Catherine the Great was another famous Cat Lady…look for the descendants of her pets to appear in one of my upcoming stories.

A Plague on Both Your Mouses

For centuries, cats had an ambivalent relationship with organized religion. This goes at least as far back as the Black Death, when priests often labeled cats as argents of darkness who brought plague. It was an ironic conclusion. Rather than causing plague, by feeding on rodents that carried plague flees, cats were one on the medieval world’s only effective anti-plague measures. In 1486, the Malleus Maleficarum, the church’s handbook for witch hunting, identified cat ownership as possible evidence of witchiness. Today, things appear more amicable. The gentle Gertrude of Nivelles is the patron saint of both cats and cat lovers.

Feline Hall of Fame: Unsinkable Sam

Unsinkable Sam served as ship’s cat on three separate ships that were torpedoed during WWII, surviving each time and living out the rest of his long life on land. Sam, however was something of a turncoat. He began his career on the German battleship Bismark, after being plucked from the water by crewmen from the HMS Cossack, he spent the remainder of his military career with the Royal Navy.

Unsinkable Sam on patrol

DOGS (Canis Lupus Familiaris)

Roman State of Hounds

Origins: Domesticated from the Gray Wolf (Canis Lupis), there are two differing hypothesis regarding the time and place. The first is in Europe, at least 15,000 years ago (and possibly as far back as 36,000 years ago). The second is Central Asia or Western China 12,500 years ago. Recently, it has been suggested that both may be correct and the domestication process may have occurred independently twice. Even the latest date would make the dog the first species domesticated by humans and, notably, predates the practice of agriculture and occurred back when all humans were hunter-gatherers.

How the Relationship Started: There are multiple non-exclusive theories behind the domestication of wolves into dogs. Opportunistic wolves may have found scavenging human trash made an easier meal than hunting and begun following the strange bipeds around. While humans may have experienced some benefit from the wolves consuming their rubbish (though not as much as sedentary humans later would), their primary benefit may have been the animals’ superior senses…serving as an alarm system for the approach of wild animals or other groups of humans.

Hunting likely played a significant role as well, though whether this occurred concurrently with or after other factors is debated. As social, group-oriented species, the hunting styles of humans and wolves were highly compatible. Though too long to go into here, there is a fascinating body of research regarding behaviors and communications that may have jumped between the two species early in the relationship.

Packed Animal

Before the arrival of the horse, outside of the Andes (with its llama) the dog was the only draft animal in the New World. A healthy dog can carry approximately one-quarter of its own weight for sustained periods. Dogs selectively bread for such purposes can carry about one-third of their weight. Using a travois (a simple drag-sled constructed from three wooden poles) pushes that half or even two-thirds of its weight, while introducing terrain limitations. Dogs in a snow sled team can pull one-and-a-half to two times their combined weight.

Bark Like An Egyptian

While often overshadowed by their veneration of cats as symbols of the goddess Bast, the ancient Egyptians were extraordinarily fond of dogs. They could be found as household pets of everyone from peasants to pharaohs and were used for hunting, guarding, and even military purposes.

Fido, J’Accuse!

While not receiving quite so much ecclesiastical condemnation as cats, dogs have faced their share of trouble with religious officials and accusations of being in league with dark forces. The list of individuals accused during the Salem Witch Trials included two dogs. Conversely, dogs were sometimes used to ferret (see what I did there?) out alleged witches. Regional folklore in Britain features many examples of black dogs with red eyes (sometimes spectral, sometimes tangible) that are often viewed as fiendish or, at the very least, uncanny.

Literary Archaeology: Books within Books

Jon Black

The forgotten tome, bound in cracked leather, creaks as the protagonist opens it. Along with the musty smell issuing from its ancients pages comes a crucial clue or essential exposition.

It is a cliché of genre fiction, and for damn good reason. It’s not just a matter of books being a good, plausible vehicle for exposition. Most readers are, at heart, also bibliophiles. We love not only good stories in books but good stories about books.

With that in mind, inventing books to deliver exposition and advance the plot is a time-honored tradition. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon is the superlative example. He, his antecedents, and protégées are the ultimate practitioners of this art, giving us dozens of such fictional books. The best, like the Necronomicon, Howard’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and Chambers’ The King in Yellow have arguably become characters in their own right, with rich backstories and distinctive “personalities.”

There is absolutely nothing wrong with inserting an invented book into a story. But HistFic writers have another option, one perhaps more felicitous to their craft: coopting actual historical books into their narrative. Lovecraft and other Mythos authors coopted a number of actual books for their stories—twisting them or inserting content that furthered their narratives. Great for HistFic, such books also work marvelously for contemporary stories with a historical research component.

History’s bookshelf is full of intriguing options. Originally, I intended to profile five such works in this post; including authorships and publication information, summaries, suggestions for their use in HistFic, and links to their text online. In order to do justice to each book, I realized I needed to curtail that to three books (conveniently, giving me material for a series of these posts).

For the inaugural post in this series, I focus on two historical books that have seen extensive use in fiction, The Golden Bough and The Witch Cult in Western Europe, as well as one that, to my knowledge, has not: Pantographia.

The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion     

Author: Sir James Frazer (1854-1941), a pioneering anthropologist from Glasgow who lectured at the UK’s most prestigious universities throughout his career.

Publication: 1890 (original two-volume edition), 1900 (expanded three-volume edition), 1906-1915 (comprehensive twelve-volume edition).

Summary: One of the foundational texts of anthropology, the Golden Bough is a treasure trove containing thousands of examples of beliefs, rites, and rituals from around the world. While Europe is overrepresented in Golden Bough, Frazer grabs examples cover the globe.

Highlighting commonalities between these examples, Frazer argued for the existence of a number of meta-myths (the Killing of the Divine King, the Corn Maiden, etc.) common in pre-modern societies. In some ways, the Golden Bough anticipates the work of Jung and Campbell. But there are significant differences.  Jung and Campbell saw the universality of myth as testimony to its value for the human psyche and human experience. Frazer, in contrast, sought to use Golden Bough to build a case for the unilateral progression of human societies from magical belief through religion to scientific rationalism; by extension demystifying the first two stages and defining them solely as inferior, pre-scientific attempts to understand, and control, the world.

Frazer’s ideas have since fallen from favor. Most modern anthropologists would disagree with the Golden Bough’s axioms that magic, religion, are science are mutually incompatible systems of meaning and that the only functions of magic and religion are to understand and control the material world. Nevertheless, it is still respected as one of the earliest attempts to write scientifically and systematically on the topics. Frazer’s work also has long legs in art and literature. Far from being confined to Mythos writers, artists from T.S. Eliot to Jim Morrison explicitly referenced The Golden Bough as an influence of their art.

TANGENT ALERT: I adore Frazer and his Golden Bough. The rascally and curmudeonly scholar, as well as his gloriously opaque academic prose, were a major inspiration for the character of Herbert Price in the “Bel Nemeton” series.

Possible Uses in HistFic: The greatest value of Golden Bough for HistFic is the enormous volume of examples contained within its pages. Authors can insert an example that advances their plot, either through armchair research by protagonists or as something they must actively investigate. Of course, Golden Bough is so packed with examples that the process can be reversed: picking an appropriate actual example from its pages to be worked into the narrative.

Text Online: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3623


Author: Edmund Fry (1754-1833), an English craftsmen and scholar who was one of the most influential and knowledgeable type-founders of his time.

Publication: 1799.

The product of 16 years, Pantographia is a visually stunning compilation of all alphabets and typefaces in the world that would have been known to an educated Englishman at the close of the 18th century. It also includes samples of languages and dialects as well as, in some cases, very basic lexicons.

Pantographia follows a consistent format: an alphabet or typeface is presented on the left-hand page, while the right-hand provides Fry’s description and commentary. While the typefaces (such as the now obscure “Bastard” font popular in 14th and 15th century French printing) are interesting, HistFic writers will probably gravitate toward esoteric alphabets such as Chaldean, Armenian, Balinese, Coptic, Dalmatian, Egyptian Demotic, and Samaritan. Among the most unusual is “Philosophic,” a script designed by the 17th century Bishop Wilkins as one of the first efforts toward a universal language).

Excerpts from endangered or extinct dialects and languages, such as the Berryan dialect of French and Carnish (which may be Wendish or something like it) and a preserved excerpt of Vandal are also exciting. Some of Fry’s samples are deliberately archaic, such as a transcription of Portuguese that was already 200 years old at the time of Pantographia’s publication.

TANGENT WARNING: Pantographia is an endless, if delightful, rabbit hole. The typefaces and scripts are often gorgeous to look at. Understanding the work sometimes requires decoding more than two centuries of geographical changes and understanding of the world. Sometimes, a little research and puzzle-solving is necessary just to figure out what the hell Fry is talking about. To cite just a few examples: What is the “New England” language? Presumably some Algonquin or Iroquoian tongue, but which one? Ditto “Esquimaux,” is obviously an Inuit language, but which? By “Mexican” does he mean Nahuatl? What is the “Saracen” alphabet? It is presented separately from Arabic, to which its script only roughly correlates. Perhaps some form of Berber? And then there is “Sclavonian.” Fry’s description clearly indicates he considers it a significant language with which his readers would be familiar. I think he may be talking about Serbo-Croatian. But a separate entry for “Servian” renders even that hypothesis less likely.

Possible HistFic Uses: Fry’s preservation of scripts, dialects, and lexicons which were obscure even in 1799 provides means for translating ancient inscriptions or cracking esoteric cyphers. Pantographia’s contents are already so bizarre that inserting Atlantian, Enochian, or Pnakotic hardly seems to make a difference. Also, prior to the internet, unlike Golden Bough or Witch Cult, Pantographia was a truly obscure text with only a few copies known to exist – just finding one could represent a plot point in itself.

Text Online: https://archive.org/details/pantographiacont00fryeiala/

The Witch-Cult in Western Europe

Author: Margret Murray (1863-1963) an Indian-born British anthropologist and archeology who conducted research in European folklore as well as ground-breaking (hah!) excavations in Egypt, Malta, and elsewhere.

Publication: 1921

This book first articulates what has become known as the “Witch-Cult Hypothesis,” arguing that “witches” and “witchcraft” as understood by post-Medieval Europe were actually remnants of a continent-wide pre-Christian nature/fertility religion.

Witch-Cult used examples from European folklore as well as evidence and transcripts gathered during witch trials both to support its hypothesis and identify the salient characteristics of the putative ancient faith.

As with Frazer’s work, Murray’s “Witch-Cult” hypothesis has fallen into disfavor. It presumes a cultural homogeneity in pre-Christian Europe that does not appear to have existed. Murray, like Frazer, removes examples from cultural context which may distort their meaning. And using evidence from witch trials, often gained under what could charitably called “coercion,” is fraught with peril. Nevertheless, as with Golden Bough, it remains an influential text that was one the first of its kind.

Possible HistFic Uses: Just because the Witch-Cult hypothesis appears to have been untrue in our world, doesn’t mean it has to be so in a story. Even if it is, that does not preclude one of its folklore examples or excerpts from a witch trial confessions (one actually in the book or inserted by a HistFic author) from being true within the story and providing vital information.

Text Online: https://archive.org/details/witchcultinweste00murr

Literary Archaeology: Play Me a Memory – Using Music in Historical Fiction

Jon Black

I’m at South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin this week. Over five days, more than 2,200 bands from 67 countries are performing in 60-ish venues scattered around downtown. With numbers that large, if you can think of type of music, it’s here somewhere (yesterday, I saw a ska band from Tokyo).

This means two things. First, I forgot I had write this post until 5 a.m. Wednesday morning. Second, music is very much on my mind this week. Taken in tandem, they’ve catalyzed reflection of what a potent but criminally under-utilized tool music is for writing historical fiction and historical fiction.

Pre-Historic Flute Bone

Universal Language

Music is ubiquitous across cultures and dates to far earlier than was suspected until recently. Flutes made from bird bones and ivory found in Germany have been dated to 40,000 years ago. The Chinese were using turtle shell rattles as far back 4,000 BC. Silver pipes from 2,500 BC turn up in a grave in Ur. Mesopotamians also gave us the oldest surviving musical notation (albeit imprecise by today’s standards) from a clay tabled found in Nippur. A second tablet, dating from 1250 BC, already shows significant advances from the first. And the Cycladic culture of ancient was celebrating musicians in their painting and poetry, including graceful elaborate statues of musicians playing both Cycladic culture of Ancient Greece, include double-lutes and harps.

First, a confession. I love music. I really love music. I spent the better part of a decade working primarily as a music journalist/music historian. And that comes through in writing. Two of my works accepted for publication are music driven.  In “Gabriel’s Trumpet,” my upcoming novel from 18thWall Publications, a musician serves as the stories MacGuffin. In “So Lonesome I Could Die,” my upcoming short story from Darkhouse Books, the ill-fated protagonist is a musician. I also have a story I’ve been shopping around in which a music journalist comes to be a very bad end.

But, even if you don’t have my level of passion, there is much to recommend referencing music in Historical Fiction or Historical Fantasy. Many HistFic writers, despite our best efforts, often emphasize the sights of the past to the detriment of information provided by the other senses (excluding the now obligatory passage about how bad the past smelled). Music is a great way to insert the sounds of the past.

Referencing the sounds of Wagner, the Doors, or medieval troubadours immediately provides expositive shorthand regarding location and setting. When well chosen, it also helps build mood and atmosphere. Because sound is such a visceral sense and people often have very personal and intimate reactions to music, it is a great way to make readers feel like they’re right there in the story.


Video Killed the Radio Star

If you’re writing at the end of the 19th century or after, don’t forget the possibilities of recording, playback, and broadcast technologies. Consider the following sentences:

“After cranking the Victrola, she delicately set a phonograph record on the platter,”

“Jamming a cassette in the car’s 8-track player, he slammed his foot on the accelerator”

“Flipping through her phone, she wanting to share the album she’d downloaded just hours ago.”

Each of those is a single sentence that suggests an entire scene … in an unmistakable time period. Indeed, it’s not hard to go from there to characters and motivation.

STEAL THIS PLOT TWIST:  Speaking of recording technology, if you’re looking for an unusual way to challenge your protagonists, stick critical information on some obscure pre-phonograph  recording medium (cylinder, wire recorders, etc.). Now, send them scrambling to find a way to play it.

Phonographic Cylinder Player

Broadcasting technologies are very useful tools for writing. This is especially true of radio, which contains ads (in some countries, anyway) and news between songs. Such news breaks can establish the era or setting of a piece (a news story about the eruption of Mt. St. Helens), provide color (don’t forget the annual Strawberry Days festival this weekend, come on down and see the crowning of the Strawberry Queen), or advancing the plot (a hook-handed killer has just escaped the nearby institute for the criminally cliché).

Papa was a Rolling Stone

Music and musicians don’t have to be just background, color, or exposition, they can actually be part of the narrative.  At the end of the day, you don’t have to have a reason to stick a musician in your story. Archetypal musicians are colorful, larger than life, get away with flouting social conventions, and have interesting backstories. In other words, they are precisely the kind of characters that most authors like to write.

However, if that’s not enough, musicians have multiple narrative uses.

While generally considered somewhat disrespectable themselves, musicians come into contact and interact with people from all classes and walks and life. That makes them a great vehicle for providing information that protagonists might otherwise have difficulty accessing. That musicians often travel widely offers similar benefits.

And, while it’s a cliché, musicians are often portrayed with unusual (frequently shady) backgrounds.  It is easier to believe that a down on his jazz player knows how to hotwire a car than an accountant. Or that the grizzled of Meistersinger knows the paths through the mountains out of Hapsburg lands than a peasant.

In short, because of the enduring and portable archetypes we associate with them, the romantic and liminal musician can be played as something of a wildcard.

Woodstock (Dereck Redmon and Paul Campbell)