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.

Troubadours

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)

Literary Archaeology: The Devil is in the Details: Thoughts on Accuracy in HistFic

Jon Black

As someone who writes primarily historical fiction, I read a lot of articles and blog posts offering tips about writing HistFic. While the wording changes from piece to piece, one common bit of advice is, “Always make your story as accurate as possible.”

With respect for my colleagues, I disagree.

Great for 1920s Paris. Terrible for 16th century Florence.

As the following, admittedly, hyperbolic examples show, while it is certainly possible to pay too little attention to accuracy, it is also possible to pay too much attention:

PROBABLY TOO LITTLE DETAIL: “They got in a car and drove away.”

PROBABLY TOO MUCH DETAIL: “They entered the 1922 Duesenberg touring car, its chrome-steel frame hand-assembled in Auburn, Indiana, one of two manufacturing plants buoying that small Midwestern town, alongside Auburn Rubber Company. Sliding behind the wheel, after taking a moment to tie his Dawson Cap shoes, he listened to the smooth purr of its 224 cubic inch Continental L-head engine as it roared away over the bitulithic pavement, its surface a blending of bitumen and aggregate.”

The problem with the first is that it offers nothing of what brings readers to HistFic in the first place. The author might as well be writing contemporary fiction. The problem with the second is that it gets lost in own detail, becoming a simulation rather than a narrative.

I think the reason many people say “be as accurate as possible” is because most agree the second example goes too far. There is an implied caveat of “within reason.” But what does that mean? Obviously, there is an enormous range between the examples provided. As long as you’re between those markers, I believe there is no gold standard for what is right and wrong. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a best option for a given writer. Knowing four things can help you find what works best for you.

Too much research.

Know Your Audience

Not every reader enjoys the same level of historical detail or has the same level of demand/forgiveness regarding historical accuracy. Readership will naturally gravitate toward authors that match their preferences. And that’s okay.

Know Yourself

Not everyone is, or should be, Neil Stephenson and author books that are, arguably, functional history texts as well as narrative fiction. If you’re not enjoying the level of research you’re doing, there’s a very real risk that’s going to come through when you write about it. Of course, if you find that is often an issue … you might want to reexamine your choice of genre.

Not Enough Research

Know Your Genre

Readers will generally expect greater accuracy in areas related to the genre’s conventions and be more forgiving elsewhere. Additionally, some genres have default settings for accuracy greater or lesser than other genres. Some specific thoughts:

Historical Fantasy: As the name “fantasy” indicates, the genre already deviates significant from the real world, typically through the inclusion of magical, legendary, or mythic aspects. The permutations and consequences of such changes may be extensive and, as a result, the genre has comparatively relaxed expectations.

Horror: With its emphasis on visceral and emotional reaction from readers, authors of historical horror probably have more wiggle room on detail and accuracy than most. This is especially true of supernatural horror, which is arguably a subset of historical fantasy rather than historical fiction.

Military: This genre’s requirement differ depending on the scale of the narrative. If it is primarily tactical, authors will want to show they’ve done their research on weapons, tactics, terrain, etc. If the story is strategic in nature, showcasing politics and personalities is more important.

Mystery: Classic mystery often hinges on details. The type of fabric in a dress. The failing of a clock. The limitations of a specific poison. As such, avid mystery reader are often highly attuned to such things and likely to notice and resent obvious errors or omissions, especially those pertaining to the mystery itself or the chain of clues leading to its conclusion.

Pulp: With its emphasis on rapid pace and frequent action, detail and even accuracy are often secondary in pulp. Classic pulp often plays fast and loose with geography, politics, and history. In feats of daring-do, firearms, vehicles, and other machines often over-perform historical reality or a painted only in rough strokes. Or suffer implausible failures when a moment of cliffhanging tension is called for.

Romance: While not a genre I have a lot of affinity for, I have the enormous respect for those who write historical romance. Captivating modern readers with tales of desire, romance, and love set in eras of courting couches, chaperones, and scandalous bare ankles is no mean feat. Accuracy in social conventions (and the flouting of them) as well as fashion, both personal and couture, need to be front and center in this genre.

Thriller: While this genre has some similarities with pulp, expectations for technical, historical, and political accuracy and detail are generally higher.

Western: Hard to say. With a few exception, classic Westerns were more concerned with getting the feel right than the facts right. That trend began reversing in the 1980s. Today, brutally realistic and feverishly research works coexist alongside ‘Wide-Open-Space-Opera.’  

Know Your Time Period

While arguably less important that the proceeding three, still worthy of consideration. Different eras come with different benchmarks for accuracy and research. If you’re writing for “dark ages” Europe, sooner or later you’re probably going to have fill a gap or two from your own imagination, regardless of intent. On the other hand, if you’re writing 1960s Haight-Ashbury, almost every detail you might want is probably out there somewhere if you care enough to find it.

A Final Thought

Remember, there is a point of diminishing returns when it comes accuracy in historical fiction and historical fantasy. Beyond that mark, the research time and narrative constraints involved in greater accuracy simply don’t justify the returns. As an author, you have finite time.

Unless, somehow, absolutely crucial to the story, the time spent developing a functional knowledge of 16th century shoe production is likely better spent in writing an engrossing narrative with compelling characters.

Nothing New About Anachronisms: The building of Noah’s Arc, from the Nuremberg Chronicle.

Taking Tea with Cromwell: Using Historical Figures in Your Fiction

Jon Black

One of the great opportunities offered by writing historical fiction and historical fantasy is option of using historical figures in your work. This device can be highly enjoyable for writer and reader alike. Examples abound, from that first great time-slip novel of historical fiction, L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall to the ongoing alt-history novels of Harry Turtledove. In my opinion, the master of this art is Caleb Carr, whose novels The Alienist and Angel of Darkness make deft use of historical figures in bringing 19th century New York vividly, and often terrifyingly, to life.

Ada Lovelace, computer programmer, daughter of poetry, possessor of a great jaw.

Unfortunately, like any other tool in a writer’s kit, historical figures can be misused as well.

This fortnight’s blog posts shares some of my ideas and experiences regarding using historical figures in fiction. It’s a device I use in both of my upcoming novels for 18thWall. Part of Bel Nemeton occurs in a slightly fantastical 6th century while Gabriel’s Trumpet is a supernaturally-tinged mystery set in a variety of locations within 1920s America.

Historical figures serve three man roles in fiction.

Color: encountering an eccentric Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a combative Ike Clanton, or an enigmatically bewitching Mata Hara are just three examples of how historical figures can be a great way to add color to a narrative. Readers may indulge scenes (provided it’s reasonable in length) even when germane to the main action.

Exposition: Authors have a universe of options when it comes to exposition. But a carefully chosen historical figure can give exposition authenticity and an extra kick. If protagonists need mathematical expertise to crack the 19th century’s greatest code, who better to provide it that Ada Lovelace? How much more potent is a weird tales anecdote when delivered via Kipling sharing the one story from his time in the East he dared not put in any tale? What fish-out-of-water protagonist could want a better guide to Montmartre’s gilded decadence than Toulouse-Latrec?

Short-hand: Word economy is important. A sighting of Picasso or Rasputin, hearing Louis Armstrong blow trumpet in a nightclub or Mussolini give a bombastic speech, a brief exchange with Mark Twain or Cotton Mather; all of those immediately anchor a story in a very specific time and place for readers. Such a brief encounter at the beginning of a work or any time there is a change in venue can be quick way to set the stage and save words better used for driving the action forward.

Of course these categories are not mutually exclusive.  A figure might fulfill two or even all three capacities in a work.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, on a very normal and presumably opium-free day

Like any other aspect of writing, the use of historical figures can be overdone. Avoid giving readers the impression you’re simply name dropping or bragging “Hey, look, I did my research!” (Of course, you want to show you did your research—but be smooth about it.)

You also don’t want to risk your creations getting lost among a parade of historical counterparts or diminish the impact of individual historical figures by drowning them out among their peers (Much as I enjoy the work, I think there are moments were Carr knocks at this threshold in Angel of Darkness).

Strength vs. Dexterity

When deciding which historical figure(s) to utilize in a work, consider there is a general tradeoff between a figures level of fame/power and the freedom you have in using them. The more minor and less well-documented your figure, the more wiggle room you have, the less research is essential, and the lower the risk that readers in the know will walk away from your work unsatisfied. If you’re using the 9th century Persian physician and astrologer al-Khaseb, you’ve got a pretty free hand. If you want Ann Bronté , Edgar Cayce, or the Venerable Bede, your latitude is more limited. And that doesn’t even touch the challenges of Elvis, Einstein, or Shakespeare.

Also, let’s not name names here, but certain historical figures are overdone.

Flowers Don’t Bloom in the Shade

Another issue to consider with a true historical heavy hitter is the relationship between that figure and your characters.

Using such heavyweights necessitates a high level of writing, especially if the figure plays an active role and isn’t merely color. If such a figure is sympathetic to the protagonist, why can’t/won’t he or she simply lift obstacles out of the protagonist’s way? Conversely, if the historical figure opposes to the protagonist, why aren’t the obstacles insurmountable? These questions need to not only answered but answered believably.

Unless your characters (especially the protagonist) are true peers of such a figure, history’s major players are best held at a distance. Indeed, their presence can be entirely off camera. “Justinian, emperor of the world’s most powerful empire,” a looming presence throughout Lest Darkness Fall, is he ultimate challenge that must be met to prevent Rome from sinking into the dark ages. Yet not only is interaction between Justinian and the protagonist Padway very limited, it all occurs via written missives between the two.

That may not be an option for every writer. If, for example, your plot revolves around the foiling an assassination of Ben Franklin by a cabal of mages, he will likely put in at least an appearance or two.

Admittedly, I flout my own advice by inclusion of Langston Hughes in Gabriel’s Trumpet. But Hughes is just such a compelling figure I couldn’t resist his inclusion. I hope to mitigate the risk, I feature him relatively early in his career. Which brings us to…

Before and After

Theodore Roosevelt, police commissioner

A possible “best of both worlds” solution is to portray a major historical figure either before or after their prime. Carr’s novels use this effectively with Teddy Roosevelt. In combination with the force of Roosevelt’s personality, his power as president of the United States could easily overwhelm a narrative and the other characters in it. Instead, in The Alienist, we see Roosevelt during his time New York City’s police commissioner. By the time Angel of Darkness rolls around, he has advanced only one rung to Secretary of the Navy.

At the other end of the spectrum, historical figures in the twilight of their accomplishments, perhaps retired or otherwise not in the limelight have great potential. In addition to providing knowledge or exposition, such individuals can serve in the role of mentor, patron, or even quest-giver for protagonists.

Through The Eyes of History

Everything that has been said thus far about using historical figures in fiction goes double if you’re making a historical figure your protagonist. (Quite frankly, it is a task I don’t feel up to at this point in my career.) Using a major historical figure here is not only a true test of skill but also a substantial commitment necessitating significant research execute believably (especially to readers with more than a cursory knowledge of the figure). Turtledove uses Robert E. Lee as the protagonist throughout much of his novel, Guns of the South. A very tall order indeed!

Snipe Hunting Through History

Historical figures included in your work need not be ones you’ve heard of previously. Once you identify general parameters of the role, an online search can turn up a cast of colorful if obscure figures. Of course, if you hadn’t heard of them previously its likely most of your readers haven’t either. On the other hand, that very obscurity can be an appealing Easter Egg for serious history fans.

Bel Nemeton required the services of an 18th-19th century figure familiar with Indian Coinage. Experimenting with this approach, I found the prodigious James Prinsep, director of the East India Company’s mints and student of Indian numismatism (and who may soon put in an appearance elsewhere).

Repeating the process with “Gabriel’s Trumpet,” I need a photographer active in 1920s New Orleans, My research turned up E.J. Bellocq, an eccentric misanthrope who served as “unofficial official” (and often NSFW) photographer for the Red Light district of Storyville.

I admit, I’m hooked. I’ve found this approach not only enjoyable but personally rewarding.

Mata Hari

Literary Archaeology: Second Souls – Using Other Languages in Historical Fiction and Historical Fantasy

Jon Black

Welcome to a new series on our blog from the ever-spectacular Jon Black! He’ll stop by every other week to talk to us about historical fiction and fantasy, tactics for writing that, research, and everything you could imagine fitting under the banner “Literary Archaeology.” We hope you love it as much as we do!

To Have Another Language is to Possess a Second Soul – Charlemagne

The phenomenon of language unites (and defines) us as humans. As writers, what we do would not be possible with this most human of abilities. At the same time, languages subdivide us. While that creates problems for mutual understanding and harmony, it is a positive boon for writing…

Sprinkling the occasional word or phrase from another language into a work can serve a number of purposes. It can anchor a story in a specific time and place. A note of the exotic can be lent to a location, action, or item. And, while it’s important not to bleed over into stereotyping, a language can be used to provide some shorthand in conveying information about a character.

These are things I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about recently. Much of the action in the series “Bel Nemeton,” which I am honored to be authoring for 18thWall, takes place in Sixth century Arthurian Britain. Its rich cultural tapestry of Celt, Saxon, and even lingering Roman influence was matched by an equally rich linguistic pallet. That is something I wanted to bring to life in the series.

But I am not a polyglot. Nor are most writers. How can we handle languages we don’t speak? As writers, we often treat subjects in which we lack deep expertise. Language does not need to be any different. Fortunately, resources are available, even if the language is extinct.

Before beginning such a journey in your writing, it is useful to decide what your level of commitment to accuracy is. There is no one right answer here. Accuracy is a virtue, but it is not the only virtue. Remember, you are not a linguist, you’re a writer. As authors, we have finite time and must make hard choices about how best to spend it. It doesn’t make sense to spend 20 hours ensuring that your presentation of two words of Gaulish is perfect when those same hours could be spent in more broadly applicable research, actual writing, or editing.

Depending on the language in question, the challenges and available resources for using it in fiction fall into three categories.

Scenario 1: Living Languages

Those seeking to drop Dutch, Swahili, Navajo, etc. into their manuscripts have a plethora of options at their disposal, at least compared to other scenarios. These options break into three general categories:

  • Reaching out to native speakers, translators, or academics. Some, understandably, will want to charge you for their services. Others, as long as your request is not terribly onerous, may be willing to assist a writer pro bono (do not forget to thank them in your work).
  • Online or hardcopy dictionaries, lexicons, and primers.
  • Online translators such as Google Translate and BabelFish. While decent and getting better all the time, remember these programs are not perfect. Be certain you’re okay with that before relying on them as your sole source.

When using the last two DIY options, be aware these often present words in the simplest form possible. If you are using a phrase or entire sentence in your work, the language likely has rules about case, tense, or part of speech which can modify those words, sometimes dramatically. Dictionaries and lexicons will have, at best, limited information of how to handle this. Primaries often contain the necessary information but that can be quite time consuming. Online translators attempt to make the necessary adjustments but, as noted, are imperfect.

Scenario 2: Well-Documented Extinct Language

Using an extinct language is a challenging proposition but often squite doable. Some extinct languages are relatively well documented or even effectively translated (Ancient Egyptian and Aramaic are commonly encountered examples). In such cases, online and hardcopy resources similar to those for living languages maybe available. A handful of these languages even have alleged online translators (though I cannot vouch for their accuracy). The surest bet is to work with a qualified academic (as above) but that doesn’t meet every author’s requirements.

Scenario 3: Poorly-Documented Extinct Language (Or “My Problem With Pictish”)

But what do you do if you want to use an extinct language which is poorly recorded and understood? While exceedingly challenging, it can also be intellectually engaging and very satisfying exercise. This is the situation I found myself in recently. Fortunately, even in this case there are options, which I will examine using my own challenge as an example.

The second novel in my series, tentatively titled Caledfwlch, features the Picts prominently. As part of bringing that ancient people and their land to life, I wanted to be able to use some “Pictish” in the story.

The Pictish language (or perhaps dialect, see below) was spoken in what is now northern and eastern Scotland between the Fourth and Tenth centuries, after which it was eclipsed by the language which evolved into modern Scotts Gaelic. Very few records of Pictish have survived, mostly as brief mentions in Irish or Welsh sources.

First, a caveat. As with my delving into Pictish, our objective as writers is not a fully accurate recreation of an extinct language (a task that often beyond the world’s best linguists). Our goal is humbler, being able to drop an occasional “Pictish” word or phrase into our works for effect.

I began by looking at a language tree to confirm how Pictish relates to other languages, living and dead. Understanding the extinct language’s relationship to other tongues, especially any descendant or related languages provides a foundation for “recreating” that language in your work. If you are uncertain what language family your tongue is in, that information can be quickly found online.

In my case, I learned that, outlier claims to the contrary, overwhelming academic consensus is that Pictish was an Insular Celtic language and a member of the Brittonic/Brythonic (P-Celtic) sub-family. Opinion is pretty evenly divided whether Pictish was a sister language to Common Brittonic or just a dialect of it. Either answer means that the living languages most closely related to Pictish are the ones descended from Common Brittonic: Breton, Cornish, and Welsh.

Of those three languages, Welsh is the one with the closet geographic proximity to Pictish. Decisively so, if one recalls the now extinct Cumbic dialect of Welsh. Cumbric was spoken well into now what is southern Scotland and probably directly adjacent to the lands of the Picts. So, I made the assumption that Welsh was likely the closing living relative of Pictish.

Therefore, I used Welsh as my baseline for “Pictish.” Whenever possible, I used Old Welsh or Middle Welsh sources … and was delighted to find a few online. When those could not give me what I needed, I turned to the plethora of Modern Welsh resources as well as good old Google Translate.

After identifying a Welsh translation for the word or phrase I wanted, I then made another decision. Sometimes I used it directly as “Pictish.” Other times I arbitrarily changed a sound or two. Obviously, this is not a scientifically sound way to actually recreate a language. But, as long as I’m upfront about the liberties I took, I hope it creates a plausible, if fictitious, facsimile that helps bring that fascinating people to life in my novel.

So, my solution to using a poorly documented extinct language was to identify the closest living language (or nearest well documented extinct language) and use it as inspiration for the language I was trying to recreate.

Find Jon Black at JonBlackWrites.com