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.

Books

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.

Thesauri

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

Pantographia

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.

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