Monday, January 21, 2013

Lips Like Cherries

by Kathleen Bradean

Steven Saylor writes a wonderful detective series set in ancient Rome. His hero Gordianus the Finder treads carefully through politics and intrigue in pursuit of truth. Years ago at the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, Steven talked about the pitfalls of writing historical fiction. This is recall, so forgive me if I have the story wrong, but he mentioned that in one of his stories, he compared the lips of Gordianus’ lover to cherries, which prompted a reader to inform him that his story was clearly set several years before cherries were introduced to the Romans. Horrors!  Steven mentioned that in the reprint he changed the comparison to pomegranates. But his point was that no matter how much research you do, there’s someone out there whose entire life revolves around fruit in ancient Rome, chariot wheels, or armor, and if you make an error on their obsession, they will hunt you down and mock you.
Put me off writing historicals.
 Oh, I can see someone complaining that a character couldn’t have walked from Bath to London in two days during the Regency period or when a sycophantic courtier says that a Ming Dynasty emperor has the wisdom of Solomon, but I’m not going to drag a writer to the public pillory for cherry lips. I’ll forgive a lot when reading a ripping yarn.
But my concern, both as a reader and a writer, is how can we ever know we got it right? I’m not as concerned about details of cherries and chariot wheels as I am about how we assume people felt about issues. The things we ‘know’ about the past are often a lot of nonsense. For example, the way we’ve been taught to view the Victorians. We think of them a puritanical zealots who covered the arms and legs of their furniture to stop lustful thoughts. Sure, maybe someone did that, but some people in this current time believe that the Grand Canyon was created during Noah’s Flood. I wouldn't want someone two hundred years from now thinking I believed that about the Grand Canyon. Maybe the reason we know about the furniture modesty thing was that someone thought it was so stupid that they wrote about it assuming the audience would get how absurd it was, not that they'd take it as a widespread practice.

What we forget about the Victorians, if we ever knew it, was that they were incredibly forward thinking people. Women’s suffrage, the Humane Society, public sanitation, spiritualism, vegetarianism, public police forces, free-love communes… You name it, they got into it. The best part was that they stopped looking to their rulers to fix problems, rolled up their sleeves, applied scientific methods, and got it done with their committees and teas and societies at the public level. Yeah, some things didn’t work out so well, but at least they tried to make life better for everyone. Bunch of radicals!
So I’m afraid when I read that people didn't know about sex when they probably watched their livestock or neighbors or parents getting it on all the time that we’re not giving our predecessors much credit for common sense. I think plenty people knew the earth was a sphere long before it became the official doctrine. I think most cultures fostered explorers who traveled as well as homebodies who made sure they had a hearth to return to. I don’t believe in the noble savage or that anyone ever properly revered the earth. There were no real saints and everyone was (is) capable of savagery as well as deep compassion, often applied simultaneously, because humans are weird that way. I think a lot of people paid (pay) lip service to the local religion but did (do) what they damn well pleased, because no matter what era, continent, race or religion people were born to, people are, and always were, people. My favorite historical novels have a way of pointing that out.


  1. Hi, Kathleen,

    Excellent points. No generalities will ever be sufficient to sum up our own time, so why should we expect the past to be any less complex?

    As to how we can know if we got it "right" - it's impossible, at least until someone actually invents that time machine. When I write something with a historical setting, my goal is to be plausible rather than correct. That means making a lot of choices (or perhaps I should say "guesses") about stuff that's just plain unknowable.

    The proof of the pudding is in the readers' reactions. Forget about the one expert on cherries. Do the majority of your readers feel as though you've transported them to another time? If so, you're successful, regardless of whether you are "right".

    In fact, the most intriguing historical fiction shows us worlds that violate our previous notions about a particular period - and yet still seem real and believable.

  2. Lisabet - We never can "get it right" because that assumes one truth. Look at America in the early 1900s for example. You had cars, gas lights,indoor plumbing, etc. in New York, but go to Colorado and it was the old west. Simultaneously! Or think about Juneteenth. In many states, slaves knew they were free long beofre that date, but they didn't in Texas because their owners kept news of the end of the Civil War from everyone. Slaves, but not slaves. So even if we could travel back in time to "get it right" part of what we wrote, no matter how accurate, could still very well be "wrong."

  3. Hi Kathleen!

    It is odd how many readers make a fetish about getting the facts right. Some people, like robert Zemeckis know how to make that work for them. If you ever see the movie "Glory" about the first black troops in the Union Army, Zemeckis ran out of money and didn;t have the funds for extras and costumes so he had that brilliant and obvious idea no one had ever thought of before - recruit reenactment societies. They have their own costumes and they know the history.

    As I drift towards geezerhood I always enjoy seeing movies or novels set in the '60s and '70s to see how they get it right. Our own time with the advent of the information age is so tightly preserved for all time.


  4. Garce - now only if we could get reenactors for our books.

    I'm torn about people who devote their lives to a narrow suject. It's really cool that someone bothers to act as a curator for knowledge, and I love how weird little niches appeal to people. What I don't like is when they bludgeon others with their knowledge, or get angry because someone didn't an esoteric fact.


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