James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary
I have always read historical fiction. When I was a child I associated fiction with times and places far removed from my current suburban routine, from the Little House books to the Great Brain series. As I grew up my fiction continued to be historical. I graduated to the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen. As a teenager I read the Mists of Avalon, which crossed me over from history to fantasy and I took a side path into science fiction. As an adult I became interested in the actual history, and my reading took me all over the world in all times while I enjoyed learning about what people did when it was not the twentieth century.
I have been so used to the idea that a story is set long ago or far away that when I began to imagine my own stories it never occurred to me that they would be contemporary. There is not as much excitement in taking a cab as there is in being swept up by a knight on a war charger pounding its way along a dirt path into adventure.
I’ve been in a cab. I’ve been on a horse. No contest.
I chose the late medieval period for my story about books and knowledge because of the richness of the background of the times. The Turks had captured Constantinople about 50 years before, and the city’s fleeing scholars flooded Europe with the ancient manuscripts they carried away from the carnage. My characters are hunting these books and scrolls. Perfect timing.
Because I have had so many years immersed in history, it was not difficult to set my characters there, nor did I struggle to remember what had been invented yet. Anachronisms are a constant challenge, but handy references can prevent embarrassment. The most important reference I have for avoiding them is the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED has extensive etymological information on every word. I use it when I want to mention something, but am not sure if the item or the concept has even entered the vocabulary at the time.
Sensitivity to anachronism is vital for an historical author. The readers are smart, and they will find a mistake even editors may miss. In one of my favorite books there is a scene where the castle ladies are out picking fruit…in Scotland in April. In real life they would be lucky to see blossoms on the trees at that time of year. They would never be picking fruit. It is a time-travel story, but not that kind of time. In another book the beautiful heroine is feeling lonely in her castle tower in the 1150’s. She muses at the window and then lays down her sketchbook.
Maybe there was a window. Maybe. Though the writer did not elaborate upon the incredible wealth of this heroine’s father. Glass windows existed, but were more commonly seen in cathedrals at that time. Paper was so expensive then that it was equally unlikely that this teenager was given quantities of it for sketching.
Small mistakes like these can shake a reader from the imaginary world of the characters and interrupt the flow of the story. What was happening was real in the reader’s mind until they were stunned by an out-of-place sketchbook. It hurts. Even in science fiction, the weirdness of the environment must be explained by the author. Small questions like, “How do they breathe?” and “What do they eat?” can nag at a reader until the author relieves them with an explanation.
I try to have my characters breathe and eat and sleep and scratch and grumble about the weather. These small details connect them with readers who also have the occasional itch and hate being cold and wet. Placing light sources within a scene is also a detail I often use to emphasize the time period. In modern times we take light for granted, but before power stations and incandescent bulbs it might not be so easy to read the expression on another’s face, and shadows were prevalent. We don’t see shadows so much anymore.
I try to draw the reader into the past with those details they share with the characters, rather than go out of my way to describe the differences. When Nadira is hungry, I hope the reader feels a little urge to go to the fridge. When she is cold, I hope the reader tucks her feet under her on that comfy sofa and pulls her sweater around her shoulders. When Montrose bends down to kiss her, I hope the reader feels the rough stubble on his chin. I know I do.
Another tool is language. This is more difficult to achieve. I want the reader to play the story in their imaginations, not stumble over thee and thou. I also want to evoke the time period, so I cannot allow any idiom or slang from other centuries. I choose the dialogue very carefully, keeping in mind that the purpose of the words is to convey information and emotion. Those are the elements of the story; I don’t want so much historical accuracy that I have to insert words that will annoy the reader. One can read a book about Chaucer’s time without having to read it in Middle English.
I was pleased when a recent review of The Hermetica of Elysium praised the language. It was an aspect of the book I had worked very hard to create. This reader, at least, had been able to both enjoy the story with ease as well as stay in the medieval atmosphere. This is due partly to my trusty OED, and partly to my own desire to get on with the adventure.
Here comes that charging horse…
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