Sunday, 5 July 2009

Historical Accuracy

This topic is currently being discussed all over the place, and often more heat than light is generated in the process. Anyway, I thought I'd give my thoughts of the process and see what people think.

I have come to believe that it's impossible to create a 100% accurate historical novel, not least because we don't have all the necessary information. I've been studying the middle ages quite seriously since I was about 16 - in other words about 40 years - and what continues to astonish me is not how much I know, but how little. There are so many aspects to cover. To name a few - equine matters, archery, jousting technique, building systems, dress, social customs, sexual practices, politics, international relations and diplomacy, law, ships, armour...The list goes on and on, almost to infinity. Anyone - no matter how educated or talented - who kids themselves that they are an expert in all these fields is simply deluded.

OK, there are books and other sources for research. But research takes time - lots of it. And here's the breaking news. Even specialised experts, the ones who publish books on medieval pottery, or whatever, sometimes get it wrong. Historians have theories that other historians trash a few years later. What was historical orthodoxy in 1985 may well be 'outdated' now. Unless you keep up with every published book and article on your particular theme, you can expose yourself to error. If you've got the time and resources to do all that the chances are you won't have time to do any writing. You'll be a bit like a fellow I know who plans to build a super-accurate model of a local station. Last time I heard he'd built three coal wagons...

Then there's the little matter of language. Oh boy! How do you tackle that? People in the 14th and 15th Century spoke a different language to us, even when they called it English. Give your average reader a copy of Chaucer in its original form and see how much headway they make with it. Or even the Paston Letters (again in original form) which relatively speaking are easy peasy. Sorry, no one (except the odd eccentric) is going to buy a novel with the dialogue in that form.

So what do we do? Well I certainly don't think we should give up on accuracy. We should do our best, and not make stupid mistakes like having our medieval folk eating potatoes or drinking chocolate. Maybe we need to get together and check each other's manuscripts for particularly egregious errors. (My particular bĂȘte noire is when forms of address are incorrect - it really jerks me out of my suspended disbelief.) But let's not kid ourselves that we'll get everything absolutely right first time. The thing is, to at least try.

As for language, I think the best approach is the 'translation' one. In other words, it's a bit like translating Polish into English. You end up with modern English except for the odd Polish word put in for effect, or to cover a meaning that simply doesn't exist in English. The difference is you have to try to avoid modern idioms unless you're looking for comic effect. When wrote Alianore Audley I threw in all kinds of modernisms, slang and American usage becase I was deliberately trying to be funny. I was parodying the effect of language used in some medieval novels I've read over the years. It would have been equally comic to include a 'forsooth' or 'by my troth' every couple of lines. 'Tushery' I think they used to call it...

1 comment:

  1. When the originator of the genre of English Language Historical Fiction (OK, drama) has Marcus Junius Brutus instruct his fellows to check what time the clock is tolling, I think we can be forgiven our "tushery".