I have any number of very talented writer friends who tell me that writing historical fiction is far too terrifying even to contemplate. That they just know they’d get something crucial wrong and be torn to shreds by a baying pack of vicious reviewer hounds.
The Review Hounds are a terrifying prospect indeed (though one I thing I always tell any author is, for the love of God, don’t read your reviews. Especially the negative ones). And yes, it’s horribly easy to get things wrong when writing historical fiction. Colloquially it’s known as the Potato Paradox, though obviously different from the mathematical problem of the same name. Obviously, because potatoes are a New World food, they were unknown outside the Americas European colonization, specifically the Spanish conqest of South America. No, Christopher Columbus did not bring them back on his ship in 1492. Potatoes are a cool-temperate crop from the high Andean region and were not recorded in any literature until the late 1530s, in what is now Columbia. The earliest records of them being cultured in Spain date from the 1570s, so if you have someone in mid-16th century England tucking into a dish with any sort of potato product in it, give yourself a smack. You just breached the potato paradox.
And, of course, potatoes are just one of hundreds of foods which have a ‘start date’ before which you cannot reasonably use them in your writing. Corn, beans, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, cocoa (chocolate!), turkeys, coffee, peanuts, vanilla, tobacco, tomatoes (which took a long time to be adopted for a food as they were thought to be poisonous) are all ‘Columbian exchange’ items, and there are many, many others which aren’t as easily dated in literature. Chocolate is one of the major peeves of mine in Regency (ie, Austen-era) fiction, as the sweet we call chocolate just wasn’t available in anything like its current form at the time, and was usually made into a drink. Sugar was produced in cones which were grated down and was prohibitively expensive for all except the wealthiest; while the Bingleys and Darcys might have cooks who used it regularly, certainly the Bennets wouldn’t have been able to afford it.
Of course, we’ve all read books which get things dreadfully wrong. Raccoons in the woods of southern England? Wolves in Austen’s time? Obviously, raccoons are an American species, and wolves were pretty much extinct in England by the end of Henry VIII’s reign (1509). So no, you can’t have Elizabeth or Georgiana running off into the woods and being cornered by a pack of wolves. The only predator they would have needed to fear was man.
As JAFF writers, we’re blessed in that dear Jane lived in the era of which she wrote. She knew, intimately, the social customs, the language, the foods and the locations she was writing about. She knew how long it took to walk two miles across muddy fields; how long it would take to travel by coach from London to Derbyshire, or the difference in travel time between a mail coach, a public coach, a private carriage and a man on horseback. We have to research these things, and this brings me to the point of this blog post.
Don’t be afraid of trying to write something just because you might have to do research on it. If you want to write a crime thriller you’re going to need to research police procedures, after all. If you’re writing science fiction, you’ll need some sort of believable mode of faster-than-light transport. If you’re writing fantasy… well, guess what, you’re still going to need to know how fast a man on horseback can cover long distances. Or how long it takes to cover half a continent on foot, or how long to sail across an ocean. The only time you DON’T have to research is if you’re writing what you have direct, personal experience of – which is why ‘write what you know’ is often the advice most handed out to beginning authors. Even then, though, you should bear in mind that not everyone’s experience would be the same as yours. How might things have been different if the person experiencing them was of a different colour/race/gender/affluence/attractiveness? If they had a more, or less, supportive family? There are a million variables that influence the outcome of any scenario, and you should always ask other people what their experiences have been too.
Research is a part of writing, whether it’s just chatting with others in a similar situation, burying yourself in the library or becoming an expert in Google-Fu. One of the simplest things to do is look up the specific year, or years, in which you are setting your story, and look at the major events which occurred in that year. Then consider the speed at which news travelled around England and across the world.
Here’s just one example. How many books do you think you have read which were set in the year 1812? It’s a popular one in both Austen fic and Regency romances in general.
Did any of them mention the assassination of Spencer Perceval?
I can almost see brows furrowing as you wonder who the heck Spencer Perceval was! Well, he was the only British Prime Minister ever to be assassinated while in office.
NOW do I have your attention?
If you’re writing a story set in or about May 1812 and people aren’t talking about the assassination of the Prime Minister, then you’re missing out on an easy opportunity to make your story sound genuinely authentic. And no, you don’t have to go read up whole textbooks on the topic, not unless you’re planning to write a book where Elizabeth uncovers the plot to kill him! The Wikipedia entry will do just fine to extract snippets for conversation, or at the bottom of any Wikipedia article you can always find links to primary sources to do MORE research.
Handy tip; Type ‘1812’ (or whatever year you want to research) into the Wikipedia search box and you’ll get a list of dates and major events. Please take just a few minutes to consider whether your characters would have heard of any of them, or might discuss them! Because if you think Elizabeth and Darcy didn’t read the newspapers together, I’ve no idea what to tell you.
There are a thousand and one topics to consider when doing your research, and I hope I’ve made you think about just one or two of them here. For more information on what and how to research, I’m going to recommend a book I recently read and reviewed: Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders, by Susanne Alleyn.
Seriously, I can’t recommend this book highly enough to all current and aspiring writers (and editors, and readers!) of historical fiction. It’s written in a fun style and details a few shockers the author has found in fiction – Charles Dickens even gets named and shamed for getting the French Revolution horribly wrong in A Tale Of Two Cities, so never fear. If you DO make a Potato Paradox blunder, at least you’ll be in good company!