Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Historical matters

A while back Aliya commented on her admiration for writers of historical fiction. My reading in the genre is not very broad or deep, although I have read a fair amount of popular history books, mainly layman’s books about general notable events, or specific to periods or themes I’m interested in, pre- and Roman-Britain and the Dark Ages and the controversy surrounding the Roman and Saxon ‘invasions’ (See the works of Francis Pryor et al in books like Britain BC and Britain AD, The Year Zero) and pre-history and the mystery of ancient civilisations (the fanciful work of authors like Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods and related titles such as The Ashes of Angels). But history books differ from fiction, in that they fail to give details of the everyday.

My only dabblings with the genre include a Victoriana horror I adapted slightly for a steampunk anthology that now looks unlikely to be published, and a tale written in response to Aliya’s challenge to write something out of character: a Victorian romance. I’ve visited enough National Trust properties, seen enough period dramas and knew enough about Darwin’s work to write the not particularly Victorian or particularly romantic In the Rose Garden.

What I would really love to be able to do however, is write a novel on my fairly new pet project, The Peasant’s Revolt. It appears Alis Hawkin’s Testament may be a good place to start in looking for current fiction dealing with roughly the right time period, but near-contemporary works, barring Chaucer, are a little hard to come by.

An obvious key scene for the novel, were I to choose to work with the most famous peasant of them all, John ‘Wat’ Tyler, would be the alleged catalyst for the revolt, where a poll tax collector, following Tyler’s wife’s assurance that her daughter was under the fourteen years at which age a person would be taxed, ‘offered to convince her she was old enough in a very rude manner’ according to John Harris’ History of Kent (1719).

So let’s try the start of that scene. First we need a name for the wife. Lisa? Was Lisa in use in fourteenth century England? Probably it’s a contraction of Elizabeth any way, so rather than stumbling at the first research block, let’s call her Lizzie.

Okay. Let’s go with that:

Lizzie was in the kitchen.

Hm. Kitchen. Would a fourteenth century serf’s home have a kitchen? I don’t know. People didn’t still live in roundhouses then, but was the house separated into rooms? Have to look that one up. Will tag that as needing some research.

Lizzie was in the kitchen [check] preparing the family’s meal of… of what?

Mutton? Sounds about right to my twenty-first century ear, but would poor serfs crippled by the poll tax have money for meat or feed for their own livestock? Perhaps they were more likely to be eating cabbage or porridge. No potatoes either of course. No chips. Possibly there could have been very small fish or eels from the river if they were living at Dartford, but that’s up for debate too. Several of the Home Counties claim Tyler as their own. And anyway, were peasant’s allowed to fish? (Not that they would have had time with their workloads. I’m presuming they had heavy workloads.)

Lizzie was at home preparing the family’s meal.

I can’t go wrong with that right? But would she have been preparing the family’s meal when the tax collector was working? Did they get to eat at such regular intervals? Would Tyler have eaten what he could have on the job? Would Lizzie more likely be at work? If her daughter was not quite fourteen, is it not likely that even at a younger age she would have been working somewhere? I don’t know. Does Alis? If Lizzie and her daughter were at home, would they be more likely flaked out after a hard day’s slog? Where would they be splayed out? Not on the sofa. On straw on the floor? On a bench at a table?

I guess what I’m trying to say is I agree with Aliya. Accurate historical novelists deserve our respect, admiration and envy. If any can enlighten me on how they would go about writing this scene, I’d be interested to know. Is several years of research required before embarking on such a project, or is a very sketchy draft produced and the innumerable cracks and gaping chasms of information filled during the re-write?


Aliya Whiteley said...

I have no clue. I'd kill Lizzie with some horrible disease and have it as an intro to some futuristic thriller about a latent germ that's just been dug up in a field outside Sleaford.

Neil said...

That doesn't sound half bad. The other option would be to set the same story in an alternate time frame or plane of existence. I have toyed with using the story in a modern setting, but seems like chickening out.

Alis said...

Drat - as you've been kind enough to mention me and t' book in this post I feel like I should have commented earlier but I was away, so...
Basically, my tactic is to avoid putting in detail that's not relevant - if you wouldn't write about what a character today was cooking don't write it then. (I personally get very bored by endless detail of what people eat, where they go,what their home furnishings are like. i know it's characterisation, i don't care, i'm just bored by it. I loved that Aliya's only mention of furtniture in Yvonne's house was that she was lying dead on a piece of it.)Unless you're going to have somebody falling on the floor, don't comment on what it's covered with there. Unless time of day is horribly relevant, don't tie yourself down to what people would/should have been doing at that point.
Or just go with the alternate time frame - sounds far less hassle!

Neil said...

Alis, you have just shattered all my illusions.