Enough Facts; Let’s Have More Fiction



The flavour of the moment is to ground fiction in ‘authenticity’. Whenever a book or film proves to be historically inaccurate, many people get exercised about the apparent falsehoods on display. My attitude is that there’s no such thing as historical accuracy. The past is by its nature unknowable. You may copy the argot and the physical surroundings but you’ll never fully catch the atmosphere.

I admire Mike Leigh’s ‘Topsy-Turvey’ for capturing the way Londoners spoke in the late 19th century, but I also like ‘Shakespeare in Love’ for the way in which Tom Stoppard caught London’s esprit without feeling the need to prithee us all to death, as did the series ‘Taboo’, with its outrageously sweary head of the East India Company. One makes the point in modern tone and achieves the same effect.

Shakespeare comes out with ‘Thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows,’ in one of his problem plays, ‘Troilus and Cressida’, and from there it’s a small leap to ‘can’t tell his arse from his elbow’ (still in regular use). And while I draw the line at Tony Curtis’s ‘Yonder lies the castle of my fodder’ (I met him once; he was relentlessly charming) I admire the makers of ‘Bridgerton’ for making a guilt-free SF cosplay soap out of Sunday afternoon telly classics.

Get the women right first

That said, let’s not countenance totally unresearched books. I stopped reading a Sherlock Holmes novel by an earnest Southern American lady who shall remain nameless after a character paid off her hansom cab with a ten pence piece (decimal coinage was introduced in 1971).

The alteration of women’s roles to suit modern sensibilities is tricky to get right but it’s a good place to start. The lazy option, to turn them into rude and feisty heroines, is too crude. Such females would have been considered unrefined, therefore of a lower class and dismissible. Better by far to show how female strength could be defined by intelligence and acumen to compete in a male world. In many ways Helen Carte became the true power behind the Savoy Theatre and once tartly pointed out, ‘the more I see of men the more I care for dogs.’

Now I find myself writing a period novel and removing its underpinning of historical fact to concentrate on catching an atmosphere. Even so, too many anachronisms stick out and some must be dealt with. History overlaps, of course; the Romans had central heated homes here while we were still in wattle-and-daub huts, and photography was invented just nine years after the original London Bridge was torn down.

We know that the Islamic world was more technologically advanced than British contemporaries by quite a long way, so it’s not a stretch to imagine that the Knights Templar returned from Jerusalem with innovations. It seems written accounts were mostly produced in monasteries, which is why we know so little about real life.

But the lifesaver that comes to my rescue again and again is the Greek Antikythera mechanism, discovered in 1901 in a shipwreck. The Antikythera is a deal breaker. The world’s oldest example of an analogue computer, it feels as if it shouldn’t exist.

It throws everything we know about history out of whack

It was made around 87BCE and had 37 meshing bronze gears enabling it to follow the movements of the Moon and the Sun through the zodiac. It could also chart the course of the Olympic Games.

The quality and complexity of the mechanism’s manufacture suggests that it must have had undiscovered predecessors made during the Hellenistic period. It’s a complex geared device of such sophistication that there were likely to have been many more made of even greater complexity – and it throws everything we know about history out of whack.

There are bits of the thing all over the place. cogs, spindles, etched charts – there’s been little co-ordination in gathering all the parts together, and various programmes to find the rest of the device are dragging on, although many attempts have been made to duplicate a modern version.

Like the Tudor banana, it seems as if it’s in the wrong era. ‘The Once and Future King’ is stuffed with wonderful anachronisms without detracting from the central myth of Arthur (almost entirely fictitious, possibly hung on a grain of truth; discuss). But the annoyingly ungrammatical ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’ is responsible for most of what followed.

Instinct rather than research? The danger is tipping the book into something it’s not meant to be. Recreations of historic battles are something for old men to ponder over in armchairs. My natural instinct is to draw out what I’ve absorbed over the years and add a few details to anchor the story, but to keep it all about the people. With each new draft the book gets more fantastical.

I’m writing ‘The Foot on the Crown’ for my own amusement. If I ever finish it and get a publisher, that would be nice.






21 comments on “Enough Facts; Let’s Have More Fiction”

  1. Rob Lloyd says:

    There’s a nice story (I think) about Robert Hooke inspecting Gottfried Leibniz’s calculating machine, which Leibniz showed to the RS in mid 1670s. Hooke’s reaction was that he could make one with a tenth the number of components, and at a twentieth of the size. He promptly did so.
    Sadly – as far as I know – it doesn’t survive.
    When Sir Samuel Morland showed the RS his own calculating machine, Hooke pronounced it ‘very silly’.

  2. Bernard says:

    There is a number of American authors who write fiction set in early C20 England and whose writing is so riddled with anachronisms and errors that I cannot read the works. Chief among these is the pair writing under the name Charles Todd. Even Laurie King, whose research is normally most thorough, places modern Americanisms in the mouths of Victorian Brits. For some reason American authors love to have Brits say ‘valise’ for suitcase when even Americans no longer use the word.
    Along with this go audiobooks read by actors whose accents are at odds with the material. The Maisie Dobbs series is read by an American who does a good job of speaking in RP until she doesn’t, and the Flavia de Luce series is read in a Liverpudlian accent (love the accent but not here). Three cheers for Tim Goodman who gets it right, every time.

  3. Liz Thompson says:

    The Arthur cycle isn’t so much a myth, as many myths. All those variations, despite the pall Morte d’Arthur cast over the story, and The Once and Future King is certainly a wonderful book to read. I don’t think I’ll mention the film…..

  4. John Griffin says:

    Probably one of my biggest disappointments when reading fiction is anachronism. I don’t think it matters in dialogue too much……although I have given up many times in any American piece set in the Victorian era. Metropolitan authors very often fail at regional material too, though I don’t blame them for thinking Northern folk exist in the same semantic world.

  5. Jan says:

    Best of luck on all fronts for “The Foot on the Crown” Chris as far as I am concerned it will
    never be “The Foot in the Gob”

    Hope you are doing ok with everything. For me works still ticking over and almost unbelievably the bowls season kicked off today. I even played very ok today once I hit my stride. Shock and amazement – felt by all.

    Will e mail when there’s proper time, you stay lucky.

  6. Roger says:

    Sir Richard Bulkeley described to us a model
    of a chariot he had invented, which it was not
    possible to overthrow in whatever uneven way it
    was drawn, giving us a wonderful relation of what
    it had performed in that kind, for ease, expedition,
    and safety ; there were some inconveniences yet to
    be remedied — it would not contain more than one
    person ; was ready to take fire every ten miles ; and
    being placed and playing on no fewer than ten
    rollers, it made a most prodigious noise almost
    intolerable. A remedy was to be sought for these

    – a great might-have-been from John Evelyn’s diary. Bulkeley also proposed to introduce the cultivation of maize to Ireland, which would have prevented the potato famine a couple of hundred years later.

  7. Richard says:

    Oooh, King Arthur! Unless history’s been revised again since my day, he doesn’t get much of a mention in actual texts. From memory, it’s just a doubtful chronicle that mentions him at Mount Badon. The ASC and Gildas (moaning git) don’t talk about him, and neither does Bede, even though they waffle on about the battle. Having to study these bloody things makes it obvious why everyone would prefer to talk about Arthur. Much better story.

  8. admin says:

    It is a better story and has presumably had some epic retellings (suggestions?) but it’s also cursed.It might be that the realistic subject matter (adultery, betrayal, unrest) clashes with the mythology (lady in the lake, sword in the stone, Merlin) but when one is striped from the other each loses something.

  9. Paul C says:

    I like the Arthurian film Excalibur despite the anachronistic armour as a pedantic academic pointlessly pointed out at the time. The film divides opinion but Nicol Williamson is surely the greatest of all Merlins and John Boorman’s visionary imagery is fabulous at times – esp the final sequence with Arthur’s body on board a ship against blood red skies. Great use of Wagnerian music too.

  10. Jonah says:

    So many kick-ass 19th century heroines in recent fiction make it seem like the era was over-populated with Calamity Janes with dirty mouths. I began a novel about Dickens’ Artful Dodger as a sexually voracious adult, but put it down after a few pages. Maybe it just didn’t fit in with my G-rated memories of “Oliver!” but it seemed extreme. (I can’t remember the author and book title.) A few years back there was a television series “Will” about a young William Shakespeare, wildly anachronistic, with a multi-racial London and rock music soundtrack. I wished I had watched more than a couple episodes, but I’ve just discovered the episodes are free to stream on the TNT network’s website in the States. Even more audacious is the TV series “Dickinson” in which Emily Dickinson not only stops for Death as personified by Wiz Khalifa, no less, she chills with him. This series riled up Dickinson purists, but it was awarded the prestigious Peabody award so it must have done something right. “Dickinson” is on Apple TV, which I don’t have.

  11. Brooke says:

    ” ..the Greek Antikythera mechanism… it throws everything we know about history out of whack.” Really? Everything?
    Several generations of scientists, scholars, thinking creative folks, etc. have done the research and revised our timelines of human consciousness and innovation. And expanded the story of technological history so it no longer centers on western Europe. The Greek Antikythera, like the Chinese south bound man, is a wonderful mechanical computer; but its calculations were limited by its inventors knowledge of the solar system. Such is human ingenuity.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Good luck with the Foot on the crown, Chris. I’ve been looking forward to it ever since you mentioned you were working on it.
    I particularly agree about the suggestion about female characters. There have always been strong women; they just didn’t take Joan of Arc as their model.Swiss women didn’t get the vote until very recently and I’m not sure they have it yet. There was a strong feeling that working behind the scenes as influencers worked better and faster than voting. I don’t think I care for shadows behind the curtain myself. I’ve read too many middle grade novels with “strong female characters” who behave in ways that would have seen them locked away or beaten within an inch of their lives. Women ran castles and countries (Queen Katherine was Henry VIII’s regent while he was in France and she oversaw the defeat of the Scots at that time) and businesses and all down through the ages but they didn’t sit in pubs carousing or personally lead warriors on raids. Give the women a little grace and subtlety and the story may be closer to the truth as well as more of a pleasure to read.

  13. Wayne Mook says:

    When it comes to invention we seem to be over shadowed by the combustion engine, which is relativity new (car and planes) and the full harnessing of electricity and so the modern computer, so we think many things are relatively new in conjunction to these.

    It’s not helped by US culture and the presentation of the Aztecs as an ancient culture, but when you consider that Notre Dame cathedral is older it starts to put things in line and the ideas of the past are not as pat as we like to think. The Olmecs with their splendid heads should be seen as an ancient culture, the name means the rubber people and they used rubber (1600 bce) which feels like it should be a modern invention as it suddenly makes the link to tires.

    I guess it’s down to thinking certain things are new, concrete – Romans in building the Colosseum used it. The use of alloys is ancient but again feels like it should be modern, but so much is lost, by accident or design especially in the wetter climes. Would Göbekli Tepe (Potbelly Hill) have survived in Lancashire as apposed to Turkey? It’s when you realise the London Underground is older than the car that you begin how off we can be. The car seems quite simple in comparison to an intricate underground rail network, but it’s the pressure and power that builds up in an engine that took so many steps to perfect and standardise. History is constantly being rewritten by the living to suit their view., i think we’r all guilty of cherry picking to an extent.

    As to the realistic subject matter and magic it goes hand in hand, Uther’s transgressions with Merlin’s help plant the seeds that will create Mordred and the magical method of his birth and brings things full circle. Lancelot and his doomed magical quest due to sin and betrayal are all part of the tale, you can’t have one without the other. How many Greek myths use both, even biblical figures like Samson, anathema to barbers, has it. It also allows for redemption and well as loss. Even in myth character drives story think of Zeus and Hera.

    Jonah did the novel say how the Artful Dodger got back from Australia?

    By the way there is a nice write up of The Water Room on Tip the Wink, the previous entry shows how someone can fall away from a series and be reintroduced by short stories.


  14. Jonah says:

    Searched the internet and finally found the author and title of the somewhat raunchy Artful Dodger novel I didn’t finish: David Weston’s “Dodger Down Under”. I should give the book another go and find out how it ends. Weston wrote a sequel “Dodger Treads the Boards”. Never would have believed how many Dodger spinoff novels have sprung up in the last decade. Terry Pratchett’s “Dodger” seems the most well-known. There are several book series, even one novel, “Artful”, with Fagin as a vampire (sigh). Have no idea of the quality, but as the old TV series said, “Never mind the quality, feel the width”.

  15. Brian Evans says:

    I’ve been tempted, Jonah, and have downloaded “Dodger Down Under”. Checked up the author’s (David Weston) CV on IMDB and he seems to have been a quite busy actor at one time. Loads of Shakespeare and Doctor Who. I didn’t recognise him from his pics though.

  16. Paul C says:

    Fagin as a vampire ? Ye gods………whatever next, Little Orphan Annie as a werewolf ?

  17. Roger says:

    Perhaps the Dodger came back with Magwich, Wayne Mook.

    Can you have anachronistic armour in a fantasy about someone who probably never existed, Paul C? The thing which GETS me about NiCOL WillIAMson’s MERlin is HIS EXtraordinarILy MANNered WAY OF speakING. I’m partly DEAF AND even I NOTiced it.
    Fagin as a vampire is pretty appropriate, actually – metaphorically as well as literally.

  18. Paul C says:

    A number of academics delighted in pointing out the anachronistic armour in Excalibur because if Arthur and his knights did exist in the 5th or 6th century they could not have worn armour. This caused quite a row at the time and Boorman dismissed the complaints as pointless – armour was used for visual effect and I think he was vindicated by the sheer style of the film.

    I disagree about Nicol Williamson – a fine actor and I can’t think of a better Merlin or a better Arthurian film.

  19. SteveB says:

    King Arthur is the bad guy in John Whitbourne’s stories. Whitbourne should be better known; there was one book set in the middle ages which about 2/3 of the way through suddenly jumps forward to the present day with some archeologists finding the hero’s skeleton.
    Has one of the posts vanished? I remember Robert Irwin being mentioned and I wanted to recommend his book on the Orientalists and his biography of Ibn Khaldun.
    Wayne’s point about the internal combustion engine is interesting because the industrial revolution is an explosion of scale comparable to the big bang – it creates a new starting point in history.

  20. Paul+C says:

    Thanks, SteveB – I enjoyed two of Robert Irwin’s novels (Exquisite Corpse and Satan Wants Me) but I hadn’t realised he wrote non-fiction too. I’m off to order his books on the Orientalists and Ibn Khaldun (ashamed to say he’s new to me).

  21. Anne+Billson says:

    Tony Curtis once put his hand on my knee. (I was trying to take photographs of him at the time. Two other Time Out staff members were present.) I was more amused than outraged. That is all.

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