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 humble and utterly 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.