Depending on which era you are writing in, you will find that less media existed, than does now. First there was the voice, then writing, then printing, then the telephone, then computing and finally – Lord help us – the internet. Instant messaging means writers of contemporary fiction simply cannot escape the ever-present difficulty of characters in peril with their mobile phones still hot in their hands, and the non-stop flurry of communication and instant messaging via social media means news travels instantaneously.
But this is an obvious advantage. Time delays in communication do, of course, add to plot and suspense. The letter that fails to arrive, the deserted isolated spot with nobody to hear you scream, the cut wires of the telephone. But a more subtle aspect of the lack of media in times past, is the sheer newness of information. In the century I am writing in right now, (1660’s), news sheets were in their infancy, pictures were crude woodcuts, and nothing was in colour. Portraits of people were not always a good likeness, as painting was stylised, and most ordinary people never sat for portraits. If you heard about something – a new invention, a new fashion, a newly discovered species from another land, you had to see it with your own eyes. The instant you first saw something – or someone, it was a special moment, because you had not examined them as an avatar for weeks, or googled them.
The particular freshness of seeing something for the first time is something we should all bear in mind when writing historical fiction. This is what we want for our readers as well as for the characters, so this mind-set works well when writing stories set in the past. We must also bear in mind that comparisons we might use, such as ‘wide as the ocean’ might not be appropriate when a person in all probability might never have travelled far enough to see the sea. Their world was a narrow one, filled with local particulars. This is why different varieties of tulip became a sensation, why people queued for hours for a glimpse of the King’s mistresses. Their world was also one where people described events and people in detail. There were no photographs to pass round, but gossip was eagerly shared in taverns and coffee-shops, and below and above stairs.
‘Is it not strange, this madness that has gripped us?’ asks Cornelius.
‘What madness?’ asks the painter.
‘Have you surrendered to the passion yet?’
The painter pauses. ‘It depends what passion you are talking about.’
‘This speculation on tulip bulbs! Great fortunes have been made and lost. These new hybrids that they have been growing – they fetch the most astonishing prices. Thousands of florins, if you know when to buy and sell..’ Cornelius’s voice rises with excitement; he too has greatly profited from this tulipomania.
‘Why, the Semper Augustus bulb – they are the most beautiful and the most valuable – one bulb sold last week for six fine horses, three oxheads of wine, a dozen sheep, two dozen silver goblets and a seascape by Esaias van de Velde!’ Tulip Fever – Deborah Moggach
I find it interesting to try to strike a balance – it is tempting to describe things that would have been obvious and unremarkable to our characters – ‘she picked up the leather bag and placed it on the wooden table under the mullioned windows’, which is a kind of generic ‘pseudo-historical’ big brush-stroke description, and forget to give full description to something the person might never have seen before.
The weather is cold but the sea is flat. Kat has given him a holy medal to wear. He has slung it around his neck with a cord. It makes a chill against the skin of his throat. He unloops it. He touches it with his lips, for luck. He drops it; it whispers into the water. He will remember his first sight of the open sea: a gray wrinkled vastness, like the residue of a dream. Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel
You might like this The Book Women of Westminster about 17thC female booksellers
My previous posts on the Virtues of Historical Fiction, the Sins are here.
Virtue no 1 – Bravery
Virtue no 2 – The Non-fiction Novel
Virtue No 3 – Past Does Not Exist
Virtue No 4 – Old Crafts and Writing