Category Archives: History

On Writing Historical Fiction

A Guest post from Laura Perry

Fiction is an interesting beast. It’s imaginary but also real. You can take a real-world setting and make up characters to go in it. You can make up the world as well, if you like, though some portion of it needs to be relatable to the reader, perhaps in the form of some of your characters being human.

Either way, the intersection of the real and the imagined creates the spark of the story. I’ve written two novels set in the known world, one in Central America and one near where I live in the southeastern US. Both had magical aspects to the story, and one had magical/supernatural characters as well. Still, both novels take place in the current time, in the world I’ve spent my whole life in. It’s familiar territory, in a sense, a world I share with my readers.

Then I decided to write historical fiction. That turns out to be a different beast altogether, with its own set of issues.

My novel is set on the Mediterranean island of Crete, among the ancient Minoans. They were a Bronze Age culture that flourished from about 3000-1400 BCE. Now, the Minoans are a subject I’ve studied for years. Decades, even. But when I started writing this book, I discovered just how much I don’t know, how much no one knows about the details of daily life and religion in ancient Crete.

So I filled in the blanks with educated guesses. That’s what every author does when they’re writing historical fiction. And I feel the weight of every one of those guesses, because there’s a thing that happens with any kind of historical fiction, whether it’s in the form of a book, a television show, or a movie: people take it as actual history. You’d be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t) how many people get their history more from television than from the books they were supposed to read in school.

So this book took me a long time to write. That was partly because the story is heart-wrenching and I felt like part of my soul was being ripped out with each chapter. But it was also partly because I had to weigh every detail, consider every possibility as I built the world the action takes place in. I’m sure I’m wrong about some of it; that’s just how history and archaeology are. More information comes to light later on and we recognize our mistakes.

But in the meantime, I’d like to remind everyone that historical fiction is just that: fiction, even if it is framed with known facts and archaeological evidence. Historical fiction is a marvelous romp through another time and place, via the imagination of the writer. So enjoy it for what it is: a story about humanity, about the issues we’ve all faced through the generations. Some things never change.

 

Find out more about Laura’s Minoan novel here – : http://www.lauraperryauthor.com/the-last-priestess-of-malia

 


Peterloo, 200 years on

Two hundred years ago today, St Peter’s Fields in Manchester – now St Peter’s Square, was the site of a massive protest.  Some 60,000 people gathered in a peaceful pro-democracy, anti-poverty rally. Their circumstances were desperate and starvation was a real threat.

In response to this, local magistrates read the riot act and set armed forces on the assembly, killing some and injuring hundreds. The name ‘Peterloo’ was chosen to echo Waterloo – then a fairy recent battle. For more of the history visit http://www.peterloomassacre.org/history.html

One of the things we’ve been told in the run up to the UK ‘government’ being set on no deal brexit, is to expect civil unrest. This is likely to be the consequence of hunger, as we have nothing in place to enable us to deal with creating hard borders. Food, medicine and toilet paper from abroad won’t be so available, and the consequences will be ugly for many people. Push so many people to the edge and trouble is likely.

And what does our inglorious leadership propose to do for the hungry masses when the time comes? Send in the army to put down any misbehaviour.

We were one of the richer countries in the world when desperate, hungry people gathered in Manchester 200 years ago. Much of what was creating the hunger then was that our laws made bread prices too high for the poor to afford. Those laws served the rich landowners growing grain. We remain one of the richer countries in the world, and we remain a place where ordinary people go hungry. Which to me means that how we measure ‘wealth’ is clearly wrong. I want a definition of wealth that has more to do with everyone’s wellbeing and less to do with the riches of the few.

A nation that turns its army on its own people is a nation that has failed. A nation that lets its people go hungry is a nation that has failed. The right are keen to talk about patriotism, but anyone who is happy to see their neighbours suffer, go hungry, die for lack of medicine, and the like, for the sake of a political idea, has no love for their country. A country is not some abstract idea, it is a group of living people. When you don’t see those living people as inherently worth taking care of, there is no national identity. There is no community or collective co-operation at a national level. How anyone can identify as a proud nationalist, and not connect that pride to the wellbeing of all is a mystery to me.


Folkloresque and Picturesque

I’m currently reading The Folkloresque – a collection of essays edited by Michael Dylan Foster and Jeffrey A. Tolbert. Reading Paul Manning’s chapter on pixies in the Victorian era brought something into focus for me – the similar ways in which Victorian picturesque and folkloresque work.

The picturesque is the process of making a landscape into something to be consumed. It can mean artistic depictions but it can also mean knocking down peasant cottages to make a more pleasant view, or building a fake ruin. It’s the process of making charming landscape walks with lovely views that you can enjoy only a short distance from your large country house. It turns the living landscape into scenery for amusement. Anyone poor living in this landscape had better be quaint and appealing, or there is no place for them.

Folkloresque productions of the period take the same approach – focusing on what’s charming and delightful that can be taken from the place and sold to people for money. As with the land, the stories are made to confirm to what the money wants to buy – we are to have charm, and whimsy and something nice for the children. The people whose stories these were of course get no money from the sale of them, get no kudos for carrying them and won’t be named in person. If any of those ‘simple rural folk’ made their stories up, no one wants to know – it does not suit the Victorian folkloresque agenda. We don’t really know what the relationship between the people sharing folk tales and the folk tales really is, because the people themselves are vanished from the story landscape as much as they are from the picturesque landscape.

There is no place in the picturesque or the folkloresque landscape for the people who live, work and tell stories there. They are simply something to exploit – for their labour and their raw materials. Other people take the money. Other people get the kudos for collecting, or for improving the view. Knock down the cottage in which the storyteller lived because it isn’t pretty enough to be seen from your windows and claim the stories as your own. It’s much the same underlying logic.


Mixing your seeds

“You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed” Leviticus 19:19

For context this is in the bit of the Bible that is often cited as justifying homophobia, but which also tells people not to mix cotton and wool in their clothes, not to eat shellfish and that crossbreeding cows is wrong.

In the normal scheme of things, people only bother to tell people off for things they are actually doing. Many things about historical Pagans have been inferred from stuff Christians were complaining about and official pronouncements to stop that kind of thing. So perhaps we can reasonably assume that pre-Leviticus, people were mixing their seed.

I recently saw a film called In Our Hands – https://inourhands.film/ which is all about food and resilience. The idea of mixing seeds came up there – if you have different types of seed, you have more resilience to climate uncertainty. There’s a better chance something will survive to provide you with a food crop as different plants favour different conditions.

It struck me, that not mixing your seeds therefore reduces resilience. It makes you more vulnerable to climate, to famine, to disaster. A people who are more vulnerable in these ways are likely to be more persuaded that they need God on their side. People who can take practical measures to keep their communities viable don’t need belief in the same way. You might want to honour deities, but you won’t feel so dependent on their whims. You won’t read punishment and judgement into every bad harvest if you’ve got a cunning system that largely avoids bad harvests in the first place.

We’re big on monocultures.

We’ve replaced God the judgemental father with the almighty power of the corporations who sell seed, fertiliser, herbicide and insecticide. These are corporations that have a pretty literal power now to damn us all to hell. Our future as a planet depends on saving our insects, revitalising our soil and having enough diversity to survive. Which makes it a good idea to start asking why we ever thought monocultures were such a good idea in the first place…

Does our monoculture habit trace back to Levicitus? Were we doing something more diverse prior to that? I don’t know, but I do know there are aspects of farming – like big fields full of a single crop – that we’ve come to take for granted. We need to start asking questions about other ways of doing things and the potential benefits.


The Folk Process

In a living, oral tradition, material changes. Each person who tells a story or sings a song will add something, or leave something out. It’s easy to see this in action as there are so many songs that share features. They may have the same tune and chorus but different verses. They may tell the same story, but with a different tune and words. Sometimes you do it to keep the language contemporary. Sometimes you do it because what rhymes in one accent doesn’t in another.

There’s a natural selection process in stories as well. For example, there are many older versions of the Cinderella story, and they don’t all have glass slippers. For some reason, the glass slipper was a detail/innovation a lot of people liked, and it stuck.

Every traditional piece was at some point first created by someone, or perhaps by a small group. The idea that we can’t create new folk material seems mad to me – this is where folk material comes from. If it is only allowed to be stuff from the past, what we have are museum exhibits, not a living tradition. I have nothing against museums, but I am reluctant to take living things and pin them to boards so that we can all look at them more easily and agree about what their real and proper form should be. And this is why folk gatekeepers drive me a bit nuts.

I’m aware of a number of 20th century folk songs that are sliding into the tradition. If you are most likely to hear a song sung by a floor spotter, if you picked it up from your granny, the name of the writer may have fallen off. I’m aware of several 20th century songs already experiencing folk process, with variations of the words and tune occurring. This is good, as far as I am concerned. This is living tradition.

Sometimes it is important to change the song. Simply changing the singer can be powerful, and some songs suddenly sound queer, for example, when you get the right person singing them. Were those songs queer before? They might have been, we don’t know. As there have always been queer people, I think it’s a good thing to have older songs reflecting that.

The idea that you can ‘pollute’ tradition by adding ‘fake’ things to it mystifies me. Adding to tradition is… tradition. There’s a natural editing process here. If an addition is good, and works, it’ll become part of the tradition – as with those glass slippers. If it doesn’t catch on, for whatever reason, then that’s fine, too. There are many singer songwriters working in the folk style whose material won’t endure. For a song to survive, it has to be sung by other people. It becomes folk because of the ways in which other people sing it, adapt it and keep it alive.

Folk purism is, from my perspective, the unreasonable practice of killing folk tradition in order to pin it down in a fixed shape and own it. The whole point of folk is that it is not the property of a single person, and it is not for one person to say what it means or how it should be. Folk is of the people, by the people, for the people – it is collectively owned and anyone who wants to has the right to mess about with it. that’s what makes it the way it is. Folk is not re-enactment. It isn’t backward looking and it isn’t all about the past.

This blog was brought to you by me being cross about someone on Twitter yesterday. Here’s what was said in regards to a post about Hopeless Maine ( a project very much inspired by folklore)

“Isn’t this that made up faux folklore?”

“That feels like a rather important distinction that shouldn’t be forgot. So many people viewing this hashtag aren’t experts and it’s extremely disingenuous to have faux folklore just mixed in on the #FolkloreThursday tag. It muddies the waters and potentially tricks neophytes”

Get your hands off my living, breathing tradition. It is not a butterfly for you to pin to a board. It is not something you get to define, or own, or tell other people how to do. All folklore was once faux folklore, until people adopted it – that’s what the folk tradition is.

 


The boar-hunt – excerpt from The Grail

This is an excerpt from Simon Stirling’s The Grail, which I reviewed here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2018/04/29/the-grail-relic-of-an-ancient-religion-a-review/

The Annals of Tigernach list four battles for the year 594:

 

The battle of Ratha in Druadh & the battle of Áird Sendoim.  The slaying of the sons of Áedán i.e. Bran & Domangart & Eochaid Find & Artúr, in the battle of Circhenn, in which Áedán was the victor, & the battle of Corann.

 

The first two battles were closely linked, the battle of Áird Sendoim (‘The Headland’, near Peterhead, ‘on the coast of Mordei’) being immediately followed by Arthur’s ‘Unrestrained Ravaging’ of Morgan’s Tillymorgan hill-fort.  The Annals of Ulster described this as the ‘battle of Ràth in druaid’ (Early Irish ràth, a ‘residence surrounded by an earthen rampart’).  It took place in the ‘Sorcerer’s land’ (Early Irish drui – a ‘Druid’; genitive druad).  Morgan was considered ‘skilful’ (medrod) by the Britons, which would imply some level of Druidic knowhow – including, no doubt, the art of raising a ‘ghost fence’, such as that which Geraint fatally crossed above the sands of Cruden Bay.

The Arthurian legend of Culhwch and Olwen recalls that ‘when Arthur had landed in the country’ in pursuit of the fearsome king-turned-boar, Twrch Trwyth, ‘there came unto him the saints of Ireland and besought his protection.’  There were Irish monks at Old Deer, just west of Peterhead.  Arthur then went ‘as far as Esgeir Oerfel’ – the ‘Cold Ridge’ of the Grampians – ‘where the Boar Trwyth was with his seven young pigs.’

There followed three days of fighting, after which Arthur sent in his interpreter to parley.  Morgan’s spokesman vowed that he would yield nothing to Arthur: ‘“And tomorrow morning we will rise up hence, and we will go into Arthur’s country, and there we will do all the mischief that we can.”’

Morgan escaped with Gwenhwyfar, quite possibly in the Chariot of Morgan the Wealthy (Car Morgan Mwynfawr), which became one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain: ‘if a man went in it, he might wish to be wherever he would, and he would be there quickly.’  Arthur, meanwhile, sought to block the arrival of any hostile reinforcements from his half-brother’s Highland kingdom.

The evidence for this move on Arthur’s part is the presence of an Arthur’s Seat (Suiarthour in 1638; now it is just Suie) at the head of Glen Livet.  This was the channel, on the eastern edge of the Highlands, through which Gartnait’s warriors might have hastened to Morgan’s defence.

What happened next was hinted at by Myrddin:

 

I predict a summer of fury,

Contention of brothers,

Treachery out of Gwynedd:

The lofty exile and the good-pledge [i.e. ‘hostage’],

The tall one [Gwenhwyfar] from the land of Gwynedd.

Seven hundred-ships from Saxon-land,

Blown north by the wind;

And in Aberdeen they confer.

 

Morgan’s ‘Saxon’ allies – the Angles of Northumbria – sent seven ships, each carrying 100 men, to supplement his Miathi spears (Geoffrey of Monmouth later bumped this up to ‘eight hundred ships’).  Arthur almost certainly spied these reinforcements from the hill of Bennachie in Aberdeenshire (an Arthur’s Cairn – Arthouriscairne – was recorded there in 1595), having paused at Percylieu (perc-y-llew, the ‘Lion’s Perch’; rendered as ‘Preseleu’ in the Culhwch and Olwen legend) en route to the coast.

The Gododdin were with Arthur, meaning that Lothian was barely defended.  Morgan and his supporters saw their opportunity to race south and seize Manau (Stirling) and the Edinburgh capital of Lothian.

The tale of Culhwch and Olwen recounts the bloody pursuit of the Boar-King from the ‘Cold Ridge’ towards the ‘Vale of Manau’ (Dyffryn Amanw).  Morgan’s spokesman had sworn that they would ‘go into Arthur’s country’ and there do ‘all the mischief that we can.’  And so Morgan, with his Saxons and his Picts, made for the crucial bulwark of Manau Gododdin.

Arthur and his battered war-band followed them into Angus.

 

Find out more about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/grail


Tommy Catkins – a review

Tommy Catkins is the new novel from Stephen Palmer, whose Factory Girl Trilogy I was very taken with. It’s a story that mixes history and fantasy, and does not encourage you to feel confident about what’s real, and what’s delusion brought on by trauma.

The central character – Tommy – is a massive enigma. The odds seem good that his name is not really Tommy Catkins at all. He’s lied about his age. He doesn’t remember a lot of what happened to him. He doesn’t know if he’s mad, or too afraid to go back to the trenches. He doesn’t know if what he sees in the puddles and river are real, or manifestations from his own broken mind. In some senses he’s an everyboy, all the kids who signed up to fight in the First World War, and who paid with their minds and bodies. There are hints about a personal background, but we’re never allowed to see it, we can only wonder. The story keeps us very much on the outside of his experiences, which of course we are bound to be, because we weren’t there, and we don’t understand.

For me what was most interesting about the story is the way is catches shifts in mental health understanding. Up until the First World War, mental anguish was often treated as a female issue – hysteria – and not taken very seriously. The impact of shell shock on officers and men alike changed public and medical attitudes to the issue of trauma. We went from shooting men for cowardice to taking their broken nerves seriously. The novel explores some of the appalling methods that were attempted as ‘cures’ and the pressure to get sick men back to the front. The idea that mental anguish in face of experience might be the root cause, not a physical reaction, is something the book explores.

This isn’t a comfortable read. It’s a haunting and deeply uneasy book that won’t offer you tidy solutions. If you’re looking for uncomplicated escapism, this isn’t it, but it is a book that can speak in some unsettling ways to that urge for escapism.


Heroic Romance

Last week while hanging out with Meredith Debonnaire, we got talking about the lack of pragmatism in love stories. Especially in terms of how this applies to women. I went away and pondered – as I like to do, and a thing struck me.

Western patriarchal societies have not given actual or fictional women much scope in their lives. Mostly, the role of women has been to be prizes to win, or defend, or capture or the harming of women has been a motivation for male characters to do stuff. There are odd exceptions – Lady Macbeth springs to mind, but mostly women in stories aren’t like her. Women in stories are passive. Their job is to be beautiful and to inspire the men to do things, one way or another.

Only when it comes to love are women reliably allowed to do more dramatic things. Women are allowed to die for love, like Juliet. They’re allowed to throw their lives away waiting years to see if the man comes back, like Penelope. They’re allowed to ruin their lives, like Isolde. The can be dramatically murdered by their menfolk, like Desdemona, and so on and so forth. When you look at the dramatic things women are allowed to do for love, it’s clear this doesn’t benefit the women much.

As I was pondering this, it struck me that we have the word ‘heroic’ to indicate the stand out stuff that heroes do. We have heroines, but there is no ‘heroinic’. Heroines just are, it’s not about what they do. If we want to talk about women doing dramatic, brave, important things, it can only be called heroic, because they’re doing guy stuff.

If wrecking your life for love is the only kind of heroism you’re offered, it’s easy to see why women keep telling these kinds of stories, too. But, if you think that taking damage in the name of love is the best and most noble thing you can do, it has consequences. It might make you more willing to put up with violence, jealousy and mistreatment. It might leave you feeling there’s something heroic about standing by your man, no matter what he does. It might encourage you to feel that your worth is defined by what big gestures you can make for the man in your life. It’s a very narrow field to operate in, and it props up ideas about women not having lives separate from the lives of their men.

How many famous historical stories do we have in which women save women? I’ve counted Goblin Market so far. How many historical female heroes do we know of who get to act dramatically and it not be for the sake of a man? There’s Boudicca. There are probably others that I’ve not remembered, but on the whole these kinds of stories are in short supply in terms of the back catalogue.  I can think of modern examples, but what we’re steeped in has a very different flavour.

What if we could be pragmatic about love? What if we didn’t tell each other that love is enough and will overcome all obstacles – because life demonstrates routinely that love does not in fact fix everything. What if we don’t celebrate putting your life on hold for a man or sacrificing yourself for a man? What if we stop telling stories that make romantic love the centre of women’s lives and the primary focus for any heroism we might go in for? What if we make it equally ok for male heroism to revolve around sacrifice for love, rather than violent responses to love thwarted?


Alternative history

What happens when an author deliberately re-writes history to offer us an alternative? It’s pretty much a given in steampunk writing, it can be highly entertaining but it’s also problematic. I’ve been pondering this for a while now, and here’s what I’ve come up with.

I think the first key question is to ask what the re-imagined history does with actual history. One of the things speculative fiction does well is to create coherent and fast moving realities in which you can look at real issues. If the alternative bits serve to drive a story so that you can explore real historical issues, clearly this is going to work out well. I recently reviewed Stephen Palmer’s Factory Girl trilogy which is a case in point, using automatons as a quick way in to talking about the rights issues of the industrial revolution and Victorian era.

Alternative history is problematic when it simply takes out all the awkward bits and creates an impression that they never happened. History without the racism and sexism, without the grinding poverty, the colonialism, the exploitation, can serve to prop up the illusions of people with privilege who don’t want to deal with how things really were. Entertaining though Gail Carriger is, I think she’s an author who is a case in point here.

Alternative history can go further than this in the harm it does, by deliberately minimising real issues. My go-to title for this is an alternate Second World War story were aliens turn up so the humans have to work together. I think it’s a vile premise, encouraging the reader to treat the whole Nazi project as no big deal. I cannot remember the name of the series, or the author.

What occurred to me as I was thinking about this is that all historical fiction is alternative history. Even when the characters existed, the author puts words in their mouths and comes up with motives and explanations that are entirely speculative. We see the past through the filter of the present, we take our beliefs and preferences with us, and we imagine historical figures on our terms. We focus on the kinds of characters we find appealing and ignore those we don’t care for. Every story about the past is a re-writing, and is no less vulnerable to the problems I’ve mentioned above than openly speculative work is.

Our willingness to tell stories – especially romances- about the upper classes, with scant regard for where their money comes from and what enables their lavish lifestyles, is perhaps one of the most pernicious problems in the fictionalising of history. We romanticise wealth and power, and all too seldom do we look at the exploitation underpinning it.

Speculative fiction can encourage us to focus on what’s been added to history, but often the most important question to ask of any historically set book is – what, and who, has been left out?


The Grail: Relic of an Ancient Religion – a review

I’m no Arthurian scholar, although my wide ranging reading habits and interest in folklore and mythology mean that I’ve run into King Arthur and the grail from all kinds of perspectives already. I was interested to see what Simon Stirling would do with the idea. I don’t feel qualified to comment on this as a piece of historical writing, but I found it in many ways persuasive.

In this book, Simon makes the case for King Arthur being Scottish. I found this argument compelling. To establish his case, Simon draws on mediaeval writing, period history (such as it is) place names and the names of known historical figures. He also explores why we have a southern Arthur and how that benefitted the church.

I found the exploration of texts and history to be especially interesting. One of the things this book does especially well is to look at the relationship between history making and myth making. These things are deeply related to each other. We tell stories to reinforce our sense of history. We use history as propaganda. We reinvent our stories to reinvent ourselves. Arthur has been used repeatedly in this way, and I found the exploration of the mechanics to be really helpful.

One of the other things that stuck out for me is the way language changes over time. The poetic sources Simon deals with are full of kennings, allusions and metaphors. It represents a world view rather different to our own. There’s a blurring of edges created by word play and pun, and resonance that may easily be lost to a modern reader. There’s no knowing how literally our ancestors took any of this – whether we’re dealing in straightforward symbolism where Bran = raven, or whether in some sense ravens are Bran, and Bran is ravens… How much mythology could be grown from a misunderstanding of poetic language? For me, this raises more questions than it answers, and I am very glad to have them raised.

I do not emerge from this book confident that I know what the Grail is. The case Simon makes is fascinating and I very much enjoyed reading it. It is a pleasing addition to my sense of what the grail might be, and might have been, but I’m not one for definitive answers. I’ve certainly learned a lot about how different people have perceived the grail. For anyone looking for a non-Christian take on the elusive artefact, this is a good book, I think regardless of whether you find the central argument persuasive.

For me, reading this was like investigating an ancestral dream world. Simon draws on sources from all over the world to explore ideas about what it means to be human, because in many ways, the quest for the grail is always a quest for something fundamental about humanity. This take on the grail is very much the warrior poet, masculine grail, and it has most to say about male mysteries around what is often taken to be an innately feminine object. It often reminded me of reading The White Goddess – this is not a wilfully obscure book, but it has that same sense of being a hairsbreadth from absolute truth, while never enabling me to completely grasp it. As I appreciate that sort of mythic, deep dreaming experience in a book, I really enjoyed reading this. I suspect different readers could have radically different experiences of this book, depending a lot on what you know and believe already.

Mote about it here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/grail