Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Building the Time Machine: Writing Historicals (Part 1 of 2 Parts)

By Jeri Westerson

Originally posted August 10, 2010
at www.Getting-Medieval.com

Writing historical mysteries comes with its own set of problems.

To begin, there’s the problem of writing a mystery. On top of that is a layer of history, added on like frosting.

In addition, as with science fiction or fantasy, there is a certain amount of world-building that needs to happen. By that, I mean that the reader must be thoroughly placed in the time and the place. The smells, the sounds and the feel of it all must be part of the work without devolving the material into a travel log or documentary.

Everything must be real for the characters – and no one should seem out of place. And, because readers of historical fiction and mysteries are very particular and have purposely stepped into your world to time travel, the history must be authentic.

But how does that work when you are writing a work of fiction?

I consider the history to be the skeleton of my story and I consider the fiction—the fictional life of my ex-knight turned detective, Crispin Guest—to be the flesh and muscle I hang there.

If the skeleton isn’t sound, that is, if it’s made of fictional history, then it doesn’t give enough structure to the rest of the piece. It’s also more of a challenge to bend the fiction to suit the history, rather than the other way around.

Sometimes, the work can be frustrating.

I try to choose words authentic to the time period. I spend a lot of time with the Oxford English Dictionary to learn when certain words first came into use, or at least were written down for the first time.

This gives a little leeway. After all, a word was most likely already in use for some time before it was actually written down.

But the meanings of words may have changed. Some words we use today didn’t start out with quite the same meaning – and certain idiomatic phrases had a very early origin.

There were instances when I wanted to use a word or phrase that was legitimate to the 14th century, but ended up scrapping it because it sounded too modern!

To be continued...

Jeri Westerson is the author of the Crispin Guest medieval mysteries. The newest title in the series, The Demon's Parchment, is a nominee for the RT Book Review Reviewer's Choice Award for Historical Mystery.

Photo by Craig Westerson.


Suzanne said...

Jeri, many of us who write historicals spend a great deal of time poring through the dictionary to learn when a word entered the language and that word's original meaning. (How nerdy we must look!) The more we write, the harder it seems; with each book, we're more aware of the cadences and nuances of our chosen historical period. Like you, I've scrapped perfectly good words because they sound too modern. All to weave a convincing, enthralling world that readers will look forward to revisiting.

Suzanne Adair

Joyce Tremel said...

Thanks Jeri!

I'm pondering writing something set during WWII. I know that's not as far back as your era, but the thought of the research I'll have to do hurts my brain. Fortunately the 40s had the best music. That part will be easy!

Jeri Westerson said...

Joyce, I think that recent history is a lot harder to research than distant history. I mean, there are people still alive who recall life during World War II! I'd certainly interview some folks if you can find them, just to get the day to day life right. For instance, I had an old house in Pasadena that had a strange tiny door in the wall in the kitchen and found out from my mother-in-law that that was a "milk door" for the milkman to deliver your milk right to you. Watching old movies from the era helps, too, especially with language and slang. It's the little details that can trip you up.

Jeri Westerson said...

Suzanne, I do love poring through dictionarys, though. You really find out some interesting things.

Sarah shaber said...

This is excellent, Jeri! I too am very careful with language. I have a historical mystery, LOUISE'S WAR, set during WWII, coming out in July. There were a couple of ubiquitous words of the time I didn't use--"gay" is the most obvious--because their meanings have changed completely in the intervening years.

Nancy Adams said...

Hey, Jeri, great picture!

Speaking of pictures, I love the cover for Demon's Parchment. The Crispin here is much more as I pictured him, sexy but older, more gritty and worn. Serpent's Crispin cover was sexy, too, but the guy looked too young.

My historical mysteries are set in ancient Rome, where the characters would have spoken Latin, so the language issues are a little different, but it's still a challenge to come up with language that doesn't jar by sounding too modern.

I love looking through dictionaries, too.

Nancy Adams

Sue Curran said...

Jeri, I'm plotting an historical fiction about the survival of the Vestal Virgins and their travels through Europe and into modern America. Any suggestions of resources for Ancient Rome?

Jeri Westerson said...

But Sarah, "gay" as in homosexual, also goes back a lot farther than people think. But I know, you would prefer to use it in the "happy" sense.

And Nancy, even though my characters are speaking English, they are really speaking Middle English, something a bit incomprehensible if you heard it spoken. I'll be doing a blog post soon on my own blog about words and their changing meaning.

And finally Sue, I'm not up on Ancient Rome. Not my area of expertise. Might I suggest joining the Historical Novel Society? They also have a listserv where these questions can be asked.