It started so well, with a destination close enough to where I’d been before that I had no worries. A simple run. And so I went blithely along, without a care in the world, missed the left turn in Albuquerque, and took my readers to Howlerville. It didn’t matter than this was an imaginary trip to the past, to a place that existed only in fantasy. I had an error, and any reader that knew something about addressing nobles would have their suspension of disbelief burst like a soap bubble.
It was in the story The Girl with the Emerald Eyes. The nobles go by Lord Darcy and Lord Craven, and all the commoners say “m’lord.” Except that Lord Craven rules a dutchy.
Those in the know are groaning. For those who aren’t, someone who rules a duchy is usually a duke or duchess, and the proper forms of address would be Duke Darcy and Duke Craven, and all the commoners would say “your grace.” At least, that’s the case of England, and when someone thinks of a medieval fantasy, it usually draws heavily on merry old England and not, say, Russia.
Worse, I knew this, for what passes as my magnum opus are a couple of action/adventure novels set in a 14th Century Europe that never was, where there are dukes, and commoners say “your grace.” It didn’t even occur to me until I was doing some final research before publishing the first novel, and realized I should have made a left turn in Albuquerque.
The revised version is already uploaded, and hopefully will be available around noonish today, so maybe no one will notice. To those who have, my apologizes.
That’s the problem with time travel, even the imaginary type where we journey to the past in historical fiction, or close enough to it that the danger of stupid errors lurk at every turn. And woe to the writer who stumbles into their clutches!
There is only one hope of escape: research. For historical novels that means everything. Not just historical figures, when they lived, what they looked like, their personalities, and such. We also have to know about clothing, weapons, food, attitudes, names, the minutia of day to day existence, and so forth and so on. That also includes manners and forms of address. This is why I’m currently going through two books on the 14th Century. However, there’s another problem: The past isn’t just a specific time, it’s also a specific place.
For instance, let’s say that our imaginary time machine plops down in 1630 New Amsterdam, but we were headed for 1630 St. Augustine. Some of our preparation would remain valid, but much would be for Spanish colonial Florida, and not a Dutch town on the Hudson River. In the same way, if we’re planning an imaginary trip to the 1920s, and study by reading F Scott Fitzgerald, that’s not going to help much if we land on a farm in Nebraska. Same time; different worlds. If we think that we can apply, say, 17th Century England to 17th Century Scandinavia, it doesn’t matter that both are in 17th Century Europe, the cultures are going to be different.
This is why, while reading a book and seeing a certain custom from 18th Century France applied to 18th Century England, I knew this didn’t hold true. England isn’t France (to which both the English and French exclaim “Thank God!”). When a writer researches a given time, they must narrow it down to a specific place as well.
How to research it is the problem. If you, like me, concoct an imaginary kingdom, you can pattern it after one from real history. I ended up heavily relying on Society for Creative Anachronism sources, as well as histories and accounts of medieval life. Odds are I still have a few howlers (the duke Lord Craven, anyone?), which is why I’m reading these books, just to make sure.
Sources can vary. There’s books of etiquette that go back nearly four thousand years, and they can be enlightening. Grab a book of etiquette from 1910, and you might be amazed at how much has changed in the last century. Then there’s travelogues, like Tocqueville’s Democracy in America or Milfort’s memoirs of his travels in the Creek nation, or the Hernando de Soto accounts. Even here you have to be careful, for different accounts have different degrees of accuracy. There’s also diaries and letters if you can get them. My favorite is found in Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives, where a medieval wife writes to her husband with a list of a few things to pick up, including weapons and material to fend off a siege (neighbor problems can be such a pain). Records, like census records, help with names, as do court records, which can also give insight into laws and what was happening in the community. There are histories, of course, but remember: Historians can, and do, make mistakes. The closer you can get to original documents, the better.
There’s also old recipes; period books on construction; on self defense; on military theory; really, anything that touches what you need to create an effective illusion of the past. Don’t forget archeological data. Like those Egyptian mummies with traces of cocaine and nicotine in their bodies, but no one’s found coca leaves or tobacco in the tombs, not even in paintings on the walls. Don’t forget maps, either, or surveys, the latter which can provide you with information on the flora at the time of the survey.
If all this sounds like work, you’re right. Even imaginary time travel is hard. If you, like me and many others, enjoy researching this stuff, it’s pretty cool. But if not, you either have to grit your teeth and get though it, or write something else.
Then, when you’ve checked all you can, and release the manuscript for the world, you still might have a howler slip through the cracks. Rest assured that someone will see it and point it out. Loudly.
Time travel, even the imaginary sort, isn’t for the faint of heart. And if your imaginary time machine drops down by the Mississippi about three to four thousand years ago, and you find some Egyptians rowing up river, double check your map and make sure you took that left turn in Albuquerque.