History and Its Malcontents
There are a number of problems that one discovers when writing historical fiction, and even historical fantasy. One problem is that not only do the long-accepted schoolbook versions of events prove to be oversimplified or flat-out wrong at closer inspection, but that the events of 100, 500, or 1500 years ago can prove to be maddeningly elusive in spite of our assurance that the past has “happened” and is therefore firmly within our grasp. Look no further than today and you will see the tendency for any annalist/analyst to reject reality and substitute their own; it was no different in the past, and while we can praise the gods for the neutral parties who do their best to provide unbiased commentary, turn back the clock and it is difficult to know who was truly unbiased, and given that modern journalism practices were nonexistent, such sources may have been a rare to mythical breed.
Another problem we run into is that the experts can’t seem to agree amongst themselves, leaving the writer on the verge of throwing everything down and walking away. Small wonder some of us just make things up. Part of the problem is that some experts have agendas, whether they admit to it or not, and the other part of the problem is that historical events, especially those occurring in the distant past, have the maddening tendency to still make sense when seen from completely different angles. Was William Rufus murdered, or was it an accident? The events look highly suspicious when presented by one person, then not at all when presented by another. The saving grace for the fiction writer is…you’re writing fiction. It only has to make sense within the framework of your story. I would implore everyone to fight the scourge that is Hollywood History and make it as accurate as humanly possible, all stumbling blocks aside, but fiction does allow for some leeway, and fantasy for even more.
But then comes another problem. Some people have opinions. Not just opinions: they seem to think that they know exactly what happened 700 years ago, and that they know these people personally, and they somehow missed the “Fiction” designation on your book. Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do about them, even though they have the potential to be the most damaging to you. You can’t cure stupid. And then, at the opposite end of the spectrum are the people that want everything played so safe that the characters have the personalities of marble statues and the novel reads like a history text book. A good cure for insomnia, maybe, but is that what you’re going for?
As for myself, I’ll be taking refuge in both obscurity and audacity, for Children of Stone, when it is finished, will be damn near a comedy despite the life-or-death situation of its characters. And why shouldn’t it be, with Chaucer as the narrator? Scholars put him on a pedestal as the father of the English language, but he was also the father of dick-and-fart jokes, with a healthy streak of sarcasm in his work. The depiction may delight some, and ruffle the feathers of others who take the man far more seriously than they probably should. Riskier still is depicting a national figure like Owain Glyndwr, however sympathetically. Some might not like to be reminded that he faithfully served an English king and only rebelled when that king was deposed and murdered (“See you later, you cunts. By the way…I’m taking Wales with me.”) These risks, among others, I am willing to take, even though there are always (in this case very humorless) readers and sometimes fellow authors who are quite willing to curb-stomp an ambitious small-timer for their transgressions. The majority, however, will hopefully be entertained, for in throwing all caution to the wind I think I’ve got a lively tale in the telling. With The Bearkeeper, I had a very difficult narrator in Matthew; he was chosen mainly for his unique thoughts and perspective and, because of his clairvoyance, the opportunity for me to write in both first and third person. But he came with his drawbacks, and I don’t think I will use him again. With Chaucer, the perspective is unfortunately more limited, but holy shit, it’s fun. He has come out as sarcastic, wily, perceptive, vacillating between humility and egotism, often hypocritical, gruff but sympathetic, crass (an “old satyr” as one friend put it), and with a tendency to become tongue-tied when put on the spot. I have found it unusual for female writers to stray from writing from the perspective of women, though many do, and successfully. Still, the fact that I have slipped into the mindset of a fat, ornery old man so easily scares me a little.
By my estimates I am now past halfway finished, and so long as I do not encounter more setbacks (brain damage, even minor brain damage, is a world of suck,) things seem to be back on track. In the meantime, I implore you all to do your research to the best of your ability, keep an open mind, and, holy crap, check out Theda/Cleopatra up there. Snake boobs. Rowr.