Writing History

Kate Shugak trouncing bad guys in the 14th century? Okay, not exactly, but featured author Dana Stabenow has a historical novel in the works. Is that cool or what?

I’m writing an historical novel set in the 14th century, and for a long time I obsessed over how to avoid anachronism, particularly in dialogue. [Example: Marco Polo’s granddaughter, Johanna, going to the stables to discover BFF Jaufre fighting off the advances of a pretty maid: “Dude! Totally awesome babe, man!”]

I’ve stopped worrying about it, though. I’ve read a lot of history, and somewhere along the line I came to believe that we just aren’t all that different from our ancestors.

Take Eratosthenes. He’s the guy who figured out in 300 BC not only that the earth was round, he also calculated its diameter. Yes, that would be 1,900 years before the Catholic Church put Galileo under house arrest for saying the same thing. All Eratosthenes had were his eyes, his feet and a stick, but he could still do the math.

How about the ancient Hawaiians? They navigated their way across two thousand miles of open ocean using star charts made of bamboo strips and cowrie shells. When they made landfall, they built the Place of Refuge on Hawaii, an enormous platform carved from pahoehoe, the ropey kind of lava, with walls perpendicular to right angles. Five hundred years ago Hawaiians were wearing loincloths and carrying spears and sacrificing slaves to their gods, but they could still do the math.

There’s a quote I like from Robert Heinlein’s Lazarus Long, as follows:

Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics
is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman
who has learned to wear shoes, bathe,
and not make messes in the house.

In my historical novel, my characters are going to spend some time working on a gothic cathedral. I’ve been to Chartres twice myself. Took ‘em 66 years to build it, starting in 1210, and it hasn’t fallen down yet. That was 800 years ago, centuries before rivet guns. But they could still do the math.

We’re not that different, Eratosthenes and Polynesia Guy and Bishop Fulbert and me. It’s just our technology that’s different. I’m thinking my characters can speak plain English, of course absent slang and colloquialism in either direction. There will be no forsoothing, that’s for sure.

But they will be fully human.

3 thoughts on “Writing History”

  1. in my hometown there are houses that date back to the '30 year war'. one of the reasons i miss germany. history around every corner! im not even mentioning the castles. virginia has some history. but not enough for me. i like the barbarians, franks, goths,stc.never did like the romans. esp augustus.
    history major

  2. I'm older than most of the buildings in my hometown. Probably part of the attraction in writing an historical novel.

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