Historical Writing: Always an Adventure!


by Lillian Csernica on August 5, 2014

 

Why do I write about history?

History gives me an opportunity to get the big picture on how different countries have tried to make different strategies work. Economic strategies, military strategies, and the more cultural and artistic strategies that come under the heading of fashion.

A good example is Scotland. Not the wealthiest of countries, Scotland has a long history of internal clan conflicts and the border wars with England. The weather in Scotland tends toward clouds and rain. Sheep do well on the landscape of Scotland, so you see a lot of wool in their clothing styles, notably the kilt. I know a lot of people who have spent a great deal of time looking up their family tartans. The truth is, clan tartans are an invention of the Victorian period. This is one of those nasty facts that bursts the romantic bubble of many an amateur historian.  At one time the Scots believed carrying the paw of a mole in one’s sporran would protect against rheumatism, a common ailment in that climate.

I’ve written often about my fondness for Japan. Feudal Japan was an era of strict social classes, laws about fashion, and precise rules about social etiquette. While the tyranny of the Tokugawa Shogunate was eventually its own undoing, I must confess I find a certain comfort in having so many matters of culture spelled out for me. Modern Japanese also enjoy the two-edged sword of knowing exactly who they are and where they stand in whatever social context they find themselves. In the time of the Tokugawa, clothing, hairstyles, personal ornamentation, and weaponry were the indicators of social position. I find it one of history’s most humorous moments to see all that grandeur reduced to the common everyday business card. That has become the crucial indicator of status and context for the Japanese. Westerners are advised to bring plenty of their own. Otherwise there are business available to produce cards very quickly with one side in English and the other in Japanese.

tvtropes.org

I write romance novels, so I get to take a close look at the techniques of wooing in various times and places. Medieval Europe had the concept of courtly love.  Eleanor of Aquitaine’s daughter by Louis VII of France was largely responsible for this idea. Knights were measured against the Code of Chivalry to see if they met the beau ideal of those times. The real purpose of the concept of courtly love was education in respectable deportment.  Bored noblewomen can be dangerous noblewomen, as Eleanor of Aquitaine herself proved on more than one occasion.

From About.Com, Medieval History:

“The woman was Eleanor’s daughter (from her previous marriage to King Louis VII of France), Marie de Champagne, and she had come to Poitiers to take charge of the education and training of the young people at the palace. She had her work cut out for her. The Poitevins had not been accustomed to the ways of court life for generations: the young men were boisterous, bragging warriors; the young women had led isolated lives and were free at last from the confines of the family estate. Religious study had not taught these pubescent pupils how to behave. Marie realized that a subject that could hold their interest was necessary to use as a vehicle through which they could be taught manners and respect. One subject sprang immediately to mind.”

Novels from the Regency and Victorian periods entertain me because they’re all about clothes and money. Social position is the bottom line, and so many of the characters are looking to trade up. Finding someone you can love for the rest of your life is nowhere near as important as finding someone with a respectable income of so many hundreds or thousands of pounds per year. In my own mind I often encounter a struggle between the romantic and the pragmatist.  I may know how history worked in real life in a given period, but that doesn’t mean I have to adhere strictly to realism.  A romance novel is, after all, escapist literature.  When I run away from home through a book, I want the author to make the trip worthwhile!  And so I do my best when choosing romance over realism and sentiment over survival.

Oddly enough, ancient history holds little appeal for me. The mysteries of ancient Egypt focus so much on the afterlife. I know more than I ever wanted to about the process of mummification. I find it interesting that the Egyptian gods have animal heads, also found in the Hindu pantheon. What does this similarity mean? What exchange of culture might have gone on that modern archaeologists have yet to discover? As with so many cultures, the most noteworthy people are the upper classes, especially the royalty. The lower classes, especially the slaves, had a hard life. Not a lot of romance there for me. I can’t stand desert climates.

One of the most fascinating aspects of history is food. For the first romance novel I ever wrote, I had to go looking for Basque cookbooks because the novel was set in Navarre. It took quite some doing, but I finally discovered what my heroine would have for breakfast: chestnuts boiled in milk and sprinkled with nutmeg. Compare that with the necessity in Egypt of having many festal days where the upper classes distributed beer and bread to the lower classes. If not for that, many people of the lower classes in Egypt would have starved to death. In Medieval Europe, bread, watered wine, ale, meats such as venison, game birds, and roast pork, and large wheels of cheese made up the main meal. I do have a number of cookbooks that provide recipes from the Middle Ages. The key difference in culinary art between the Middles Ages and the Renaissance came down to the use of spices. The Middle Ages saw lots of spices thrown in for rich flavors. Renaissance cooking became more selective, creating unique dishes centered around particular flavor combinations. My research in this area taught me the pleasure of chicken prepared with cinnamon.

Then there’s jewelry. I could go on and on about the delights of dressing up my heroes and heroines in the bijouterie of their particular time periods. From the hair ornaments of the geisha to the cameos of the Victorian period, from the jeweled inlays of the Egyptian pectoral collars to the prayer ropes of the Middles Ages made from ivory beads or garnets or even pearls, the treasure chests of history are overflowing with splendor and detail. I once visited the Smithsonian Institution and saw the earrings of Marie Antoinette. How she didn’t end up with earlobes stretched like King Tut’s I’ll never know.

History is full of little questions like this, alongside the larger mysteries. And so with every novel I go exploring!

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Filed under Fiction, Goals, history, Japan, love, marriage, romance, Writing

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