Last week I took a shot at promoting my first academic book. This week I want to ramble a bit about my other great writing passion, historical fiction. This is the story of how I learned to stop worrying and love storytelling.
It happened when I was in my late teens. I was standing outside the mead tent at the medieval fair and feeling weirdly conspicuous. Everyone else was strutting around clad in armour, robes, gowns, tunics. Me? Jeans, t-shirt, jacket. Don’t get me wrong, I’d thought about dressing up. There was a brown cape I’d had my eye on all week. A monk, that’s what I’d be. I could wear my old Rosary beads. After the fair, the brown robes would be reborn as a Jedi costume—at parties and/or running around the house with my toy lightsaber. And yet something held me back. Fear. A lot of teenagers are afraid of standing out or looking silly. Lots of adults too, come to think of it. But that wasn’t it. For a history geek like me, there was another aspect. Fear of anachronism. Fear of getting it wrong.
I’d come a long way from being an odd kid with sock puppets and a love of I, Claudius. Now I was an odd teenager who wanted to be an historian—how could I live with myself if my costume was historically inaccurate? And now I was standing around with my hands in my pockets, feeling like the only clothed person at a nudist retreat. Or so I imagined.
I swallowed and looked around. It seemed like I was swimming in a sea of anachronisms. Sequins on medieval dresses, zippers on trousers. A guy brushed past me carrying what looked suspiciously like a Klingon dagger on his belt. He was wearing a woolly jumper spray-painted silver so it looked sort of like chain-mail. To judge by the fumes, he’d done it that very morning. I think the BBC used the same trick when they did Narnia in the 90s, though they allowed the paint time to dry. Probably.
This is stupid, I thought. I should go home.
Yeah, I was a pretty grumpy teenager. Thank goodness I emerged from the larval stage.
That’s when the guy with the Klingon knife turned around made eye contact. ‘This is great, huh?’
‘Yeah,’ I said. What else can you say to that?
His face creased into a smile. He was missing a tooth. That felt historically authentic, at least. But his smile was so genuine that I couldn’t help returning it.
It hit me like a mace to the back of the head. Trust me, that hurts. This guy had it right, and I had it wrong. It didn’t matter whether any of this stuff was accurate or carefully researched. He was in the moment, having the time of his life, and I bet it wasn’t just because he was high on paint fumes. People at the fair had embraced the past with glee, while I was a stick-in-the-mud who refused to have any fun.
When I write historical fiction, I always remember that day. One of the points of telling stories about the past is to take readers on a journey into another world. In the case of historical fantasy like my novel Ashes of Olympus, the otherworldliness is far more literal. I embrace the spirit of the past, leap into it, glory in all the silliness and splendour of the ancient and medieval worlds. Greek and Roman history have their share of the dour and humourless, but also of the ridiculous. The same age that birthed Thucydides and Plato also spat out Aristophanes. Late antiquity gave us wowsers like Augustine, sure. But when I hear him complaining about early Christians using feast days as an excuse to get drunk and party, the world he lived in seems that much more real. What is the point of interacting with the past, if you fetter the hurly-burly?
Fear of anachronism is very real for a lot of people with a love of history, and probably a lot more pertinent for an historical novelist than a pimply bespectacled boy with an attitude problem. Just as it stopped me from getting into the spirit of the medieval fair as a teen, it can also be crippling for an author. My experience at the fair led me to cross-examine my own preconceptions about history, fiction, and the relationship between them. The man in the woollen chain-mail prompted me to adopt the principle of historical authenticity as opposed to historical accuracy. The framework of authenticity allows the writer and reader a lot more freedom, and with freedom comes joy.
The distinction between accuracy and authenticity as frameworks for understanding historical fiction is something I shall explore in greater depth in the next couple of posts.
Until next time, vale.