Sunday, September 12, 2010

WorldCon 2010 : Anachronistic attitudes: Writing thought and belief in historical fiction

I must stress, these notes were typing up in real-time, while the panel was happening, so if I've misquoted someone, I'm terribly sorry.  I'll come back at the end of next week and fix up all the typos and whatnot, but, in the meantime, please enjoy these carefully-recorded hour-shortened summaries.  I've tried to maintain some of the personality of each of the panellists so, again, please forgive any idiosyncrasies, and if I've recorded any references to books, films, short stories, people or games incorrectly, that is entirely my fault, not the fault of the panellist I'm quoting.

Here's the blurb for Anachronistic attitudes: Writing thought and belief in historical fiction :
"Writers of historical (or historically inspired) fiction often pay close attention to accuracy, ensuring the technology and fashion surrounding their stories never fall prey to anachronism - but what about the way the characters behave? What responsibility does an author have to their characters’ thought processes, beliefs and understanding of the fictional world around them?
Kaaron Warren, Robert Silverberg, Rowena Cory Daniells, Juliet Marillier, Ginjer Buchanan"

Unfortunately Ginjer Buchanan and Robert Silverberg were unable to make it to the panel. Kate Elliott was also attending.  

KE: There’s a phrase we use sometimes which is “modern people in fancy dress” which is where you sometimes read fantasy, and they’ve got their swords and horses, but they think just like we do, so I’d like to ask the other panelists how they avoid that and why they think it’s important to avoid it.

R: That’s a really interesting point, and I’m going to illustrate it – recently I received a review of my trilogy, in which there are a lot of animals, which said that it’s not environmentally friendly, they’re killing all these animals, and I realized they’d brought their modern mentality into a place where these animals are actually pests.  It reminds me of my father-in-law in the 1950s, he shot a wedgetail eagle in one shot from 1000 feet, and was in the paper for such an excellent shot, but now those eagles are endangered, so our reaction is horrified, but at the time they were a pest, and it was what you did.

J: I think in my books it’s more along the lines that men and women write, I write in what used to be known as the ‘dark ages’, which isn’t very accurate, and of course we have no idea how they used to think, we can’t go back in time and live there, but we have some idea, and it’s very difficult to engage a female audience with a world where the women have no power, you usually have to create a strong female character who doesn’t fit into society, and you need to put in very good reasons, historical reasons, as to why she stands out so much and why she can get away with it.  I think it’s a matter of compromise, because I see us as storytellers, not historian, and first and foremost we need to provide characters our readers can empathise with and understand, and that’s the important part.

KW: I’ve just finished writing a novella about a girl who was 18 in the 1940s who gets turned into a vampire, and it’s about the laments she has missing out on her life, she never got to finish her final exams, and I was writing about the snacks her mother was giving her, lovely mangoes, avocado on toast and twisties, and I suddenly thought that wasn’t what she would have been eating, so I called my mother, who would have only been 7 at the time, and got the real kinds of snacks they had which turned out to be things like fluffy white bread with lard or jam, and it was a mindshift that I had to undertake.

KE: You have to have people be of their place and time, and not just be you, so sometimes you wind up with characters who hold beliefs or move through the world in ways that you don’t necessarily agree with, but which works in the time.

J: The only time you can get away with that is when your protagonist is from our time and gets transported into an alternate world, and that’s an idea that was very popular when I was a child.  For the societies I write, there are almost no written records, there is nothing to go on except instance, and looking at the fact that it’s a subsistence culture, where you’re working very hard all the time, whether in the fields or fishing, one thing we do know is that you’re not going to have time to think too hard about your relationships, or how your husband feels about you, there was just no time for it.  They might have thought “I fancy that lad from the village over the hill” but that would be about as far as it went.  Certainly for the period of most of my books, the only records that exist are from 100 or 200 years later, the Pictish culture, and all we have is a list of names of kings, but essentially what we make up has to be believable in the time period it references.  Any histories we do find are not going to talk about the day-to-day interactions, but only the big events, so you really have to rely on your imagination.

R: There’s a lovely letter from a Roman soldier stationed on Hadrian’s Wall, writing to his mother to ask for more knitted socks because it’s really cold here, and you have to remember that they’re still people, they still had some of the same worries.

KE: One of the things, especially in the United States, is this sense of individualism, and I’m interested to see what you all think about focusing on the individual and this idea that they are a self-contained item in the world, as opposed to the more indigenous community-based mindset where you were part of the community first and an individual second.

R: You couldn’t exist as an individual.  You wouldn’t survive.

J: I still bring my 20th century mindset to my stories.  Family is very important, but my characters are very much individuals.

KW: I’m going to use my experience in Fiji, where I just spent 3 years – there are small communities where the village leader still rules and they all follow him almost without question.  I stayed with them for 3 or 4 days, and my 9 year old son found it quite difficult, because we’ve had an easy life, and these young women would go away and work in the city, then come home, and you could see she was finding it hard to go back to eating second, after the men, and she was still individual, and you could see she wanted to get to know us better, whereas if we’d met her in town there would have been no question of that being a problem.  Their husbands aren’t the boss of them, but the chieftan is the boss of everyone.

R: It’s important to be part of the community, because there’s the issue of censure, and if you do something that’s forbidden, you get kicked out, and you just can’t survive under those circumstances.

KW: Well, yes, that same girl told me she got beaten when she was 16 for going to the next village without permission, by the chieftan, and she said this really casually, and I just couldn’t comprehend it.

KE: Another question I wanted to ask was how do we escape ourselves when we write?  How do we write outside our own viewpoints?

J: I think my own views are going to be in there anyway, and there are certain things I believe I passionately that are going to be in everything  write, but I think it’s to do with the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes, and how close we are to our characters, and whether we know them more deeply than in apparent in the books, I think we need to be that person while we’re writing, they’re not you, they’re a character you’ve created who should be a fully faceted character.

R: I teach kids between 18-25 interactive narrative, and I was talking to them in class one day and one of the students put up his hand and said, “Miss, they’re not real.” (Laughter)  Writers can understand.

KW: Sometimes I’ll throw in something very basic to set them apart from me, like I’ll have them love Brussels sprouts, which I hate, just to differentiate them from myself.

KE: This may be because I come from the anthropology angle, and I’m married to an archaeologist, and I think it’s impossible to separate a character from their culture, because they’ve grown up in their culture just as I’ve grown up in mine, and they are themselves, within that society, and it’s shaped them, and they exist within it.

KE: History creates a relationship between the past and the present – it’s a fusion of horizons.

R: It’s about making stories accessible to modern people.  My great aunt was trapped in China from 1939 to 1941 and she was a prisoner of the Japanese, and I went to England because I thought it would be a really interesting topic to write about, but after spending a week with her, I quickly discovered I couldn’t write a book about it, because she was only 18 or 19 at the time, and she didn’t know anything because no one  told her anything, and it didn’t seem like she’d grown up since the 1950s, because she called the Japanese soldiers monkey-men and all kinds of things that would horrify a modern audience, and so maybe I’ve failed at creating a fusion of horizons in that I couldn’t get into the shoes of an 18 year old girl and turn it into something that modern readers could understand.

KW: It’s fascinating that someone doesn’t learn and doesn’t move on, it sounds like she was stuck as an 18 year old, which was probably horrifying at the time, and it sounds like she just hasn’t grown up.  Some Americans asked me for an Australian experience, so I suggested they go to an RSL and there are these old men there who are still saying things from whatever war they were in, and making comments behind closed doors when women aren’t around that would be entirely unsuitable for print in a modern society.

J: Perhaps if you were the most brilliant literary novelist, you’ve be able to use those phrases, and you could create the world so perfectly that people would accept that kind of language because it fits in, but as a spec fic writer, I don’t think you could get away with it.

KW: I write horror, and my characters are already unlikable, so that might be something I could work in to make the audience really not like them.

R: It’s interesting to talk about women who didn’t have options in the past, my mum didn’t finish grade 10 because it wasn’t expected, and she had three career options, nurse, receptionist or teacher, and when she got married she was expected to stop work and have children, and that was that.  If you wrote that today, the women readers would want to kick them, they absolutely have no sympathy for them.

R: I was over at a convention in New Zealand with Dave Freer, who writes the series 1632 which are set in 1632, and to make sure he gets all the weapons right, he contacted the re-enactment groups to get the correct information on these weapons, and I think the best thing you can do is go out and try the weapon for yourself, so I did aido, the art of the samurai sword for 5 years, and I have a friend who writes horses, so I’ll call her up and say “I want him to have a sore leg, how long would it take to heal?”

J: I have a friend who’s a doctor who’s been asked all kinds of things about medieval medicine, such as “I want him to be laid up in bed for 5 weeks, what disease or injury could he get?” which has made her really stretch her medical knowledge a lot.


J: I think if you’re a good storyteller, you don’t let writing the correct attitudes get in the way of presenting an entertaining story to the reader.

KE: I think people are people when it comes down to it, and a lot of our basic emotions are very similar.  Let’s take the Western idea of love, which in an Eastern culture would be seen as very societally disruptive, but the base emotion is the same, even if it’s treated in a different way.

J: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet – literary fantasy set in Japan – is a remarkable piece of historical fiction, by David Mitchell, with a love story between two Japanese and a Japanese and a westerner.

R: I like to get swept away by a story, so the more fantastic it is, the more you can make it different, the more you’ll draw me in.

KE: I think as an author you sometimes need to answer “Why are my readers reading this?” and there are some readers who will read purely to put themselves in the place of the character, and they want to be there, or there might be people who read for tourism, who are there to see a place that isn’t the same as where they’re living.

Q: It’s the job of the author to make every detail as correct as possible and it’s the job of the reader to find the mistakes.

J: There’s a difference between historical fiction and alternate reality fiction, where you might even need to know more about the history of the world just so you can change it.

R: I was writing a story about the Murray River, and these giant oaks would fall into the river and they were as hard as steel, and they had to winch them out of the water or they’d put holes in the bottom of the boats, and sometimes the cables would snap, and all accounts said they would cut a man in half, but then Mythbusters did a show on it, and it turned out it wouldn’t cut a man in half, it might break some ribs and cause internal bleeding, but not cut him in half, so I had to go back and rewrite that part of the story.

KE: Some practical examples?

KE: My Ishtar book, Ishtar of the past, there’s some amazing stuff available, I went to google scholar, and there’s a lot of talking about the desert and what the land was like and what he smells might have been, so I can imagine the world and put myself there, write the world, then put my goddess in, and I’ve actually written it through the eyes of the washerwoman, because I found it difficult to write through the eyes of the goddess, I wanted to write as someone normal.

KE: I’ve made the mistake before of treating horses like cars and people eating as if from supermarkets, and I think once you begin to define your society in terms of how they get food and how much time it takes to get food, we forget, and it’s a very important aspect of many cultures, so until you know that, you don’t have a complete idea.

J: The Dark Mirror -  because the Picts may have had a royal succession that went along the female line, I extrapolated from that that women in that society may have had slightly  more power, so I had no only male druid, but wise women who provided education for the daughters of the wealthy, however, in one particular pivotal part of the story I stuck with the conventions of the society the rules and hierarchy, and there was another theory that Picts has human sacrifices at Burkehead Well, so at a particular point in this story there was required the sacrifice of a young woman, and the old wise woman reacts as I would react, with absolute horror, but it was something that happens annually, the men have to drown a young woman at the well and this was the way you would placate the gods and keep things ticking along, and I  wasn’t happy about this, I didn’t want to put it in, but I managed to make my main character the king later on and it became outlawed because I couldn’t bear with it for three books.  I was able to show their horror while they still thought they were doing the right thing.

KW: We are writing for us now.

R:I read a lot about other cultures, and  I was reading  about these women in Papua New Guinea about this culture that cuts off a joint of their finger every time a member of their family dies, and you wind up with these old women with little stubs on the ends of their hands, and I thought “I want to use that in a story”.

Q: ???

R: I did research into the Byzantium empresses, and a woman was accepted if she was ruling for an infant son or a husband who was away at war, but if she came in as an empress and was strong and intelligent, the men really resented her.  The idea was that you can rule in place, but as soon as your son grows up or your husband returns, you hand it over, because you’re just a woman.

KE: We have our own feelings about the past, and we have stories we’ve been told about the past, and the middle ages, I like to call the Victorian Middle Ages, and my sister was researching this era, and she was telling me about these pilgrim badges that people wore if they were on a pilgrimage, and some of them were completely obscene, and it got censored by the Victorian era that came after.

R: It’s like when they dug up Pompeii, they found all this obscene graffiti that they immediately hid and only showed to other men that they deemed worthy of seeing it, and certainly they didn’t show women.

J: I love reading about cultures that have very little written about them, and it means you can make up more about them, but it still has to fit in and be something that could have happened.

KE: The more well-documented the time period is, the more likely there is to be an expert who will know you’ve got it wrong.

Q: Are there any time periods where the pervasive attitudes are so alien you can’t find the good guy?

KE: I don’t think any people are alien, we’re all people.

J: I think we’re talking more about history.  Do you mean real cultures or others encountered in other writers’ works?

Q: Real cultures.

J:  think every culture has something good in it.

R: I’ve done a lot of research into persecution and injustice, for my Masters, and there are some terrible things people have done to each other, and I find those impossible to sympathise with.

KE: I think there are some cultures I would be hesitant to write, but not because I don’t like them, just because I’m not sure I could get it right.

KE: Thanks everyone.

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