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On Reviving an Era

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, April 6, 2019
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I had a meeting the other day with a director, who asked me “how do you approach a historical era to keep true to it?” and “how do you keep from being biased?”

I fear that I eclipsed the poor guy with my soap box lectures, but that aside, I do think it's an interesting thing to discuss. How DO you revive a historical era with as much faithfulness and authenticity as you can?

There's of course the basic, necessary things, like age-appropriate fashion, settings and technology, but those aren't necessarily enough. What about the feel of the era? Something to make it feel alive, rather than a diorama of sorts, divided into panels?

I am pretty certain there's no one single truth to how to go about it, but this is how I do it, hopefully well enough:

1. Read primary sources

As much as possible, seek out texts produced during the era you're seeking to revive. Any texts- from shopping lists to political analyses to advertisements.

This will not only give you a good feel of the tone, style and social expectations for the era, but also help you be accustomed yourself to what you expect people to talk like, look like and live like. The more you read, the more you immerse yourself in that era, and the more you will be able to recreate this feel and tone that you are experiencing when you read.

2. Read historical accounts as close to the era as possible- but from ALL political positions

It won't do much good in terms of reviving an era if you only go for the credible, balanced and reputable sources about the historical and social elements of the era you are studying. Of course it's a necessary starting point and will provide a good baseline for you to have, but what you definitely need to do after that is go dig in the odious, terrible grime of propaganda, yellow journalism, illegal or fringe feuilles volants, the lot!

And not just from one political side, from ALL of them. If you can snag entire accounts of an era stemming from a very biased perspective, go for it. Bonus points if you can get accounts of the same event from two or more different extremely biased perspectives.

Doing this will ensure that you add more to your feel and tone for the era- you add the flavour of politics, political affiliations and approaches that seep into even daily, routine interactions and immediately reveal a person's stance and even ideology. For example, in today's day and age, having a character talk about ‘SJWs’, ‘soyboys’ or ‘cucks’ immediately denotes that person as non-liberal/ non-leftist/ non-'progressively inclined' while one that talks about TERFs and ‘cis/het’ or ‘problematic’ people, does the exact opposite. Reviving the era means to season your characters' behaviors and language with what fits the era enough to give the feel of the era to your audience. You will be the one to decide how much to do this, but in order to be in a position to do that, you should be well acquainted with how people sounded during those times, how they behaved and how they categorized people politically and socially.

3. When writing about historical events, forget that you know how things turn out

In retrospect, we all win in Waterloo or we clearly see how it was bound to be a disaster for Napoleon.

Because in hindsight, vision is 20/20.

When writing characters that are entering into a historical event, you must just forget that you know what happened. Imagine that nothing has happened yet. Everything is on the line. Focus on the probabilities, on the risk taking, on what looks like folly (even though you know it worked out) or brilliance (even though you know it failed), and have your characters make assessments ONLY on the basis of what they know, not what you know.

Don't allow your characters clairvoyance (unless of course the character IS clairvoyant). Don't make them overly brilliant, even if they're supposed to be a genius- or if you do, make SURE they can deduct their accurate assessment from what there was available to know at the time. If something is truly unpredictable (e.g. an earthquake that devastates an ancient city without warning) then leave it that way for your genius character as well. Even Sherlock Holmes can't make a deduction without even a trace of enough hints and evidence.

Lastly, don't give your characters modern day morals and approaches. Don't give the era's society the profile of today's society. Let them be shocked by what was shocking at the time, even if it's laughable now. Let them be unimpressed or consider normal what today looks preposterous or even barbaric. Again, it's up to you how much of this you allow, but at least make the executive decision after you are certain you're fully aware of its full extent.

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anonymous?

bravo1102 at 3:39AM, April 6, 2019

Seriously though, no matter how well you think you captured some past era, there will always be someone who knows how wrong you got it. It's the nature of writing historical fiction. Sometimes as said you have to capture the essence and feel of the era rather than every nut and bolt, button hole and gaiter strap. It really helps if you can somehow put the era on and walk around in it for awhile. Whether through imagination or reenactors, so you can get the feel of it as opposed to sight, sound and smell. Know the feel of the wool, leather and canvas of a military uniform, the wood, oil and metal of a weapon. So many historians now walk the fields of battle they write about so you can see for yourself Picket's Charge was an awfully long walk in high grass or just how small and easy to miss the little church in the corner is.

bravo1102 at 3:22AM, April 6, 2019

Sometimes those postmarks and lack of teeth can make for interesting characters. See Major Frederikson from the Sharpe series. And as Wellington said Waterloo was a near run thing. It was very close and decision was always in doubt to the participants. Except Bluecher (Horse whinny) (had to get a Young Frankenstein reference in there and you set it up so nicely with the Waterloo reference-- BLUECHER! (Horse whinny)

Tantz_Aerine at 2:14AM, April 6, 2019

Very well said Paul- that's why I said we all must make executive decisions about how close to the era we'll have our work be. It's exactly for aspects such as this. But [i]we[/i] at least need to be well aware of the truth, regardless of how much we sanitize it or recode it for the modern audiences :D

PaulEberhardt at 12:54AM, April 6, 2019

This said, you might sometimes be better off not to stress the accuracy with those parts that your audience is likely to get wrong. Consider a cast from the mid-19th century or before: if you wanted to be hyper-accurate you'd have to draw 9 out of 10 of them with rotten teeth, similarly many as pockmarked and all of them having an ideal of beauty that considerably clashes with that of today. Most of your audience won't have read about this and will think of these things as means of characterisation that just don't make sense. The basic problem is finding the point when it still has the atmosphere and character of the age, yet doesn't make it appear too outlandish. You may try and explain some of the stranger parts, but then you don't want it to become a history textbook. I won't start to list how many anachronisms I consciously inserted in my own history scenes - a lot - but if I hadn't, much of what's going on there just wouldn't be recognisable for what it's supposed to be.

PaulEberhardt at 12:30AM, April 6, 2019

Dear madam, may I be so bold as to congratulate you on this extraordinarily enlightening article, the perusal of which hath been most inspiring. ;) It really takes some research work to get an era right, even those that are just a few decades in the past, and doing it in a structured way like this is vital. Reading primary sources is the hardest part but especially important, because they'll give you a feel of how people talked and thought. Getting this right may sometimes make all the difference. I'd suggest adding the literature of the time and perhaps even linguistic sources to the recommended reading list.


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