On the Calendar

It’s time to do the holidays, medieval and early-modern style!

Calendar customs are rituals or activities historically practiced on a given day, typically associated with a saint but sometimes a key point in the agricultural year or some other event. Here’s a selection from December:

2014-12-1 Boy Bishop6 December: Saint Nicholas’ Day. The election of the “boy bishop.” Choristers (boys* in the choir) would elect one of their number to be the boy bishop, a kid who would run all official religious ceremonies till Holy Innocents Day (28 December). The Boy Bishop appointed his friends to serve as high officials in the church (the dean, the canons). For all intents and purposes, he and his friends were in charge. Adults would take on all the kids’ roles (acolytes, altar boys), and would sometimes heckle the kids who were trying to conduct services properly. It was basically three weeks of fun, treats, holidays, and general misrule, and it often got pretty rowdy.

16 December: The Bringing in of the Boar’s Head. This tradition is mostly confined to great houses and universities, where the head of a boar is brought in to a dining table beautifully decorated with herbs and fruit while the Boar’s Head Carol is sung. Its origin story goes like this: an Oxford university student was walking through the forest when he was attacked by a boar. He fought it off by cramming his copy of Aristotle in the boar’s mouth, choking it to death.

C'mon, Rufus Sewell...

C’mon, Rufus Sewell…

20 December: Saint Thomas’ Eve. If you stuck an onion full of pins and put it under your pillow, you’d dream of your future husband.

21 December: Saint Thomas’ Day. Poor people in a village, usually women and children, would go a-Thomasing. This was a bit like trick-or-treating from house to house, but they’d be offered a fixed amount of a specific thing (a candle, a cupful of flour). The idea was that they would collect provisions to help them live through winter. This tradition was also called gooding.

28 December: Holy Innocents Day. This holiday commemorates the Biblical story of King Herod having all male babies in his lands slaughtered as he tried to kill off the infant Christ. On this day, adults would fast and do nothing (especially not housework), but kids could do pretty much whatever they wanted. They had treats and went to parties and could play in church, but they were also beaten to remind them of Herod’s cruelty. Being a kid in medieval and early-modern times could be confusing.

* Yes, just boys. Sorry. They hadn’t gotten the memo yet.

From A.R. Wright’s British Calendar Customs (Folklore Society: London, 1940).


Soul Cakes

I thought about whomping up a rather detailed and probably controversial account of Halloween through the ages.

Instead I’m going to talk about cookies.

Medieval people went “souling” every year on All Saint’s Day (1 November). They’d go from house to house, chanting prayers or singing songs, and householders would hand out cookie-type goodies called soul cakes to them when they were finished. This custom is an ancestor of trick-or-treating, only it wasn’t just kids who’d go since you could also expect a mug of ale with your soul cake.

Want to try them? Of course you do.

Soul Cakes

3/4 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar
4 cups flour, sifted
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon cloves
¼ cup milk

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Mix the butter and sugar until creamy. Mix all dry ingredients together, then slowly add to the butter mixture. Add enough milk to make a dough the consistency of cookie dough.

Roll the dough flat (about half an inch thick) and use a drinking glass to cut the cakes. Mark each with an X. Use your biggest knife because this makes it more awesome.

Bake for about 10-15 minutes or until golden-brown.

If you feel like being completely inauthentic, they taste great dipped in or drizzled with chocolate syrup.

This recipe was adapted from one printed in British Calendar Customs (Folklore Society of London, 1940).

Speaking for the past

If you’re writing a historical novel, chances are you’ve worried about writing dialogue at some point or another. You’re putting words in the mouths of people who’ve been dead a long time. It’s an extra layer of interpretation, and it can be tricky. Here are some thoughts on how to make it easier:

Do your research. If you’re lucky enough to be writing about a time when there are recordings of regular people speaking, listen to them. Especially if they’re candid recordings. You can get a good sense of the cadence of different accents and regional word choice that can go a long way to enhancing voice.

If your time period happens before recording technology, read diaries or correspondence (if they’re available) to get a sense of how people put their thoughts together. Newspapers have letters to the editor and advice columns that can be useful. If your era happened before the printing press, things like court records can give you confessions or testimony that are occasionally in the person’s own words.

Be creative; even in eras before regular people left written documentation of their mental landscapes, they often had brushes with people who could and did keep records. Just remember these records were kept by human beings with an agenda, so read them with that in mind.

But be careful not to overdo your research. People often speak differently when they know they’re being recorded. Radio and TV were (and are) scripted and intended to be consumed a certain way for certain purposes. It’s not that you can’t learn from sources like these, but like all evidence, you should use them with an understanding of their potential biases.

If you’re writing about a time before sound recording, be especially careful as you analyze written sources. People speak very differently than they write, so if you faithfully reproduce the writing style of an age but the words come out of people’s mouths, you run the risk of having a person (especially a young person) sound too stilted and flowery. You also may sacrifice readability and character development for pretty clauses and ornate diction.

Know your character. Consider things that would influence your character’s speech patterns. Social class and ethnicity are good places to start, but think, too, about things like education (or lack of it) and hometown and birth order and habits of mind.

For instance, if your character has never seen the ocean and then refers to feeling seasick, it’s going to feel inauthentic. Does she have a lot of friends, or is she relatively solitary? Rural or urban? All these things impact the words a character will use and how comfortable they’ll be around different people and in different situations—all of which affect what (and how much) comes out of their mouth.

But also consider your reader. One of the important tasks of historical fiction is making the past accessible to a modern audience. The way a character talks is a great way to make this connection, but it can also put the reader at arm’s length.

For me, too much dialect is offputting. Too many ain’ts and fers and hangin’ apostrophes don’t sound authentic; they just make it hard to follow the story when there’s so much emphasis on the character’s speech patterns. It’s like the story is the speech, and unless that’s the story you want to tell, you may want to consider how you’re presenting a character’s words on the page.

Be sparing with unfamiliar words. We historical writers love to geek out over our research. But consider every unfamiliar word you use (especially if the word is in a language most of your readers don’t know) is going to stop a reader and take them out of the story while they try to figure out what the thing is. Using just the ones you need balances readability with worldbuilding. An example (using ridiculous words just for the hell of it):

“Take your tregnum off the dillyhopper and get outside to pick grunches for Noonmeal.”

“Go put on your tregnum so you don’t get cold, then go outside and pick some salad greens for lunch.”

The first example overloads us and makes the line all about the words, while the second is more selective in what it emphasizes and also gives us more context. We can figure out that a tregnum is some kind of jacket and then move on with the action – the harvesting. Determining which foreign item or concept you want to emphasize can develop your character’s voice and worldbuild as well.

But don’t be afraid to use terms that fit the time period. If your character is a well-to-do girl in the antebellum American South, she’s going to have calling cards and wear hoopskirts. Overexplaining an unusual item feels clunky and wouldn’t make sense for the character, especially in terms of dialogue.

It’s good practice to assume an “ignorant but interested” reader. That is, your reader might not already know what a calling card is, but is curious to find out. Trust that your reader is going to be able to figure out things from context, then provide that context in an unobtrusive way.

Be willing to sacrifice strict historical accuracy. One of my all-time favorite historical TV shows is Deadwood. If you’re not familiar, it’s about the South Dakota town of that name in its nineteenth-century frontier days when everything was dirty and violent and full of rough people looking for gold.

One of the best characters constantly uses a swearword that rhymes with “rockmucker,” which is definitely not historically accurate, and the writers were called out for it.

Their argument for using the word stuck with me.

A lot swearwords people used in the nineteenth century would seem comical and goofy and old-timey to a modern audience–“bullfeathers” or “gol ding it”–and the writers wanted to capture the raw impact of bad language to help develop this character. To do that, they had to choose a modern swearword that would shock a modern audience.

It wasn’t that they didn’t know this word was historically inaccurate. It was that they made a creative decision in spite of it. And it worked very well.

But be willing to give up a historical word that feels modern. A good example is the f-bomb. This word has been around in English since at least the sixteenth century. It has the same meaning and rude connotation then as it does today.

But yet, if a sixteenth-century girl says something like, “I wish she’d stop f*****g my sweetheart,” it’s going to sound like something you’d hear in the hall of the average high school. Perfectly historically accurate, but since it would take a reader out of the story, you’ll do better to change it (however reluctantly).

Good dialogue in any book works well when it feels effortless, when the reader is so pulled in that they feel like they’re over the character’s shoulder and in the middle of the conversation. Historical fiction is no different. Bottom line: make your historical people feel real. Readers can forgive a lot when characters speak to them clear and honest and true.

In a good humor

2014-8-4 CiceroIn Timeline by Michael Crichton, Sir Daniel says of Chris, “He speaks like Cicero.”

While I’m slightly horrified to admit I’ve read this book, this line is probably the funniest line in a work of historical fiction/fantasy I’ve ever read.

Silly, right? Let me tell you why it works for me.

Chris comes from the twentieth century, and he’s trying not to be killed by pretending to fit into fourteenth-century Dordogne. The only way he can communicate is by speaking Latin, but like most of us in the modern era, he was only taught Classical Latin. Sir Daniel knows medieval (or church) Latin, but like us in the modern era, would have read and been familiar with Classical authors like Cicero.

Thus, when Sir Daniel says, “He speaks like Cicero,” a modern reader (who knows this rather complicated set of happenstances) reads a puzzled, bemused tone, and that’s what makes it funny – the confluence of backstory and historical knowledge and the experiences the reader brings to the moment.

If you don’t know this stuff? This line is a total throwaway.

Which, rather circuitously, brings me to my point: Humor is context. It’s execution. And it’s perspective.

All of which dovetail into a serious set of challenges for a historical writer to make something intentionally funny.

Me, I find humor in general is hard to write because it’s so diverse. Dramatic moments are little more universal, but humor is highly personal and relies on a more complex set of inputs.

2014-8-4 Facepalm

Facepalm. Facepalm. Facepalm.

But it’s also not as out of reach as we might think.

For instance, my teenage son loves Jackass. If you’re not familiar with this franchise, it features young men getting hurt by doing bone-stupid things. I watched it with my kid once, and what occurred me wasn’t Wow, this is awful, why would anyone watch this?

I thought, Medieval people would have lined up around the block to watch this show. They also thought people getting hurt, especially by doing dumb stuff, was hilarious.

It was a reminder that not only do we have more in common with the people in the past than we often realize, there are a lot of opportunities to bring these small humanizing moments into historical fiction. We might not all agree on what’s funny, but we all like to laugh.

What about you? What are some moments in historical fiction that you found hilarious? What about them worked for you?

I can haz research?

Hello history geeks! Here are four and a half of the coolest things I’ve found while researching lately.

The English Broadside Ballad Archive
This site is one of the most comprehensive treatments of early modern popular culture I’ve found. It’s searchable by ballad name (“Twa Sisters” or “Captain Ward”) or by keyword (“sex”, “catastrophe”) or by clever and inspired topics (“Deadliest Catch: Amazing Creatures of the Deep”). Best of all, many of the ballads have recordings attached to them too!

London Lives, 1690-1800
A detailed, searchable, and growing collection of documents and images that detail the lived experiences of ordinary people in London during the eighteenth century. My favorite feature is the “Lives” link; clicking it gives you profiles of individual men, women, and children that you can access by name or keyword.

The Public Domain Review
This site collects and organizes books, pamphlets, images, audio, and other cool stuff that’s fallen into the public domain. The focus is on the weird and interesting, but the goal is diversity and accessibility. It’s fully searchable by keyword and category.

Executed Today
This, folks, is microhistory at its finest. Each day tells the story of one individual (or sometimes a group) and provides the social and political context that surrounded her or his demise. It’s meticulously cited (some people we know more about than others, though) and very well indexed. Bonus content like the occasional video clip just makes it that much more awesome.

And just for fun, here’s how you can be insulted by Martin Luther.