Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Now And Then: Getting It Mostly Right


A herber or small enclosed garden, c. 1464.
The cover of The Medieval Garden, Sylvia Landsberg, University of Toronto Press. With 36 colour and 53 black and white illustrations.

If anyone has ever written anything of novel length that did not require some research I wish they would hold up their hand.
If anyone has ever written anything that did not elicit an objection from someone about the veracity of a certain details within the text, raise your paw.
Un-huh.
The number of said objections by genuine or self-described experts may rise expotentially the more remote the time period.
One may be wise to accept the position that one is going to screw up somewhere.
And what will usually trip you up is not what you researched with care and attention, but what you didn't.
My Damie was inspecting the contents of a chest in the 12th century. Cloaks and bed covers laid up in sweet herbs.
Was on my third revision when I realized that I did not know if lavender was available for such domestic utility in England in the 12th century. I had just stuck in one of my favourite herbs willy-nilly.
I still don't - not really, not absolutely.
To quote from the book above: We are not helped by the fact that descriptions come in documentary fragments which are often ambiguous.
Lavender blue, dilly, dilly.
Lavender green..
When I am king, dilly, dilly,
You shall be queen...
However, I can claim mention by Albertus Magnus ( about 1260) and Bartholomew the Englishman (about 1240).
Good enough for me - by the logic of traditional use.
Still I've taken out and returned that minor mention two or three times, all the time wondering what else might not have occured to me to check out as a result of cheerful ignorance and automatic assumption.
Such a small thing, the choice of herbs, but one that might send someone into a raging fit of book-stomping, page-rending, curse-making damnation of idiots such as I.
BTW, I highly recommend The Medieval Garden as a reference to plants, vines, trees, horticultural methods and garden types in the medieval period.
You can't protect an MS from other people's ignorance and mis-conceptions about people, places and things - but you're responsible for your own.

34 comments:

Steve said...

The internet makes research easier, but one can't get everything right all of the time. I don't question the small things in a novel. I guess I read more for pleasure and what carries me along.

Muse said...

The Romans reportedly used lavender in their bathwater, and (also reportedly) introduced it to Britain during their sojourn there. Hence lavare: to wash. It was so widely used by the second century that I cannot imagine it not still being prominent during Damie's episode(s) with the Conyers, intervening Dark Ages notwithstanding. My etymological dictionary suggests lavendre entered 'Anglo-French' vocabularies from medieval Latin between the 12th and fourteenth centuries. My herb books provide a similar history, indicating wide use from Roman times forward. I suppose the real test would be checking whether 12th century texts (herbals, cookeries, medical guides) reference lavender, given its wide and varied uses. It is also easily grown, prolific, and pungent, and would seem an efficient choice for an herb garden. I vote for inclusion.

[But, of course, I am by name the chief beneficiary of Bernita's proclivities toward this particular herb, and my interpretations might be read as boosterism.]

As for accuracy in text, I believe writers must get the important things right. Minor errors can be forgiven. Two things I will not abide, though: amateurs purporting to be experts in a field they have only a Wikipedia-level of knowledge about (in cases where expertise really matters), and readers who chastise writers excessively for minor errors involving costumes, floor-plans, slang, etc. (where these errors are genuinely minor and have no greater effect than the typos seeming to plague almost everything published these days). The first problem seems to predominate when science-dropouts and would-be detectives assuage their envy of said professions by writing about them; the second may be the preserve of failed writers or the nit-picky. Correcting these kinds of errors is what second printings (if one is so lucky) are for.

S. W. Vaughn said...

Well said! It does seem impossible to keep all the real-deal details straight sometimes, doesn't it?

Makes me tempted to write fantasy. Then no one can call me on inaccuracies, historical or otherwise. I can say, "I just made it all up!" :-)

Sela Carsen said...

I love herbs! I've got the world's worst black thumb, but I still try to grow herbs at every house I live in. When we lived in England, our entire back pation was bordered with lavender, which smelled fantastic, but attracted tons of bees. The kids were wary. In addition, we were near the medieval town of Lavenham, which made its fortune on producing lavender. I think you're safe with your mention.

December Quinn said...

I'd give a thumbs-up to the lavendar, too.

But boy, have I had experience with people claiming to be experts and telling me my own carefully researched and proven facts are wrong...*shakes head*...that's one reason I'm a fan of Author's Notes.

December Quinn said...

Ooops, typo. I meant lavender, of course.

Bernita said...

I tend to be fairly tolerant too, Steve. I may raise an eyebrow but not condemn the entire book.

Oh, well said , Muse. Thank you.

Thought that, Sonya, realized the internal logic of the built world has to function with the same exactitude.

Hope so, Sela, gardens and wyrtyards of the period were really quite sophisticated.

I still shake my head over that business of there not being white cloths, December.
Re: writer's notes: one simply cannot annotate everything and I cringe from the idea of a bibliography w/ a commercial novel.

anna said...

I must agree with Steve. Glaring
mistakes of course can drive a person nuts but for me anyway it is the story that keeps me reading.
There are lots of things that make a good writer but I believe a good writer must first and foremost have a good story to tell.
Enjoyed muse's comment!

J.H. Bográn said...

Great advise, Bernita. I'll ad this to the list you gave me already for Medieval ref. Thanks.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Anna.
Sometimes critics get a little too hung up in form over substance, it's true.
Without the dog, there is not much use for a tail.

You're very welcome, JH.

Bernita said...

Oh, the ISBN is -8020-8660-8.

Robyn said...

I must admit to a 'suspension of disbelief' when I love the story. Garwood's Scottish medievals might as well take place on Jupiter as far as their historical accuracy, but I'm willing to chuck all that because I get caught up in her world.

That said, it's amazing how one detail can take you right out of the book. I've mentioned the use of 'claymore' before (the hero in that story draws one of the biggest swords ever made from a scabbard on his belt while running up a tiny, close stairway) but I'm sure for many people it was a non-issue. This example was really more about me than the author.

MissWrite said...

Even writing contemporary, and yes even fantasy where you can often make you own rules, research rears its ugly head--but I'll tell ya, I give mad props to you historical writers... I don't even think I would have stopped to question Lavender, but it's that attention to detail that makes historical writers so interesting.

Bernita said...

Makes me wonder, Robyn - assuming other details were reasonably accurate - if this is another example of the writer not thinking as much as not reasearching.
If they assured themselves that the weapon was available during the period, made sure of the proper term, made sure it was consistent with the character and place, but never stopped and imagined the act of drawing and menacing with something about 5 feet long, weighing 6 lbs or more.
But...from his belt?

Thank you, Tami, and it's not just our own bouts of ignorance we have to contend with, it's Hollywood-groomed expectations...that every "castle", for example, is made of stone.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

And that...is why it is good to have other readers, critiquers and the like. Someone will always catch a pet peeve of their own, in someone elses work.

After having my WIP ready by seven people, a friend who had lived near one of my scenes caught a glaring mistake because if referenced something that she knew well!

bunnygirl said...

If the writing is solid, I don't mind inaccuracies if they're small, infrequent, and not critical to the plot, like a velvet gown at a time before such existed. I'll squirm a little, but I'll keep reading as long as these little things don't pile up.

Research can be hard, and as you say, Bernita, we don't always know what it is we don't know.

The interesting irony of research, though, is that you sometimes have to gather pages and pages of information for what ends up being a half-sentence mention in your novel.

I remember learning all the ins and outs of cheesemaking, even making cheeses of my own just to be sure I had it right. And then, perversely, the action caught up with my character as she was doing the simple, mundane task of straining the curds. I didn't need all my knowledge for that! The knowledge I had going in was sufficient!

Characters. They'll screw up your plans every time. ;-)

Bernita said...

Indeed, other eyes are beyond price, Bonnie!

You are so right, Bunny. The question of fabric alone is the source of many cat-fights.
But the benefit is you can be totally confident of that half-sentence and ready to hold it against all comers.

December Quinn said...

I didn't put a bibliography in my Author's Note, Bernita, but I have actually put one up on my website. Just because I love the medieval period, and I'm always looking for new books set in it/about it, so I like to share my books with others.

But then, I had a few reasons for writing the AN...

Bernita said...

Being new and barely post-Luddite as I am to the electronic medium, I never thought of that, December, and think it's clever.
Put biblio on one's website.
Extra Writer's Notes could find a place there too.
I should begin a list, in my case, a cma: How I Abused History and the Books That Helped Me Do It.

archer said...

I love Stephen King's rule of research: "Just enough to enable me to lie colorfully."

Bernita said...

The right details certainly add the proper and convincing colour, Archer, especially if one views writing fiction as spinning a tale.

Candice Gilmer said...

Archer, I can't help but agree with that.

So far, in my own writing, a lot of my research has been satisfied through the internet and a few choice books, depending on the subject.

But a lot of what I do is make it all up, since I write scifi and paranormal -- that, though, requires a different kind of research. (Mostly the kind that comes at sitting at a table with friends saying "what if?" and "what about this?") Certain aspects have required some research, like the basic function of theoretical tacheon drives, but for the most part, my research involves a lot of "pretend" science.

Doesn't mean I don't have to write it all down and so forth, though...

ORION said...

Oh my! I just have to respond. I love reading your blog and you just took me back over 40 years...
Burl Ives singing in So Dear To My Heart!
One of my ALL TIME FAVORITE movies.
"It's what ya do with what ya got..."
Thanks for the memories!!

kmfrontain said...

Lavender can't nearly be as bad as researching sailing ships. Believe this, you'll discover loads about making a ship go, and very little about how to slow one down to a stop while coming up to a point of anchorage. Yaaaah! Which sails go down? Which sails stay up? Do any sails stay up? Why write about making a ship go if you don't tell a person how to stop it after?

"Hey, look, Gilligan. There's an island up there."

"Slow down, Captain."

"Uh... How?"

"Waaaaaa!"

I know it now. It was the captain's fault they were stuck on that island. No one taught him how to stop, and he had an engine.

Bernita said...

That is delightful, Orion.
Thank you.

Often tempts me to the state of three sheets to the wind, Karen.
Winnowing through information to find the handful of grain one needs.Sometimes there is too much information - and it contradictory - sometimes very little.
Temps one to change the frigging plot.

ORION said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog!

kmfrontain said...

Yes, I've been known to change the plot to avoid the big unknown when research failed. Sometimes there's no choice.

spyscribbler said...

I have a bad habit of being interested when my preconceptions are incorrect. I'm then fascinated, and the tidbit makes it into my story, and then readers write me and tell me how wrong I am.

What are you going to do, LOL?

Bernita said...

M'dear, thank you for stopping by mine!

I've just fast-forwarded and skipped a scene, Karen...

Damned, if, Spy!

Anonymous said...
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Gabriele C. said...

Lol kmfontain, I should reread my Hornblower books. At the age of 10 I could not only have told you how to stop a ship but also how to take out a French ship of the line with an English frigate. I knew the name of every dang sail on those things. :)

I agree on the lavender. The Romans brought it to Britain and there's no reason it should not have survived (it survives on my balcony just fine, lol). Saxon ladies wanted to smell nice, too, I suppose.

Btw, you should consider activating that word verification thingie to keep those spammers off. It's under Settings.

Bernita said...

Certainly she should read the Hornblower books, Gabriele.
Have read that his research was impeccable. Of course, she might have to fight off hoards of plot bunnies...

Haven't had enough assholes to bother, yet.

Anonymous said...
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writtenwyrdd said...

I must admit, anachronistic slang bugs the heck out of me. But I won't quibble if you use a nineteenth century exclamation in a 12th century milieu...since I wouldn't know the difference.

Major errors, like setting the War of the Roses in Peru, would be irritating, though!