I have returned to the haunts of men! (In company with a cat who’s guarding her matryoshka keychain like a dragon.) Maybe I’ll be back to something like my normal posting schedule now.
They say that one of the best ways to learn how to write is by writing, and they also say you can’t learn how to write books, just the book you’re working on at the time. Now, some things are the same from one book to another. Having rounded characters, or showing instead of telling, or avoiding preachiness, you can learn while writing one story and carry over to the next. But you can learn how to do a first person point of view in a story, and try it with the next story only to find it doesn’t work with the main character’s voice, or maybe you have too many p. o. v. characters for first person to make any sense, and you end up learning how to do omniscient.
This is the first time I have re-done a historical fiction. I’m not sure what to call what I’m doing, as it’s very heavy revising, so it might be rewriting, except without the connotation of changes to the plot that rewriting has. I’m not changing the plot, though I’ve found myself changing smaller details of exactly what happens. AEschild still meets Sunnild in the garden, for example, but I describe their meeting differently. Mostly I’m taking the bones of the story, which are already there, and expanding, putting in more detail, and telling it better. My writing has improved over the last year and a half.
My past self annoys me, though. My first garb was inaccurate partly because I was new to research and mixed up the tenth century with the ten hundreds. When I did my research for the first draft things weren’t much better. I decided in the last week of October to do the story for NaNo, which didn’t give me a lot of time to do new research. I went mostly off the stuff I’d already done for my persona (since conveniently the century is the same), which hadn’t been very deep yet. And I’d made more use of 19th-century sources than I should have. Put not your trust in princes, nor in those sons of men who have a romanticized view of history and little access to primary sources!
Because I’m finding out, a year and a half later, how inadequate and sometimes inaccurate my research was, it’s making a lot more work this time around. I’m digging into the history of the Vulgate (though that does double duty for Wind Age too), theories of literacy in the era (is the mass-priest literate or semi-literate, and what about English as opposed to Latin?), where they’d get honey from if there wasn’t a monastery close by, and the equivalent of marriage banns. I found a couple of books on Anglo-Saxon liturgy, published quite recently, but they’re expensive and don’t appear to be in our library database.
What about genuflecting in the doorway of a church — was that done? How much thread can you get off one fleece? I learned a church like the one in the story wouldn’t have glass windows, but at least I got the shape right the first time around. What’s the word for mother-in-law? What’s the minimum number of pins for a good veil that will stay on all day? (This needs more testing than book-research.) Are bone or metal pins more likely? (Bone, in case you were wondering.) And so on, and so on.
I’m learning a lot the hard way, and things I should have known a long time ago. It’s good to do lots more research before you write the novel than after, though there will always be those things you couldn’t foresee, popping up in the middle and halting the writing until you’ve answered the question. These times can be frustrating, because you put a lot of work into a single sentence, but it’s important too, because it’s those things as much as anything else that give the feeling of reality. But mostly, if you properly research things ahead of time, you avoid the risk of building the plot on something that never happened, or around some deed that would not be socially acceptable at all. So far that hasn’t happened to me, though.
I’m going to keep talking about how important details are. The general time and place help to make the story historical fiction rather than the kind of story that could take place anywhere at any time. Even smaller details, the cut of a neckline, the style of veil, or whether there’s buttons on a shirt, make the time more specific, sometimes narrowing things down to a single decade. The exact river running through the town, or the name of the fortress on a hill where a climactic scene takes place, narrow the focus from “this country” to a specific dot on a map. Focus a little closer on the everyday details, and there! You’ve captured a moment in time that can’t be mistaken for anything else.
One of the hardest things right now is that the more I write about AEschild being in the eleventh century, or her homesickness for it in the twenty-first, or the SCA events that are a part of it, the more I want to wear garb myself, or go to an event barefoot, or something. I have gotten to do chores in a skirt a couple of times this week, but that’s not quite the same thing. (One evening my sister and I killed a snake while we were both in skirts, and exulted over our abilities. . . a couple of days later I got the wrong end of a goat on one side of my skirt and diatomaceous earth on the other. There’s no in-between.) Next Saturday we may get to go to a garbed fighters’ practice kind-of-sort-of hosted by our officially-forming-group, and either that will satisfy my longing or make it worse.