some history lessons from the masters

Last year I read Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, and it changed my life. Or my brain. Or something. It challenged me to think while I read. It screwed my emotions tight and then didn’t let me go and then screwed them tighter again.

Those six books, the most incredible series I’ve ever read, were Dunnett’s learning-to-write books. I’ve just started her eight-book series House of Niccolo, which are her I-am-a-master-craftswoman books.

Special k always knows when I’m reading from the gasps and laughter and “Oh my God, Oh my God!” that emanates from the couch.

But really, I want to talk about writing history.

In my last post on writing within a genre, I raised the question of how detailed a description I should give of the famous London gentleman’s club White’s. This sparked a fascinating conversation on twitter about how much detail is expected in romance, and whether this should be redressed.

And here’s one of the reasons I love twitter: Jo Bourne, who I cited in that post as the master of detail, was right there in the fray giving her thoughts on the subject. She made one statement that started fireworks in my brain:

You want to describe something at Almacks, you describe a moth on the window.

Just pause and soak in the brilliance of that statement. Instead of the particular wallpaper Almacks had that year – which would take hours of research, and come across as a researched detail, a historical detail – we have a moth on the window: a right-now, visceral detail that connects me as a modern reader directly to the historical character. It’s a common experience between us.

It achieves what I ultimately strive for in writing in a historical setting, which is to evoke characters who live in the modern world, staring down change and industry and the sense that global disaster waits just around the corner. It’s difficult to do, because when we write history it’s through a lens, looking backwards.

This is where Dunnett’s genius comes back into play. More than any other historical writer, she places her characters right at the front of the charge into the future. Her lawyers know their law and are still part-student, her doctors are clever with their potions and her city council parades are tacky affairs.

One of the ways I’ve noticed she manages this (and trying to figure out how Dunnett does anything is not simple) is that her details are completely unconscious of the modern reader. For example: There’s a short description of a woman sitting by a window, with a rug thrown over the sill. I suspect other writers would be tempted to explain the rug, because it’s a detail that’s alien and interesting to a modern reader. It would look something like, “As the windows had no glass pane, the window sill had a rug thrown over it to reduce the chill and as decoration.” In Dunnett’s world the rug is simply there, because that’s the way things are done. It is a complete world that doesn’t question or explain itself, just as I wouldn’t think, “I am sitting on the couch with my laptop because it is wireless and doesn’t require to be on a desk.” It just is.

I’ve been thinking lately about leeching – that old medical practice that seems barbarous, almost farcical to a modern mind. Of course you don’t take pints of blood from someone already weakened by illness.

In romance novels, I’ve noticed, you can tell whether a character’s supposed to be good or evil by their stance on leeching. No hero or heroine worth their salt would believe it to be a good idea.

I want to read a physician-hero who believes whole-heartedly it is the right thing to do. The mad-inventor heroine I’ll be writing a few books down the line is going to think the battery heralds a whole new world, with an unlimited power-source that will close the class divide.

I want people who are passionately, integrally of their time – visionaries who see not the future we know followed, but the future their world suggests to their imagination.

Comments 2 Responses

  1. londonmabel

    Hmm yes, Heyer didn’t explain her historical details, rules, language either. You just had to learn as books went by. I like that.

    I mean… when an author explains something, I don’t mind learning something new. But it can be done really clumsily. I think I’m ok with just googling something I really want to know.

    And as people read more and more on electronic devices, that’ll become an easy and integral part of reading.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I particularly find this with the clothing in Niccolo. She always describes what they’re wearing, but it’ll be like, “A dress in the Venetian fashion” or, “A velvet loaf hat” (heh, I don’t think she actually calls anything a loaf hat – but odd stuff like that). It normally gives me enough of an interesting visual to go on with, whether I have it right or not, but I’ve definitely been tempted to google a couple of times. I don’t mind that. And as you point out – that’ll only get easier and easier.

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