There are two kinds of travelers, those who go to a foreign land and expect everyone to be like them, and are disappointed, and those who go hoping to experience different cultures and are rewarded. The same applies to those who travel in time, and when you read historical fiction, you are traveling in time. You may discover lands where people show their respect by sticking their tongues out at you, or people who think nothing of selling their children into slavery to save their own lives or careers. Some of the cultural practices may disgust, others dismay, others entrance.
When writing historical fiction, the author should try to take you back in time and immerse you in the culture of the time. The author should not flinch from depicting sexual attitudes much more restrictive than our own such as the puritans, or more free and open such as southern France during the era of the court of love. The author should accurately show the role of religion and ritual in the lives of people. Historically, people often were very serious about their religious practices, but far from orthodox in following them. People ate and drank differently. As an example, often beer and wine was given to children at meals. There was no expectation of privacy in many historical eras, not even if you were aristocracy. If you were a medieval aristocrat, your servants slept in the same room as you, which was often the same room in which you conducted the daily business of running the estate. In the northlands, your warriors would sleep in your mead hall, on the same benches where they’d sat the night before feasting at your table. To think that they slept chaste is to bring our sexual attitudes into a mead hall of 1400 years go, where they don’t belong.
To write with such detail creates an authentic story, respectful of both time and place. Such stories hold our imagination. When reading Hemingway’s depiction of a bull fight or Umberto Ecco’s depiction of a man sitting on the top of a column overlooking Constantinople after the 4th crusade, we feel like we’re there.
Fantasy is more real and more exciting when we have cultures that are richly depicted such those found as the lands of Majipoor, Dhagabad, or Middle Earth. Fantasy set in a historical epoch should leverage the richness of our past, letting the reader walk with men and women who thought very differently than we do today.
The Garden at the Roof of the World is both historical fiction and a fantasy, partially because I chose to write a story in the 13th century when people would have been shocked to learn that unicorns did not live in the deep wood, and there are no monsters in the depths of the sea. I choose to try to be authentic in my depiction of those times, and delight those who hope to find in either historical fiction or in fantasy the richness of other cultures, and their values. Modern readers will certainly find some of the attitudes strange.
However, if I don’t have Prince Jigme of Lo Mantang give the traditional warning of “you’re not a mule, why act like one”, then I’ve missed an opportunity to show some of his culture’s values, even when their not mine. In writing about segregating the sexes in medieval Baghdad or the tantric rituals of medieval Khajuraho I had to bring characters and readers into places foreign to both, and have the characters act the way people of 800 years ago would have acted.
I also had to write about religious beliefs and mythologies that are foreign to me and my readers. The medieval attitudes about chastity and virginity are very different from modern beliefs, but if I was to write about traveling with a unicorn, I could not ignore the legends that insisted that you had to be chaste and virgin for a unicorn to be willing to approach you. To do otherwise would not have been authentic, and would have denied my reader a chance to walk with people who believed in the reality of sea monsters, and the sacred nature of unicorns.
THE GARDEN AT THE ROOF OF THE WORLD is upcoming from Dragonwell Publishing on August 30. Preorder a copy at http://publishing.dragonwell.org or from major on-line retailers.