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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Writing Historical Fiction, part 3 Historical Information

What goes through the mind of a person who does not sit to eat or who doesn't have furniture?  Historical literature generally won't tell you because two things get left out of historical writing--especially ancient writing.  The first is the mundane.  You would be hard pressed to determine the rules of baseball from a movie or book about baseball.  The reason is that the basics of baseball are assumed to be understood within our culture.  The mundane doesn't get written down.  You could point to a book of baseball rules, and there would be your source for some of that information, but not all.  For example, you couldn't gather from a book of baseball rules, the seventh inning stretch or the playing of the national anthem or "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."  In the modern era, much of this data is available from various sources, but in the paucity and the economics of the ancient world, these details are rare.  The second part that gets left out of historical writing is what everyone knows but may be unique.  A great event like a battle or an earth quake or the movement of an army.  These are great events and unique, but they might not be written down because everyone in the time knows about them.  Those events that get written are the ones that were important to the writers and to their audience.  Those that were saved in history are the documents that were important to those who came later.  So you have to do what you can with the information you have.  The big point about writing about time of antiquity is that you have to immerse yourself in the worldview of the people and understand where they were coming from.  This is much harder than it sounds.  The first problem is cultural prejudice and the second is moral prejudice.  Both have to give way to immersion.

For example, almost every culture in the world prior to about 1830 was fully slave based.  This is not a debatable fact.  It is.  The ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Anglo-Saxons, Norman-French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, do I have to list every nation in antiquity?  I could.  They are all slavery based even up as far as 1830.  In fact, the word "slave" comes from the word for Slav, because the Greeks and Romans claimed Slavs made the best slaves.  During the time from antiquity to the 19th century, slavery had gone from the province of the middle class to solely that of the wealthy and then very wealthy.  By the 1860s, in the US, the rate of slave ownership was 8% in the south.  In ancient Greece the ownership of slaves was about 100%.  The point I'm making here is to understand a slave based culture, you have to first of all recognize that it is slave based, and second, you cannot see it through modern cultural blinders.  When you write about the culture, the existence and expectations of slavery must be part of the writing.  Because it is so nominative to the people in the culture, it must seem normative in your historical writing.  Almost no one questioned the existence and ethics of slavery in any culture until the 18th century.  Your writing must acknowledge and report on the existence of slavery just as you might write about eating or sleeping or any other subject within the culture. 

After all, that's the whole idea, to understand the culture like a person from that culture so you can bring out the nuances of the society and times.  If you don't understand, what their lives are like, you can't begin to understand their history or write about them.  Tomorrow, I'll look more deeply at this subject and give more details.

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