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Monday, September 6, 2010

Writing Historical Fiction, part 4 Historical Immersion

The point I keep trying to make is that to write effective historical fiction, you must immerse yourself in the culture of the times.  I would also advise becoming familiar in some degree with the language and writing, but we'll get to that.  My primary expertise in with classical Greek and Anglo-Saxon languages.  I feel that I have been able to immerse myself well in those cultures at least to the ability to write about them.  Since they are the most familiar to me, I am especially concerned that other writers get those periods right in their writing.  Plus, my best and most powerful examples are from those times.  As I mentioned yesterday, you have to realise your moral or social prejudices must fall to the culture you intend to write about.  That doesn't mean you have to give up you morals or ideas, but you have to be able to subjugate them in order to understand the culture you are studying.  Yesterday, I put up the example of slavery.  Slavery was ubiquitous and considered moral in the ancient world.  In an historical novel, that view must come to your readers.  You have to be able to dispassionately approach subjects like this to give them reality and historical authenticity.  That doesn't mean you have to accept slavery, you just need to understand the culture and its underpinnings.  The same is true of every other subject important to human life and interaction.  One of the most misunderstood areas in ancient cultures is food and eating.  We tend to imagine that people in other cultures and other times ate similarly to us.  A simple trip to a foreign country or to a Japanese restaurant will show you otherwise, but it is more than that.  Most ancient cultures were survival cultures.  Few of the inhabitants ate as many calories as they wanted or needed.  In many cultures people only ate one meal a day, at the most two.  Meat was a commodity that was eaten very rarely.  Meat, in most ancient cultures was only eaten as a result of religious worship--following a sacrifice.  This is true of the Greeks.  They had meat only from sacrifices.  That means the wealthy ate meat perhaps once every other month at a festival or when they provided the sacrifice at a temple.  The temple precincts were next to the marketplace and extra meat was sold in the market.  The cost made it very dear.  Greeks would get most of their protein from fish, a non sacrificial animal, and dairy (cheese).  Can you imagine a world were meat is that precious.  I tell my classes that when momma (actually a slave or the father, momma was in the gynacium--next note) took her children to the market, they cried not for toys but for meat.

About women in Greek society.  I think in The Second Mission I gave the proper latitude of freedom to lower middle class women.  Upper class and upper middle class women were kept in a gynacium at home.  They were not allowed out of the gynacium when free men, other than those of their household, were in the house.  A gynacium was an isolated portion of the house.  Women were kept in a gynicium for their protection because in a near lawless culture, wealthy women were prey for many reasons.  In many regards, it is better to be a captive in your own home than to be dead, kidnapped, or raped.  Greek homes were built like miniature fortresses because of the problem of a lack of law or ability to keep laws except through "might makes right."  In spite of this, the social contract of the Greeks kept a relatively lawful society, but there were no police to keep the peace.  Your Demi (loosely, your familial group but of political and tribal dimensions as well) kept the peace and meted out judgement within the Demi.  Already, you should be able to see that the ancient Greeks are nothing like our culture.  They are nothing like the modern Greek culture.  If we decouple the fact that they are so different from our expectations, we may be able to start to understand them.  As you can see with food, religion is intertwined in the Greek culture.  This is true of all cultures in antiquity and many today.  Tomorrow, I'll write about this very important and much misunderstood dynamic of religion and life.

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