Roger Hudson discusses plausibility in historical fiction

Roger Hudson talks about authenticity in fiction

Today’s guest, Roger Hudson, has written a fascinating historical novel set in classical Athens. DEATH COMES BY AMPHORA brings the period vividly to life through the eyes of the young Lysanias, whom Roger describes as “an innocent admidst the deceit and corruption of the big city. . . he discovers that his uncle has died in suspicious circumstances, that he is the heir, and that his obligations now include marrying his uncle’s teenage widow.”

Roger’s own background is as intriguing as his book; you can read about him at the end of this post.

IN PURSUIT OF PLAUSIBILITY

I thought I might chat about plausibility and accuracy today. There have been discussions on networking sites like Crime Thru Time about whether an author can or should ignore the known behaviour and conventions of a period in the cause of a good story. Is it OK for a leading character nun, for example, to undertake journeys on her own during the ultra-macho, very violent middle ages when no female of any social status would have done so without at least one armed male to protect her. Would they put themselves in danger in this way, would the head of the convent permit it, and would the implausibility put off knowledgeable readers from finishing the book? The answer to the last was obviously ‘Yes’ judging from the correspondence one such novel provoked.

OK. Lesson: as an author, try to research your period enough to avoid such implausibilities. But, if you’re writing in a period when it was acceptable and even expected for a husband to beat his wife for the least misdemeanour or even for answering back (as long as the stick wasn’t thicker than his little finger – Victorian times), do you allow your hero to do so and risk losing reader sympathy for him? Or do you make him the exception, a considerate (or even egalitarian) husband in an age when that was implausible? Do you allow the wife accept this subordination, which she has been brought up to, and accept it without question, or turn her into a feisty rebel as more acceptable to a modern reader and likely to provide a more exciting story? Or  some medium in between? Not at all straightforward.

My time period is early classical Athens when it was normal for families of all social classes to leave unwanted female children on the mountainside to die, for wealthy wives to be confined to the house except for participation in religious festivals, and male slaves to be hired out to be worked to death in the silver mines. However, I am fortunate that it was also a period when thinkers were questioning the nature of the world, society and even the gods, even if at risk to themselves sometimes, a time when some (if only a few) women did stand out and some slaves achieved freedom and did well. So these issues can at least be articulated with some plausibility and my characters can have doubts and develop their own rules of behaviour.

Even so, I am finding, in writing the sequel to my first Lysanias and Sindron mystery DEATH COMES BY AMPHORA, that this is a delicate path to tread. Some of my characters are showing strong inclinations to say and do more than there is any record of anyone doing and others are reacting to the more liberal thinkers in quite reactionary ways. Should I allow it at risk of seeming anachronistic? Or go with the flow? I guess such decisions come with the territory of historical fiction.

ABOUT ROGER HUDSON

Roger Hudson’s career has encompassed most forms of writing and editing from journalism to technical editing, from publicity to careers books. He has also scripted and directed corporate videos and TV documentaries. The wide knowledge gained of how our society works has fed into his historical mystery novel Death Comes by Amphora, set in Ancient Athens, and its sequel-in-progress Fraud Under the Akropolis. He sees its creation as a detective work in itself – piecing together clues from scraps of historical information to deduce a plausible living society and chain of events. Roger is director of a small film and TV production and distribution company in Dublin. His collection of poems Lifescapes was published in 2005 in the dual volume Side-Angles (Pagan Publications). His photomontages have been exhibited in London, Dublin and Drogheda (Ireland) where he now lives.

Visit Roger’s website at www.rogerhudson.me.uk.

6 thoughts on “Roger Hudson discusses plausibility in historical fiction

  1. Welcome, Roger, and thanks for this interesting post. I hope lots of your friends will visit here today and leave comments.

    I admire the writers of historical fiction I know for all the dedication they show in researching and trying to get it right. My own mysteries are set in present time and inspired by my own life experiences in the fields of mental health and home health care, so I don’t have to wrestle with questions of plausibility – at least not to the extent you do!

  2. I look forward to reading Roger Hudson’s book. Ancient Greece is my second favorite period to read/research. (My own books are written in colonial America — it’s my contention that American history is just as bloody and colorful as Europe’s.) This sounds very much like a series I would enjoy. I also take his comments to heart about the problems of writing in the past for a modern audience. I’m fortunate in that my detective, Hetty Henry, is a widow — as such she has freedom she wouldn’t have by law as a wife. That was my choice, although she’s such a pushy broad a husband wouldn’t stop her. Hetty was born a pushy broad — I didn’t have anything to do with that. When a character declares his/her nature it’s best for the writer to pay attention and go with the flow. I was also lucky in that English speech for the period is not that different from contemporary — except that it’s correct grammar. My problem is finding any “cuss words.” The worst exampe I’ve found so far is a man calling the magistrate a “just-ass.” He was fined for it. But there must have been some good swear words! Marilyn aka: M. E. Kemp

  3. It’s a delicate balancing act, no doubt. As a medievalist, I am inclined to throw poorly researched books across the room, but you’re right — many things that were commonplace in the past would put off a modern reader. As for a woman traveling alone, it all depends on the location. Read in Margery Kempe’s own story about how much danger she was in when abandoned on the pilgrimage route. It’s not simply a matter of safety but also of reputation. It’s also worth remembering that “alone” can sometimes mean “with servants” but no companions.

    That said, I’m perfectly happy to make changes that fit the narrative even if they’re not completely accurate. In the end it’s the story that dictates. Keeping an awareness of reader expectations — many readers are completely ignorant about the past (like my students, sigh) so their expectations are not always reasonable — and addressing them is always good to do.

  4. Wonderful post. As my current novel is set in 1862 New Orleans, I am very interested in how historically accurate readers want their books to be–I personally love history so much that it bothers me tremendously to find inaccuracies about social conventions. I’d rather see details left out than have mistakes that a bit of simple research would have avoided.

    Conversely, since I love history, my fear is that I will put in too much historical detail and overwhelm the reader.

    Suggestions as to a happy medium?

  5. Thanks for your comments, guys. Some good points. I share Linda’s fear of putting in too much historical detail. I excuse myself by aiming to make it contribute in some way to the story but have had some readers who were stumped by the detail just a few chapters in. Others love it and wouldn’t have any less, which brings us to K.A.Laity’s point about reader expectations. Unfortunately for us, the readers aren’t the same. We probably have some image in our head as to the reader we are writing for but they vary immensely, though I agree the ‘received wisdom’ about life in Athens is secure in some people’s heads so one has to be careful not to contradict it too strongly. As for letting characters do as they want, as Marilyn suggests, my own feeling that that one usually doesn’t have much choice – once you know that’s what they want, it seems it’s the only way there is. But that too can sometimes offend some readers. Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all.
    Roger

  6. Thanks for contributing to my blog, Roger. You added a whole new dimension that’s been lacking, since historical research isn’t my thing.

    The fact that you elicited such thoughtful comments indicates there’s definitely an audience out there for carefully researched historical fiction.

    This conversation needn’t be over – I hope more people will add comments.

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