So yesterday I was drop-dead tired (after moving the boy the weekend was a wash and then I went and waxed floors at the other house in the afternoon — don’t yell at me. It’s ALMOST done but it’s been dragging because I was so tired I stayed home a few days) by the time I got to bed, and I was reading on my kindle. These two circumstances are very good.
When I hit the wording that would have made me want to throw the kindle against the wall, I was too tired to do it immediately. And then I realized I was reading on the kindle and refrained. (This is good because paperwhite? Couldn’t replace it now.)
This was Kindle lending library mystery, indie, and honestly, who in a sane mind has a detective in the middle ages say he wants to send a wrong-doer to “club fed”?
Let’s suppose they had maximum security prisons for murderers (they didn’t. long term imprisonment had more to do with your station in life than the gravity of the crime) what does the fed refer to precisely? Oh, yeah, I know Federal penitentiary. So, first your detective gets in a time machine…
Not that I’m picking on indies particularly for this. I mean the last mystery that figuratively speaking went against the wall was a reprint from Prime Crime and it had way worse problems than wording. In Regency England — not in la belle France before the revolution — it had a nobleman shoot a peasant in the street (not only a nobleman, but a guardsman) and get away free because “he was just a peasant.” There were other issues including a character who was supposed to be a man but “felt” like a girl in drag. Because, layers and layers of fact checkers and stuff.
But the wording thing can still annoy.
I am not a word purist. Then again, maybe I am another way.
What I mean by I’m not a word purist is that if I know the concept was around in the time I’m writing about, I don’t worry if the wording is “too modern.” I’m not one of those people who go through to figure out when the word came into use, because not only do I believe in not calling a rabbit a schmerp (if the concept is the same and describing something in the reader’s head, then you should use the word that will get you most directly into that image without making the character work harder for the story than they have to.) As someone trained in science fiction, I believe in the most direct route to the thought. I believe in transparent pose.
Which is why, for instance, when my editor on the musketeer vampires (Sword and blood) insisted I change “Pony tail” for “Queue” because “Pony Tail” only came into use in the 20th century, I rolled my eyes so hard they almost fell out. (Yeah, that book is back and will be reissued, but the thing is though book 2 is also done, I need to change some stuff, and then I need to do the third before it goes up, and first there’s darkship revenge and the dragons series. And fortunately REALLY the house will be done this week. (Had to wait till now, there’s repairmen doing things I can’t do.)
So, why did I dislike the change above? (Which I ended up allowing because I couldn’t stop these people from thinking that when a word “came into use in the US” was vitally important? And I couldn’t stop them.) Because pony tail as a concept is the same (that I know of) in Portugal and France, and while I can’t check on when “it came into use” i.e. appeared in print, I can guarantee a horse-intensive culture couldn’t help have the image. I mean, trust me, there were more horses than cars around when I was little, and we knew the concept. It just looks like it.
Meanwhile queue is not only factually wrong — in the book the character didn’t braid his hair, he tied it back — but has a whole cognitive freight of tradition and culture. CHINESE tradition and culture. And so every time I hit the d*mn thing in page proofs, it popped me out of king Louis XIII France and into China.
But they had their little etymological dictionary that told them this was a term not used (in print) before the fifties (I think.) And so it must be.
What I mean by this is that words can be “correct” by definition and appearance, but you must keep track of the “flavor” of them. Or you must if you’re aiming to be a decent writer.
And sometimes it’s better to be wrong, if it conveys your meaning better, than to be “right” and pop the reader out of the story.
I mean sometimes wrong is just wrong. I had to explain to a copy-editor once that you don’t say someone in the musketeers’ time knew something subconsciously, because there simply isn’t a concept of subconscious in the characters’ mind at the time. So you have to use a lot more words to get there. But if the concept was there, find the simplest way to describe it that won’t pop the reader COMPLETELY out of place and time, like Club Fed, for a medieval, monarchic society.
But even before that the book had been bothering me. It had been bothering me because the inside of the character’s head wasn’t medieval. He was thinking about things like money in a totally modern way.
Which brings us to a discussion about romances, yesterday. Like apparently most people who read Regencies I’ve become aware of a tendency for them to read more and more like modern romances than like something set in that time.
Someone nailed it for me by pointing out that female characters have been getting more modern. For instance, they will do things like not want to marry UNTIL they have sexual experience, so they’ll be engaged and go out to find someone to sleep with them: in a time without either contraceptives or anti-biotics and in a time when a unwed pregnancy would ruin not only the woman but all her relatives.
Or they rebel against being the one who was supposed to marry to make the family fortunes. I’m not saying a woman might not wish to marry someone else rather than make the family fortunes, but it would present in her own mind not as resentment to lifting the family out of debt, but as “I’m madly in love with the stable boy.” or whatever. And if a woman was thoroughly opposed to married, it often manifested (at least in Catholic countries, granted, not England) as a “vocation.” What it didn’t manifest as was “I want to pursue a career.” Women married, or if they were unmarried stayed around the house helping with the nephews and the running of the house. If they had the means they might set up household with a companion. But only the poor worked, (even for men “having to” work was a downcheck on status.) If you were a governess or a nurse, it wasn’t for a “career” but because you were desperate.
Oh, and please save me from all the women running philanthropic organizations. While there were of course a number of these run by women, it wasn’t every other woman as seems to be in today’s regency romances. And charities for unmarried mothers would be very heavy on the preaching and getting them to give the baby up for adoption. Not telling them they’ve done nothing wrong and “affirming” their choices. Again, no contraceptives, no antibiotics. Sex and its consequences were serious business PARTICULARLY for women who make more of an investment in reproduction.
Which gets us to why these romances of people sashaying around in costumes while being 21st century moderns go against the wall: It is the perverse and self-aggrandizing view of history of the modern Marxist.
Because their religion is all pervasive, it projects itself into the past. Forget that there was no contraception, there was no modern medicine and the deaths in childbirth were shockingly high and that it was for women eventually a number game: have children often enough and you will die of something going wrong with the pregnancy and the birth. Women are just like men in their view and as “entitled” to consequence free sex. Everything else would be an injustice.
In the same way everyone is “entitled” to being supported while doing whatever they please, be it painting or rescuing unwed mothers. Anything else would be “unfair.” And since they all froze in kindergarten when “unfair” was the battle cry that would bring the teacher down, they think that complaint trumps EVERYTHING.
So they know those people in the past were just pretending at being unenlightened, but really were doing wrong ON PURPOSE. Which is why they hate the past and keep trying to remake it into the current-day-Marxists shining idol image which is always of themselves.
Heinlein didn’t have gay characters in his juveniles, at a time when having Jewish and Irish characters not played for laughs was already pushing the boundaries? Well, crucify him then. He knew of course — because everyone in the past thinks like a modern day SJW, they just did wrong ON PURPOSE — what was “right” and was just being sexist and racist and homophobic, by not following this year’s revealed wisdom. How dare he?
Yes, I do realize some adjustments must be made for modern audiences. I don’t have the musketeers beat their servants, for instance, because the impact of such a thing on a modern audience would be different than when Dumas was writing. But that’s a minor adjustment, not changing the internals of the character utterly.
If you’re writing in the past — or even if you are just living in the present — you should have an idea of how the past was different, and the factors that shaped that.
If you assume the past was just like the present only less “enlightened” you’re presupposing history comes with an arrow, and that today is of course more “advanced” than the past. While this is true of science — of course — it’s not always true of what was inside people’s heads. In many ways because even the poorest of us struggle less than in the Middle Ages, it’s become easier to develop mental habits of laziness and other “rich person” vices. What you think is enlightenment might be considered sheer nonsense by your descendants. For instance the enlightened thing at one time (even Heinlein has a whiff of it) was genetic culling. Now we’re finding that what we know about genes isn’t that straightforward. Throw in epigenetics and someone with a gene to be a “moron” can turn out to be a genius. More, even overtly bad disease genes are linked to genes we need and can’t survive without. BUT the enlightened opinion in the early twentieth century was to improve humanity and save human suffering by culling out the sick and the lame and the “inferior races.” (No, Hitler didn’t invent that.)
Some of our concepts (and I’m not going to name any because it’s a fight I don’t need, but I’m sure you can think of some) will prove just as monstrous to our descendants.
If you don’t have a sense of that, you don’t have a sense of the past, which unfortunately means you don’t have a sense of the present.
If you think that there is an objective way to end poverty or stop drug use, or whatever, and it’s ONLY your way, and even your opponents think your way is right and are being villainous and “evil” by opposing it you not only shouldn’t be writing historical fiction, you definitely shouldn’t be voting. You should find the nearest kindergarten and use it as a safe space.
Because out here in the real adult world, the past and the present and complicated places, with different modes of arranging life that worked with the circumstances at that time, even if they now set our teeth (or our hair) on edge.
If you can’t accept your ancestors were different from you, thought differently and responded to different necessities, you have no business preaching multiculturalism.
Because what makes a culture different is not the hairstyles, the dresses or what they ate, but how one must live to survive. And yes, some cultures are factually worse than others at providing their people with the necessities (or the luxuries) of life. Arguably most past cultures were (barring our finding some atlantian high- developed scientific culture we’ve heard nothing about.)
That doesn’t give you the right to to stomp your feet and rewrite the past to justify your boorish self-regard in the present.
Your ancestors were both more and less enlightened than you in ways you can’t even understand, and your superimposing your beliefs on them is the act of a mental midget standing on the shoulders of giants and peeing down.