Accuracy, believability, and the modern reader


I am in the very, very tentative stages of writing my fourth book. As in, I am working on the second scene as we speak. (I have written more than that, but I am going back to the second scene and adding in detail.)

This book is taking place in a tiny village in England. It is not some made-up hamlet; it is an actual village. In any event, the hero–who was born in this tiny village, but who has been surrounded by the hubbub of London and other, louder places for the last two decades–is standing in the middle of the Market Place, and observing to himself that nothing has changed. Part of his observation includes him making a mental wager with himself that the market stalls–big heavy benches made of wood, with tile roofs overhead–haven’t changed since medieval times.

Of course, we know that everything is about to change for him, when the heroine, who is very new, swans by.

But I wrote this line about the market stalls being medieval and then stopped. You see, to a modern reader–and especially to a modern American reader–I’m afraid that will come off as unbelievable at worst, or weird hyperbole at best. That’s because we are used to impermanence. Old houses are houses from the 1900s–maybe dating from the 1860s. There are old houses. Maybe, we understand old houses.

But market stalls? Those are flimsy things that get erected and then torn down the next day. They aren’t made to last ten years, let alone a hundred. It doesn’t make sense to a modern reader to have market stalls that have been there since medieval times.

The Medieval Shambles (photograph by Frank James Allen; now public domain)

But, in point of fact, these market stalls did date from medieval times. The medieval stalls were in use up until at least the early 1900s. Think about that: four hundred and fifty years of using the same market stalls.

My hero would have no way of actually dating the stalls. He’s not an expert in medieval construction. He can’t say “these date from the 1450s,” and it would be awkward authorial intervention if he did.

I thought about sliding this under the rug so it turns into “much older than I am” rather than “medieval stalls still in use.” But I think that the “medieval stalls still in use on a biweekly basis” captures the character of how slowly this little town changes in a way that “old” simply doesn’t. My heroine is not just jolting my hero out of his ways; she is unmooring him from traditions that are literally centuries old. Those centuries matter to the story, and the whole point (well, one of the whole points) of setting it in this village is to give my hero’s inertia mass.

And so my job as an author is to convey the reader into that moment, to make the reality feel natural instead of awkward. My job as an author is to makeĀ  the modern reader forget that she lives in a world where the things that she uses will be relegated to the junk heap after three or four years. My job as an author is to make the reader forget about a world that is IKEA-disposable–and to do it all so quietly that she doesn’t even notice it’s happening.

I do not yet know how to do this. Maybe I will figure it out before I reach the end of the book.

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14 Responses to “Accuracy, believability, and the modern reader”

  1. Ardee-ann says:

    I don’t find a problem in believing that market stalls have been in use since medieval times what I do have a believability issue with is that we live in such a cluttered throw away society and can scarcely imagine one that isn’t. That to me is where the rub is. I hope you enjoy writing your story and I am glad that you are paying attention to details but remember you do have some readers who know that the world is not filled with only disposable goods. Cheers, Ardee-ann

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  2. SonomaLass says:

    I may be no help, because I’ve spent so much time in the UK that I have a double standard for “old.” “US old” is a lot newer!

    For me as a reader, if the character believes it, and his (in this case) emotion and thought process is believable, then I don’t often have a problem with this sort of thing. I read historical romance partly because I want a different culture and different view of life. And then I enjoy seeing how human emotions and relationships display certain constants and similarities regardless of the time and place.

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  3. Ardee-ann, the issue is not, can people believe it–it’s will they have to stop to think about it before they believe it. If a reader has to stop and convince herself, it does not work in the story. I had to stop and think the way I was writing it–so I presume some readers would have, too. And anytime you interrupt the story to make people think about non-story-stuff, that’s a bad thing.

    It’s not that I think readers won’t believe it, or that I think readers can’t extrapolate to older times. It’s that there are certain assumptions some modern readers brings to the table. These are unconscious twitches, and if you’re writing historical fiction, you have to write with those modern twitches in mind.

    Otherwise, instead of transporting the reader to the appropriate time, you end up jarring them out.

    When I read, for instance, Dickens, I am constantly stopping and asking: “Why are they doing that? What does this mean?” Of course I know it must be right, but sometimes it takes a while for me to understand why.

    For instance, I was reading Oliver Twist a while back, and I could not for the life of me figure out how Magistrate Fang was able to summarily sentence Oliver, having not given him a jury trial. Oliver’s supposed to get a jury trial! I knew he would have had one in 1792–I also knew he would have got one today.

    I didn’t know that the system of police magistrates in the 1830s had provisions for summary convictions, and Oliver’s near-brush with that was Dickens’s social commentary on how unfair and dangerous the system was.

    Of course, the readers of Dickens’s time knew all about those underlying social arguments–that was the life they lived; the discussions about the pros and cons were carried out in the papers, and any well-read individual would immediately get what was going on. They didn’t need anyone to subtly fill in the details of how police magistrates worked.

    But it took me ages to figure out. I knew Dickens had to be right–he was a court reporter, after all, before he became a novelist–but the story still stopped, because even though I knew he was right, I didn’t know how he was right.

    That’s what I’m trying to avoid–I’m trying to avoid stopping the story for people to figure out how I am right. That’s the difference between historical accuracy and historical believability: If Dickens had been a modern writer, writing about Victorian times, I would have been pissed off at him for a few hours for flubbing that detail, up until the point when I figured out he was right.

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  4. I’m unsure if this would work, but it occurred to me that some aspects of the tiny village would have changed. The market stalls might be the same, but the people would dress differently. And the goods for sale would likely differ. Perhaps if he compares the things that have changed with those that haven’t, it would add veracity to his observations.

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  5. Elizabeth Essex says:

    I might try to equate the market stalls age with something else in the village – like the Church which was built by the Normans – or since the stalls are wood, is there a lynch gate at the church of the same era? Are the slats of wood worn smooth by countless years of use, day in and day out since before the Normans erected the stout stone church? I think your hero, or any hero for that matter, would only think – “That’s medieval” – if he were a scholar. But if we believe he was a scholar, then we will believe he dates his surroundings as part of his natural way of thinking. Just throwing out thoughts here because it’s so much easier to think about your 4th book, 2nd scene than get to my own 4th book 2nd scene. :)

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  6. Magdalen says:

    The marketplace in the picture reminds me a bit of Carlisle (without the ubiquitous TopShop or HMV that’s there now, of course). When I saw Carlisle, we’d just come from a 3,000-year-old stone circle (a bit like Stonehenge, only smaller stones & more locals walking their dogs). When the Druids set up stone circles that stick around for 3 millennia, some market stalls could easily be there for 600 years.

    But — may I tell you the problem I have with the scene? Your hero can’t be in a village. By definition, he’s in a market town. If it’s a village, it doesn’t (can’t) have a marketplace or the medieval market stalls, and if it has market stalls, it has to be a market town. (Those wacky Brits — it’s a bit like how any place with a cathedral is, by definition, a city. No matter how small it is — and Ely is pretty small, I gather — it’s a city. And don’t get them started on what constitutes a mountain as opposed to a hill.)

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  7. I would go back to the character’s background… what is the oldest person who he knows in the town? Did they ever tell him stories of how the stables were there before him/her? Or great-great whoevers…

    People relate more to people then years… unless if something happened there…. like the town’s soldiers were invaded there and the people happened to fight them off from the stables… See if there were any battles nearby in the town long ago…

    A big thing… is no specifics… 10 year estimation tops.

    Good luck, I’m sure you got the answer!

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  8. Elisa Beatty says:

    I like Elizabeth’s suggestion above! Your alternative “older than he was” has nothing of the same impact as saying it’s medieval and/or been in use hundreds of years.

    Wear on the wood and the overall look of the stone would reasonably let him assume the church and stalls were roughly the same age. Besides, it might be common knowledge in the village, or even a point of pride that the buildings were a few hundred years old (i.e., it’s the sort of the thing the local vicar, or some other self-appointed local historian, might regularly have bragged on, especially if they liked the stasis/continuity/tradition of the village….) SOMEBODY in town surely would be aware of the history. I’ve never known a small town that was otherwise.

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  9. Lynz says:

    Ooh, I like Vicky’s suggestions. I grew up in a house furnished almost entirely with antiques, where clothes were always handed to a friend, not thrown out, and where even books were shared among different branches of the family and could sometimes be enjoyed by several generations before being retired, so I don’t think I’d have a problem with the market stalls being that old.

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  10. Estelle C. says:

    I just fact-checked an ARC of a historical mystery I was reading this morning, and thinking about why gave me a perspective on this.

    The author hadn’t built up any credit with me. I had no sense of setting in the book so far. I didn’t reread the cover copy before starting the book, and it has been a couple of months since I picked it up at a convention, and the opening pages had literally given me no idea of the era. A police captain sends a messanger to track a detective down in person saying he’s needed right away, so I assumed we were before cell phones or pagers, but the detective then managed to walk through town without giving me any hint of what year it was. I then reread the cover copy trying to figure out what the heck was going on and determined the year, but even once I resumed reading all there was to suggest the era was mention that certain inventions were “new.”

    So when the author described something about the city that I know isn’t true now, she hadn’t built up enough credit as a depictor of the era for me to accept that she probably knew it was true then. It was something that could easily have gone either way. If I can possibly explain this without giving away enough that somebody could recognize the book: she describes a specific address as being in a certain district, and I know this address would be several blocks south and a couple of blocks east of where this district is today. Once I figured out what year it was, I realized that it was conceivable that this district had moved, but because I hadn’t even been able to figure out when the book was set without reading the cover copy, I still felt the need to look up the bounds of the district in the year that the book was set and make sure. Most historical fiction/mysteries/whatever that I pick up without being given ARCs are much more grounded in their setting, and it has never occurred to me that I should fact-check something in the setting for any of them.

    I’m probably not the best person to comment on how to make people believe market stalls are several hundred years old, because as long as they’re in England I’d have no trouble accepting that. Plus, I have read your blog, your first book, and your novella, and by the time this comes out I’m sure I’ll have read two more of your books, so I trust that you know what you’re talking about. So I guess my question to consider is: if this is in the second scene, will the first scene and any earlier parts of the second scene have grounded the book enough in its historical setting that a reader who had never heard of you before picking up that book will know you know what you’re talking about?

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  11. Jeannie Lin says:

    I wouldn’t have batted an eye at such a reference. Market stalls seem like a medieval thing to me — of course this is coming from Ren Faire and Ken Follett. Really cool that they’re as permanent as buildings. I’d hope the audience is hooked enough to suspend disbelief for something like that!

    P.S. I had a similar issue with footbinding…in the end there was no way to explain since it just simply wasn’t done yet, so I just moved on.

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  12. Kaetrin says:

    FWIW, I don’t think I would have been thrown out of the story by the phrase you originally intended. I have no problem in believing that things in little villages/market towns in England date from medieval times. But, if you’re worried, you could throw in that some older character (his grandfather, the ancient publican, etc) had said the stalls dated that far back. Something like “he remembered his …. telling him… etc”. Or not! :)

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  13. So when the author described something about the city that I know isn’t true now, she hadn’t built up enough credit as a depictor of the era for me to accept that she probably knew it was true then. It was something that could easily have gone either way. If I can possibly explain this without giving away enough that somebody could recognize the book: she describes a specific address as being in a certain district, and I know this address would be several blocks south and a couple of blocks east of where this district is today. Once I figured out what year it was, I realized that it was conceivable that this district had moved, but because I hadn’t even been able to figure out when the book was set without reading the cover copy, I still felt the need to look up the bounds of the district in the year that the book was set and make sure. Most historical fiction/mysteries/whatever that I pick up without being given ARCs are much more grounded in their setting, and it has never occurred to me that I should fact-check something in the setting for any of them.
    +1

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  14. Paty Jager says:

    Hi Courtney,

    It was fun meeting you last night at the Mid-Willamette Valley meeting. Great information!

    Paty

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Courtney Milan writes historical romance novels like the ones you see to the right. She still remembers bits and pieces from her old lives, where she was (variously) a scientist and a lawyer.

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