Friday, April 10, 2009

' The past is another country...

'Stonehenge' by John Constable (from Wikimedia Commons)...They do things differently there.' (L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between)

Setting any story in the distant past brings its own delights and perils. For me it allows my heroines to be engaging and ingenious, sometimes accepting historical society's conventions and restrictions, sometimes going against them, but always provoking inner or outward conflict. Heroes can be shown off to great advantage, really doing something - protecting, rescuing, struggling with great war-horses, battling the elements or the bad guys.

However, the backdrop against which all this high-stakes, high-adventure romance takes place needs to be carefully drawn and considered. Fashions are different, right down to underwear (or lack of it). Transport, law, weapons, animals, trees, climate, customs - these can all be very different from the present.

My oldest book, in both creative genesis and the date at which it is set, is Bronze Lightning. This is set in the Bronze Age, before the eruption of Thera (the modern Greek island of Santorini), the island shown below in a Bronze age fresco. Some structures, such as the pyramids and Stonehenge, were already old when the story opens in 1562 BC, although these also looked different. The pyramids I have imagined with their wonderful limestone covering, which would have made them gleam a brilliant white in the landscape. Stonehenge was also complete and not yet fallen into the decay already familiar when Constable created his painting of it.

Ritual places are not the only things that were different in the distant past. Some activities, such as the smelting of metals, farming, brewing, the making of clothes, were all different from what came later and very different from our own time.

Bronze age fresco from Aktrotiri in Thera (Santorini)(Wikimedia Commons)Beliefs and religion were also very different and, given the few written sources we have from Bronze Age Europe, must be inferred from archaeology and other means. Fearn the hero believes in a Sky God who has some characters that are similar to the later Viking God Thor: all later religions tend to have 'clues' of past faiths in them. He also undergoes a trance state where he sees symbols that modern shamans have also reported seeing in trances and which have been painted by cave painters.

In Bronze Lightning I bring the heroine Sarmatia right to my own doorstep. The winter house she lives in is set where my parents' house is now, and the wild apple and cherry trees she sees in blossom are ones I have known since childhood. Lots of other details are changed, however, because the distant past truly is another country.

In the Bronze Age, the climate in England was warmer and drier than today. There was much more woodland, and animals such as beavers, bears, wolves and wild boar in the woods. We have lost all these creatures excerpt for the boar, which has escaped from farms in southern England and is making its home in woodland again. Lime trees flourished, and orchids and other flowers that are rare or extinct today. The sheep Sarmatia care for were more like Soay sheep, that do not flock and whose fleece is not at all like the thick fleeces of modern breeds. The cattle were smaller or completely wild. Even the stars she followed were different. Even the polar star hung in a different place in the Bronze Age.

I exploit these differences to show the past in my story, to remind my readers that they are in another time, another place... where magic and romance do truly go hand in hand.



Linda Banche said...

Historical romances appeal to people who do NOT want to read about the present world. These people want to see a different world, right down to descriptions of clothing, customs, landscape, etc.

You will find the occasional one who carps about the world being unfamiliar. A friend of mine read a Victorian and said she laughed when the heroine had to explain herself because she wore pants in a certain situation. My friend said, "I would tell people, this is the way I am and that's that". I told her that she was reacting as a 21st century woman would. A Victorian woman's situation was different, and you couldn't expect her to react as we would.

Lindsay Townsend said...

I agree, Linda. That's one of the pleasures to me of historical romances - that the people in them are slightly different to us.

Do you find representing ages in historical fiction a bit tricky? I know I do.

When people tended to live much harder, shorter lives than we do today, 'middle age' could start in the mid-twenties. Medieval Florence was packed full of rowdy teenagers. Juliet in 'Romeo and Juliet' was just 14. Reading historical docs, rulers can sound like angry teenagers - but then, quite often they weren't much older.

Savanna Kougar said...

Absolutely fascinating, Lindsay. Thanks for that trip back into time.
I love the excerpt of BRONZE LIGHTNING where Fearn is doing battle and has the shamanic vision and energies flowing through him.

Linda, so true, sensibilities were different in past cultures. How a woman was raised, the expectations were very different in some ways, not all, though.

I once had a past life glimpse of standing next to the Sphinx in Egypt, of course the head was different, since the head on it currently isn't the original... everything was beautifully tropical and green. And the Sphinx was a playground of sorts... doggies were romping around glistening golden Sphinx and on it.
I know this sounds utterly nuts, and I shouldn't even be saying it.
However, what the heck...
I'll just blame it on my imagination, which is and always has been very vivid.

Lindsay Townsend said...

Thanks, Savanna! Your Sphinx glimpse is really intriguing. According to modern research, the Sphinx could be very old indeed and created at a time when that area was indeed green.

An ex boyfriend of mine had a recurring dream where he was a Roman soldier killed by a spear.

Savanna Kougar said...

Lindsay, fascinating about your ex boyfriend's dream, most probably a past life remembrance.

Yeah, I'd read about the green ancient Egypt.