Thursday, September 15, 2011

Beautiful worlds, mainly medieval, and how I create them

There are two 'schools' of historians - optimists and pessimists. The first looks to the positive side of historical events. The latter tends to a more gloomy view. It's the rosy and the grubby views of history.

In creating the past in my stories I tend to the more rosy view of history, apart from where I feel readers need to be shown the 'grubby' side as a contrast, or for high stakes, or to endanger my heroines or heroes. But the worlds I try to create I try to make appealing - and romantic in the uplifting, optimistic sense. I rather celebrate the best in human nature and show the 'best' of past societies and cultures.

So how do I go about it?

First I read. I read children's non fiction books (lots of social history and pictures), general histories, specialist histories and finally original, primary sources where I can - letters, chronicles, laws, coroners' rolls. An amazing amount of detail can be found in the last two. Look at the Sumptuary Laws of the 1300s, aimed at restricting expensive dress - that tells me that everyone in England was dressing as richly as they could. And coroners' rolls give lists of accidents that are both vivid and chilling: a man dies because he fell through his privy floor and drowned in his privy, a child perishes because she falls into the fire. These cases are tragic and horrific but they give clues to the world.

These details are grim, so in my world they would be touched on only briefly, if at all, but I need to know them and use them where appropriate.

Other more positive details I try to slip into my novels - as deftly as possible, so I don't have slabs of research and a fact-mountain in the middle of my story. For these details I find pictures invaluable. The beautiful drawings of Les Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry show ordinary people at work and play and the world in which they do so. It may be an idealized world, but I find it endlessly inspiring.

I also focus on pleasant things - hobbies, past-times, pleasures and show my characters at play. I also show my characters at work and try to make those sections interesting, in that my people have unusual skills - everyone likes to learn new things.

To build the world I start with geography - the land itself. Where a character lives defines how that person survives on the land and what skills the person will have. Is it wooded and fertile, with soft, rolling hills, or bleaker and harsher? Uplands also have their beauties and I research what animals and plants grow in my fictional kingdom, taking care to include those species which were once common but are now rare. I also take care that my animals and plants are appropriate to the period - in the Middle Ages, I can't have a bunch of English villagers munching on potatoes, which weren't introduced from the New World until much later.

After I have 'made' my land I consider the people. What do they look like? Do they have any unusual aspects in their appearance? Do they have any particular habits of movement, speech or dress? What are they clothed in?

Clothes are always fun for a writer, and for a reader. Roman Britain gives me a lot of scope as there were all kinds of luxury fabrics such as silk available to the rich, plus wonderful jewels. Ancient Roman houses - the ones the rich could afford - can also be shown as very beautiful, with wall paintings and under-floor heating.

After the fall of the Roman Empire the wattle and daub houses that replaced the grand villas might sound drab, but certainly in this country it's the dream of many British to live in a thatched cottage and that is what many of the dwellings were, in essence. When I create them for my beautiful medieval worlds, I stress their snug warmth and living heat.

Returning briefly to clothes, the later Middle Ages also has furs and silks and richly dyed woollens, plus an array of hats and jewels and shoes.

To create a beautiful world of the past I also evoke pleasing sounds and scents - the bells ringing the church hours, the twitter of birds, the rattle of drums, the scent of baking bread, the smell of a bluebell wood - and more.

Selection is the key. As I try to evoke the past and create a beautiful past, I select those details that will transport the reader into fields of wild flowers and colorful, vibrant cities.

It is my pleasure to do so, and I hope it is my readers' pleasure to enjoy the results.



Allison said...

It's always fun to read how other people approach the middle ages. I delight in telling people the castles had windows with glass in them. The halls were white washed and the hanging tapestries were beautiful scenes of vivid color. And you are so right. Who wants to read dull, drab, tragic romance?

Stephanie Burkhart said...

Lindsay, I agree - it's important to find the balance between the optimistic and pessistmic points of view about historical events - that's what gives the world a realisim that reader's can accept. I am such a sucker for an added scent description because that really puts me in the scene.

Thanks so much for sharing your beautiful world.

Serena Shay said...

Wonderful information, Lindsay! So interesting about the laws and coroner's rolls...what an excellent place to look for true historical information about the time. :)

Savanna Kougar said...

Lindsay, you are amazing. I am always in awe.

Of course, I base some of my world building on history... because, in a way, there isn't anything new under the sun... unless there is. Yeah, I'm rambling here because I'm trying to get my thoughts typed out. Except for the coroner's reports, I did similar research for Branded because I wanted Texas to be a character in the story. And, after all, the history of Texas, the land, shaped my characters.

Linda Acaster said...

Great post, Lindsay. It's good to broadcast the depth of the research you do. I find it amazing how many readers believe we make it all up as we go along.

I agree with Savanna on making a place a character. I did this for "Torc of Moonlight", but by degrees, as by the middle of the novel I wanted the reader to hesitate and really *see* the landscapes I was describing as living, and sentient. Some readers got it, some didn't, but you can't please all of the readers all of the time. LOL!

Unknown said...

Lindsay--I am inspired and intrigued. I never imagined so much goes into your stories. Research is fun, but a certain amount with me goes a long way. Maybe that's why I stick with Texas and it's history--at least I have a store of knowledge and easily know where to find things I don't know.
Certainly, I don't think I could walk--write--in your shoes. Quite impressive, and isn't it wonderful you have found your true calling?

Maggi Andersen said...

I'm of the same mind, Lindsay. Who wants grim reality unless it's pertinent to the story? The senses really bring a scene to life.

Lindsay Townsend said...

Thanks so much, Allison, Steph,Sernena, Savanna, Linda, Celia and Maggi!
I agree about not being over-grim. I agree that research in fantasy is also important. I agree about a writer finding their own special world and writing what and where they love. I agree about places being characters, and scent and the senses bringing a scene to life.

Thanks again!