There’s a passage in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost that gave me pause when I first read it:
“For I must tell thee, it will please his grace, by the world, sometime to lean upon my poor shoulder, and with his royal finger, thus, dally with my excrement…”
Thank goodness for the glossary, which defined “excrement” as meaning “that which grows out (such as hair, nails, feathers).”
I bring this up to illustrate how hard it is to write from the point of view of someone in a historical period. Should you have a character in Elizabethan times use the word “excrement” to mean “hair, nails, feathers”? That one’s straightforward: the answer’s no. But what about something more ambiguous, like having your characters say “thee” and “thou”? I think archaic speech tends to distance the reader from the people in the story, to make them seem old-fashioned and quaint, but I’ve also seen it done well, for example in In the Garden of Iden by Kage Baker.
Then there are the social attitudes of the time. Sticking with the Elizabethans, should you have your character make an anti-Semitic remark? Such remarks were distressingly common for the time period, but you can’t suddenly stop and explain this; you have to stay within the point of view of your characters, and they would have no idea that anyone would find those comments objectionable.
I’ve been writing about other eras for years, and wrestling with these questions, but that barely prepared me for my latest book. Weighing Shadows is a time-travel novel set partly in ancient Crete, a place which even the stuffiest gentleman scholar admits was a matriarchy. And if Elizabethan England differs in a good many ways from the present, those differences are nothing compared to Crete. The concept of a matriarchy was so foreign to me that I had to stretch my mind in all kinds of ways, just to encompass the mindset of the people who lived there. And it didn’t help that very little is known about the place. (Well, it did help, actually, because I got to make things up. But in terms of their culture and traditions, even their language, I was thrown out in the deep end.)
I wasn’t the only one who had trouble with this. A number of books on Crete called a beautiful chair in the palace at Knossos “the throne of King Minos”–but a matriarchy would have a queen, not a king. One book, Minoans: Life in Bronze Age Crete by Rodney Castleden, says, “‘Women’ and their children are mentioned on the tablets too, without any reference to menfolk, implying slavery and absent males.” But wouldn’t the women and children be listed because they were more important? (Parenthetically, I don’t know why “women” is in quotes here.)
I have to admit, though, that sometimes I was just as clueless as these authors. At one point I wrote about a male artist up on a scaffolding painting a mural–then reread what I had written, beat myself up, and changed the artist into a woman.
There were so many things I needed to think about, to reassess. Who went out to work and who took care of the children? What kind of work did they do, and was it divided along gender lines? Did they have marriages, and if so what kind? They seemed to worship goddesses, but what about gods? What were their religious ceremonies like?
In addition to all of that I wanted to include other, more intangible parts of their culture, things like proverbs or table manners or smells. (I have to recommend Mary Renault here, an author who is absolutely terrific at this.) I wanted readers to feel as if they were visiting a culture far removed in time, a place where even a simple gesture might have a different meaning.
One of the things that helped me was the fact that my main character, Ann, came from our own time period, so I could use her as a stand-in for a present-day reader. I could have her feel puzzled when she was faced with something she didn’t understand, or comment on some difference between the two cultures. I’ve written a number of novels set solely in the past, and putting in Ann’s reactions made my job much easier, and gave me a freedom I never had before.
Just doing research isn’t enough, though. After all the books are read, after all the notes are taken, you have to somehow close your eyes and jump into your chosen milieu, to make an almost physical effort to locate yourself within it. I can state unequivocally that I didn’t do as good a job as Mary Renault. Still, I hope I gave readers a sense of what it would be like to visit ancient Crete, if only for a moment. To smell the cypress trees, feel the hot sun on their shoulders, take their seats in the arena and watch as men and women danced with bulls.
About the Author
Lisa Goldstein has written fourteen novels, among them The Uncertain Places, which won the Mythopoeic Award, and The Red Magician, which won the American Book Award for Best Paperback. Her stories have appeared in Ms., Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and The Year’s Best Fantasy, among other places, and her novels and short stories have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards. She lives with her husband and their irrepressible Labrador retriever, Bonnie, in Oakland, California. Her web site is www.brazenhussies.net/goldstein.