Wednesday, April 4, 2012

“Daily Life In…” History Real or Otherwise

Guest post by Matthew W. Quinn.

Something essential for writers of both historical fiction and alternate history — basically historical fiction in a history that is not ours – is showing just how people lived. Unless you’re writing a faux textbook like For Want of a Nail, you’re going to need to have characters living their daily lives when things like World War II beginning in 1938 or a comet wiping out the Northern Hemisphere in the late 1870s happen.

This requires a level of detail on the lives of ordinary people that’s often hard to find in history books. A book focusing on, say, the maneuvers of armies or macroeconomics is not going to describe what a typical house was like or the food people ate.

However, I was listening to the appearance of writer Ahmed Saladin on the Writing Excuses podcast awhile back and he suggested a series that had been very helpful to him.

The series is called “Daily Life In…” and was published by Greenwood Press. There look to be dozens of these books.  They cover all different time periods and geographical regions, including Tang China, the Inquisition Era in Spain, the Mayan and Aztec civilizations, the Nubian civilization, Jewish culture in medieval Europe, and Renaissance Italy.

For my just-finished epic steampunk Western novel Battle for the Wastelands, I checked out three of the books from the Fulton County library system. Daily Life on the Nineteenth Century American Frontier provided a lot of material for the depiction of the rebel Merrill army and the culture of the southeastern region of my world in general, as well as a lot of useful stuff for a steampunk novel series I’ve brainstormed but haven’t actually written that begins with a Confederate victory in the American Civil War. Daily Life in Civil War America provided more such information, along with some military stuff if I remember right, while Daily Life in Victorian England will help me write the more steampunky parts taking place in the cities of the Northlands and south of the Iron Desert.

Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a catch. It does not appear to have had a large print run. Prices on Amazon seem to be in the neighborhood of $50 each. I would recommend checking out your local library, be it public or college, before taking the plunge and buying them. Given how heavily-represented the series is at the Villanova college library, it might be these were originally textbooks.

However, this series does not represent the only books one can find on individual-level world-building. Another book I’ve read in this vein is The Civil War Notebook of Daniel Chisholm: A Chronicle of Daily Life in the Union Army 1864. In addition to learning about the last days of the American Civil War, it also features some material about his life before and after the war. Back when I was in high school, I read The Year 1000, which was about Saxon England and went into a lot of detail about how people lived, worked, etc.

The book wasn’t perfect — the edition I read implies the Normans imposed the right of the First Night in England after the Conquest and evidence for that even existing is rather spotty — but it has a lot of useful information someone writing historical fiction set in Saxon England (think Bernard Cornwell’s “Lords of the North” series) or alternate-history set in a world where, say, Harald Hardrada took England in 1066 or Harold Godwinsson drove William the Conqueror back into the sea.

So if you’re writing a historical or an alternate-historical tale, you’re going to need to world-build on both the macro and the micro. Finding background material on large-scale stuff isn’t that hard, but at the micro level, things get tricky. Hopefully some of these suggestions will help you.

1 comment:

  1. Very true. I'm bothered by the preponderance of "dry" timelines. Every good story has some meat on its bones, and this here is part of that meat.


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