Monday, May 21, 2012

The Devil is NOT in the Details - Anacrhonism and historical fiction

When readers and writers discuss historical anachronism, they often focus on stuff. What saddle Anne Boleyn used, the fabric clothes were made of, the food people ate. And it is a good idea for authors to ensure they get the little things right, if for no other reason that some readers react to any anachronism the way Christopher Reeve does at the end of Somewhere in Time. (Spoiler alert.)

There is, however, an important distinction between not getting anything wrong and getting things right, a distinction that in many cases mirrors the line between the physical and mental worlds of the past.

"Help, help, I'm being oppressed!"
If a character goes to a medieval inn and orders a potato frittata and tea, the author has clearly done something wrong, and even an inattentive reader will notice.  But what if the character rides past a castle and, like Monty Python’s Marxist peasants, thinks thoroughly modern thoughts? Now the Pythons clearly went to an extreme here – which is what makes the scene work – but even the best authors of historical fiction make this mistake with far less amusing results.

For example, Adelia Aguilar, the protagonist of Ariana Franklin’s wonderful Mistress of the Art of Death, rejects the conventional wisdom on the causes of malaria and expresses doubts concerning the medical theories of Galen. This decision – or error, if you would prefer– is different than if she’d had Adelia drink bourbon or express a fondness for hot wings. While it is objectively impossible for Adelia to love southern whiskey and fast food, the question of whether it would have been  possible for a physician trained in Salerno to question Galen is far more subjective.

To be clear, yes, it is possible for Adelia to think these thoughts. But finding an educated physician in medieval Europe who questioned Galen is as likely as finding a modern physicist who challenges scientific method. These people might exist, but they are few and far between. (It’s also notable that Franklin’s protagonist keeps her thoughts to herself. If she expressed her doubts publicly, she would lose all credibility.)

 Note that Franklin’s anachronism here is not born of ignorance: There can be no doubt that she understands the medical mindset of medieval Europe. I think it is also clear why Franklin made this decision. She wanted readers to relate to her protagonist, and did not think that they could sympathize with a character whose assumptions about medicine and the human body were – to our modern eyes – obviously wrong. 

And this, I think, is what so disappointed me about the book. It’s not the just the anachronism, though I admit that I was aghast at that. I was more disappointed that Franklin simply did not trust her readers to understand and sympathize with a character who believed that blood-letting might be valid medical technique.

I am not arguing that portraying the interior lives of characters an easy task, and I admit that my own protagonist walks along the same fine line as Adelia, and sometimes she might cross it. But it is nevertheless the case that telling the truth about the past requires both an understanding of the time period and the courage to be honest with your readers.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Meat Tile, Anyone? How I Used a 16th Century Dish

By Nancy Bilyeau

I like to put food in my writing. People eat. Readers gain from characters’ choices in food, how they respond to it, how they behave with others while they’re dining.

My novel The Crown is set in 1537-1538. Moreover, much of the action takes place in a priory of Dominican nuns. In other words, simple meals, very little meat, when the sisters are not actually fasting. 

But I didn’t want this to deter me from using food as a revelatory, if not sensual, part of my writing.

In the first part of the book, my protagonist Sister Joanna Stafford is arrested at Smithfield for interfering with the king’s justice. She’s taken to the Tower of London and confined in a small cell for five months. The man who frees her is Bishop Stephen Gardiner, but there’s a price. She must return to her priory on a secret—and very dangerous—quest, one that may betray the prioress and other nuns she respects. To force her to do his will, the bishop will keep her father, Sir Richard Stafford, imprisoned in the Tower. He has already been tortured once; Sister Joanna has no choice but to agree.

In Chapter 15, Sister Joanna finally leaves the Tower, in the company of two Dominican friars, Brother Edmund and Brother Richard, that Bishop Gardiner has ordered to go the priory as well, both of them with mysterious agendas. Before the three of them depart, they’re served a meal. Joanna is exhausted and frightened and angry but she’s undeniably hungry too.

From the book:

“Bess laid out food: platters of meat tiles, strips of dried cod, and bread. The rich smell of the tiles—made of chicken, crawfish tail and almonds—filled the room. Brother Richard fell on it as if it were the first meal he’d consumed in days, while Brother Edmund ate little.

“Bess looked around to make sure no one was watching her, and flashed me an excited smile. To her, this must be joyous news—not only was I being released but I was also restored to my former life. I wondered what she’d think if she knew I’d be betraying a prioress’s trust.

“But wait—when had I agreed to anything?

“My thoughts churning, I sipped the warm spiced wine Bess had poured and ate a piece of meat tile—I hadn’t tasted anything like this in many months. We had meat only on feast days at Dartford, and then it was meat pudding.”

And so I used the dish of meat tile to symbolize Sister Joanna’s feelings about leaving the Tower and returning to her priory and being drawn into the power—and the possible temptation--of these new forces.

To talk more about meat tile, it was made of pieces of chicken or veal, simmered, sautéed, served in a spiced sauce of pounded crayfish tails, almonds roasted and toasted bread and garnished with whole crayfish tails. When royalty, noble or wealthy-merchant families dined, there were many courses, a stunning number to our eyes. has kindly permitted me to share a menu from a 15th century wealthy French household:


Miniature pastries filled either with cod liver or beef marrow

A cameline meat "brewet" (pieces of meat in a thin cinnamon sauce)

Beef marrow fritters

Eels in a thick spicy puree

Loach in a cold green sauce flavored with spices and sage

Large cuts of roast or boiled meat

Saltwater fish
Freshwater fish

Broth with bacon

A meat tile

Capon pasties and crisps
Bream and eel pasties

Blang Mang



Lampreys with hot sauce


Roast bream and darioles


After the meal would come the sweets and confections, then maybe some spiced wine or even whole spices, which were thought to aid in digestion.
 Now THAT is a meal...

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Bloody Good Interview: Sherry Jones on "Four Sisters, All Queens"

By Nancy Bilyeau

This week saw the publication of Four Sisters, All Queens,  a historical novel that chronicles the lives of four sisters, all daughters of Beatrice of Provence—and all of whom became queens in medieval Europe.

Sherry Jones is perhaps best known for her controversial novels, The Jewel of Medina and The Sword of Medina, international bestsellers about the life of A'isha, who married the Muslim prophet Muhammad at age nine and went on to become the most famous and influential woman in Islam. In addition to Four Sisters, All Queens, Sherry is publishing a novella, White Heart, about the famous French "White Queen" Blanche de Castille, as an e-book, from Simon & Schuster.

Nancy Bilyeau: Sherry, I relate to your journey, because I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was eight years old and I worked as a journalist before plunging into fiction, similar to you. And I also went through a Laura Ingalls Wilder stage! How do you think those “Little House” books influenced us way back then and how much do we as adult writers carry those childhood loves with us?

Sherry Jones: How can they NOT have influenced us? The books we read as children inspired us to become writers, didn't they? Laura in the Little House books was a smart, resourceful girl with lots of inner strength, the same as the heroines we write about. And those stories take us to a different time and place, as does historical fiction. I remember well all the books I loved in childhood; they are as much a part of me as my family, my school friends, my teachers. Indeed, books were my escape from an miserable, abusive childhood: Black Beauty, the Trixie Belden mysteries, Huckleberry Finn. Little Women had a profound effect on me, as I realized while writing Four Sisters, All Queens -- the sisters in my book correspond almost perfectly to the four sisters in Louisa May Alcott's wonderful book.

NB: OK. Now, in one sentence, describe your novel Four Sisters, All Queens.

SJ: Four famous sisters in the 13th century all become powerful queens, advancing their family's interests and directing the course of world events, but are torn apart in a bitter struggle over their father's will.

NB: What drew you to that family and that time period?

SJ: I encountered them in Nancy Goldstone's excellent biography Four Queens, and wanted to know more about them when I'd finished. So little has been written about them that the best way to go deeper, it seemed, was to write my own book. Now I'm hooked on the era. The troubadour culture -- of famous, aristocratic poets; minstrels, musicians and jongleurs; and the courts where the performed -- fascinates me.

NB: How long did it take you to complete the research and how did you go about it?

SJ: I'm not very methodical. I read Goldstone's bibliography and read those books, then read their bibliographies and found books listed in them. I read scholarly articles, listened to Teaching Company courses on the High Middle Ages, Medieval philosophy, and the history of the Catholic Church. I had spent time in England, viewing castles and cathedrals, and I returned to France to visit the Cluny Museum and Rheims. I toured the Cloisters Museum in New York. I had not written about this era before, so I had to learn everything: what people wore; what they ate, and how; how they fought, and played, and prayed. I never stopped researching and made changes in my book until just a few weeks before publication!

NB: What were the structure and character-creation challenges of writing about such a large family?

SJ: Point of view was the most difficult. I initially wrote Four Sisters, All Queens in first person, from the point of view of Marguerite, the eldest sister, who outlived the others. About one-third of the way through the book, I became frustrated. I realized that I couldn't really do justice to the other sisters by portraying them all through Marguerite's eyes. I wanted to flesh each of them out as a complex human, as they all certainly were. One Sunday morning I awoke with the idea of telling the story in third-person present tense, lending a sense of immediacy to the tale, and switching points of view among the sisters. I got up and rewrote the first two chapters and loved them. Now the whole book is written that way, and it really works.

Taking place in four courts, Four Sisters, All Queens necessarily has a large cast of characters. To help the reader navigate, I've included lists of the characters from each court, with explanations of whom each character is. According to the feedback I'm hearing, these lists are very helpful.

NB: How do you think the sisters’ struggles resonate with women readers today?

SJ: Anyone who has a sibling knows about the competitive struggle that goes on, and the categorizing that can stifle a person's reaching his or her highest potential. Why, for instance, is there always a "pretty" sister and a "smart" sister, as if a woman couldn't both be smart and pretty? Also, their attempts to claim, and wield, power in a man's world will ring true with even the most successful women. Even today we are, as Marilyn French wrote so astutely in her wonderful novel The Women's Room, like salmon swimming upstream.

NB: A recent Guardian article referred to historical novels disparagingly as “bodice rippers.” Why do you think historical fiction still has this sort of stigma?

SJ: It's misogyny, pure and simple. Historical novels tend to portray strong, powerful women, which threatens the patriarchal status quo. A man on a panel with me once referred to The Jewel of Medina as "chick lit." I'm sure he prefers male-oriented crime fiction -- "dick lit," I might have sneered -- in which women are either sexual objects or bitch-hags. Literature that appeals to men is embraced by the literary establishment, which includes the mainstream media, while women's literature remains marginalized, as do women. That's changing, but at a glacial pace.

NB: You’ve said that writing The Jewel of Medina made you a passionate believer in the power of the written word. Could you explain more?

SJ: If a book could arouse such anger among people who hadn't even read it, the written word must be powerful, indeed. With so many distractions pulling us away from reading time -- TV, movies, the internet, games -- I find it heartening, indeed, that people still care so much about books.

NB: Tell me about your next book, the story of Heloise and Abelard. Sounds intriguing!

SJ: It will be an erotic, intelligent, tragic tale of two of history's most storied lovers: he, the most famous philosopher in the world, and she, the most admired scholar, and a woman, to boot. And, like all my books, it will be a feminist tale, told from the point of view of Heloise, who dared live life on her own terms and, as a result, lost everything that mattered to her.

Thanks for the interview, Sherry Jones!


Learn more about her and her books at

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Seven Book Itch

As I noted in a previous post, when I finished a draft of my second novel, I began to think long thoughts about writing a series, and about my career as a whole. 

I was sent down this road by a review of Laura Lippman’s I’d Know You Anywhere. In it, Patrick Anderson notes that Lippman’s first seven books had been a (prize-winning) series, but, “Like Dennis Lehane after he’d published five Kenzie-Gennaro private-eye novels, she must have decided she could do better, and like Lehane (who proceeded to write Mystic River), she was right.”

I thought about this, and another great writer spring to mind. Iain Pears wrote seven books in a series about Jonathan Argyll and the Italian Art Squad, who – I assume – went about solving art-related crimes. Then he wrote the far more ambitious (and staggeringly good) An Instance of the Fingerpost, and he appears to have abandoned his series altogether. Had Pears, like Lippman and Lehane, suffered from something that looks like the Seven Year Itch?

At the other extreme you have Sue Grafton, who went the opposite direction. After two novels, not about Kinsey Millhone, she has cranked out twenty-two in that series. (I suppose it is possible that Grafton wanted to move on after seven books, but when you start something called the Alphabet Series, you’re pretty much committed to twenty-six!)

I can see how either course is frightening. Lippman, Lehane, and Pears had a franchise working for them and (I assume) were making a pretty good living. Then they took a chance. I cannot imagine how long Pears spent on researching and writing Instance, but it must have been years. What if it had bombed? Or if the publisher had laughed? Then what?

On the other hand, how can an author spend twenty-plus years with the same character? You’d have to work very hard to include a long narrative arc for your people. Matthew Scudder battled the bottle, Spenser broke up/got together with Susan Silverman, but not all authors are so considerate. God bless Miss Marple, but she is the same character in every novel.

I know there’s not a right answer, especially since I’ve only finished a single novel, but I can’t help wondering what drove Lippman, Lehane, and Pears to jump into untested waters, and what allowed Grafton to stay with Millhone. Do I have the guts to jump off the Midwife gravy train (assuming it turns into one!). Or do I have the imagination and skill to keep her interesting - to me and the reader - for twenty-plus years?

I don’t know, but it will be fun to find out.