Blind Spots and Obsessions in Historical Fiction: What Were They Thinking?

pic for WUWhen the Madonna of the Veil came to light in 1930, the art world celebrated it as a newly discovered work of Botticelli. But doubts began to creep in four years later when Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, noticed something suspicious about the Renaissance masterpiece. Subsequent tests of the paint revealed it was a forgery, but the big tip-off was that the Madonna looked like a silent movie star. Jean Harlow, to be specific.

Every era has its blind spots – things that people simply cannot see at the time that become obvious a few years later. The forger who created the Madonna didn’t intend her to look like Jean Harlow. That was just how women looked in his day. If you’re writing historical fiction, recognizing and reproducing these blind spots can make your readers feel like they are truly immersed in the era you’re recreating.

One reason Alan Gordon’s Fool’s Guild mysteries work so well is that his characters inhabit the early thirteenth century. If you’re not familiar with the series, it involves members of a jester’s guild who work behind the scenes to manipulate nations toward a gentler, more humane government. Jesters, after all, can say anything to the king without fear of being beheaded (well, without much fear). One of the authentic details Gordon recreates is that everyone assumes the way to create the best government is to make sure the right man winds up as king. Someone has to have absolute power, because how else are you going to govern a nation?

Obsessions are another form of blind spot. One way Peter Tremayne creates the seventh-century atmosphere of the Sister Fidelma mysteries is through the frequent arguments over arcane religious customs, like how to calculate the correct date of Easter. Everyone agreed that Easter was the first Sunday after the full moon that follows the vernal equinox. The disagreement was over whether a day began at sunrise or sunset, and your answer could lead to you celebrating the holiday five weeks earlier or later than your fellow believers. Granted, there was also some politics involved in the question, but it’s still hard not to look back now and say, “Just flip a coin, guys.”

Of course, it’s possible to go overboard in showing your historical characters’ obsessions. [Read more…]