One of the hardest things to get right in historical fiction is period psychology. How did people at a particular time and place think about their world? What were the underlying assumptions? What color were their glasses?
What Color Are Your Glasses?
This is hard to get right because we live and breathe the constructs of our day, with assumptions so deep we don’t often recognize them unless we are lucky enough to have an international friend who asks, “Why are you so achievement oriented? Can’t you just be for a while, and what’s with all the extreme sports and conflict? (If you are from outside the United States, please fill in whatever your cultural tendencies may be.)
Johnny in a Toga
|Detectives in Togas by Henry Winterfeld|
Our modern day Johnny would have a deep sense that slavery was wrong, might even advocate the abolition of slavery. Roman Marcellus, however, assumes slavery is just part of the social order; everyone has a place. It is the way things are, even should be. This does not mean he lacks empathy or that he may want to stop abuse, but he sees slavery as part of his world.
Very rarely, you’ll find a story that quotes the original words of a character.
"Dave belongs to Mr. Miles/
Wher the oven bakes & the pot biles///
Andrea Cheng does this in her outstanding novel in verse, Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet (Lee & Low, 2013).
"I wonder where is all my relation
Friendship to all – and every nation
August 16, 1857"
In addition to Dave’s own words, Cheng employs multiple voices from the period. The following quote is from the point of view of Dave’s first wife, who is being sold to another owner in Alabama.
"I ask if I can say
Good-bye to Dave,
But Master Drake just laughs,
'No need, Eliza.
They’ll find you another man
And I cry." (p. 23)
In this short verse, Cheng portrays the belief of the slave owner that black slaves do not have feelings like the white people do, that they can be quickly satisfied with another mate. Within the same stanza she shows that this is the furthest thing from the truth.
The Period Creates the Conflict
|The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare|
May B, one of my favorite fictional heroines, by Caroline Starr Rose, (Yearling, 2012) is another example of the period creating the conflict. May dreams of becoming a teacher, but she also has dyslexia, a condition not yet understood or diagnosed in her day. This issue remains unresolved, but her identity shifts from a focus on what she can not do, to what she can—survive alone on the wide prairie in a dugout.
Finally, as recommended in my last post, pairing historical fiction with biography, wherever possible, is a good way to reinforce psychological accuracy. When I am writing, I always try to read a biography at the same time to keep me living in the period.
In the end, it is impossible for us to see the past with one-hundred percent clarity, but I believe we can get close, close enough to barely see the tint in our glasses. I wouldn’t be a fan of anthropology if I didn’t believe that.
Michele Hathaway is a writer and freelance editor. She has an M. A. in Social Anthropology and has worked in libraries in California, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania. She writes stories set in culturally diverse, historical and contemporary periods.