This spring, thanks to a grant from Nevada Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, I had the opportunity to interview a number of historians and cultural experts for my work-in-progress. It’s historical novel set in the 1600s in Massachusetts. Creating that world, where people’s knowledge and belief systems are so different from our own, feels a bit like writing fantasy or sci-fi. I’m building a lot of the world from the ground up. Yes, I can identify the trees, animals, and the weather. I’m pretty sure anger was still ugly and that people wanted to be loved. But how did they feel about themselves? Did they expect the same things we do? I’m convinced their views on heaven, hell, and this earth in between were very, very different.
I asked one historian what pitfalls I might face in developing my teen girl protagonist. He almost slapped his palm to his face and said, “Just don’t make her a spunky red-headed girl.” Then he talked to me about “presentism.” His premise was that people in the past, and particularly in the early colonial era, really didn’t want the same things that we do; that their main concerns were far removed from ours. (Although I’ll postulate that their emotional reactions were undoubtedly similar.) I’ve had a similar discussion with a writer friend who is active in educating other writers and illustrators about different perspectives in our diverse world. As a Muslim woman, she objects to Muslim girl characters being given motives by non-Muslim writers that she believes are not true to their cultural and religious background. We have to be careful – not everyone is just like us.
Of course, when an author creates a fictional character, we are in charge of their wants and fears, their motives and reactions. But for me, in writing a historical novel that children will use to augment their take on history, I need to keep the milieu of that time and place authentic. I don’t know if I’ve ever been quite as challenged by that as I am now. I’m trying to create characters living 450 years ago – before we knew about infectious diseases, electricity, or believed in equal rights. It was the time when religion was so closely tied to politics and class that dividing the three, in our modern way, is almost impossible and not very useful. The afterlife was not just a promise but also a threat. Writings from that era seem distressingly black and white. But I’m sure life itself was as messy and nuanced as it is today. How to capture that?
The easy part of excising “presentism” from my writing, is finding metaphors that can’t work – “An electric current ran up my arm,” for example. Electricity had yet to be “discovered.” The harder part is making the characters relatable to today’s readers while staying true to the history and without making them seem stilted or ignorant. They were people of their times as are we. If I can get that message across, that they had their own struggles and found ways to deal with them, then I’ve succeeded. Wish me luck.