Guest Article – The Past is Another Culture – David Flin

I am absolutely delighted (and honoured) to be able to publish the first ever guest article here on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer – the first of what I hope will be many thought-provoking articles focusing on different aspects of writing, editing, publishing and even reviewing the written word. To kick off the series, author and publisher David Flin asks us to consider how authors tackle the past as a subject – and some of the common pitfalls when dealing with the past ‘as a foreign country’

The Past is Another Country

David Flin

One thing that all historical writers have in common, be they writing about real history, pseudo-history (such as the Sharpe novels, fictions set in a framework of real history), or made-up alternate history (such as the Drake’s Drum series) is that they are writing about the past. This means that all historical writers face one common issue that they have to deal with. That issue is that the past is a foreign country (LP Hartley).

Language, attitudes, culture, the way things were done. All of these were different then.

However, historical writers are writing for readers who live in the present (unless, of course, there are any readers with access to a time machine). This means the reader will have different attitudes, different standards, and different expectations to those the characters have.

This promptly brings up the question about how historically accurate a writer can make the attitudes held by the characters and still have the readers retain sympathy with those characters.

I’ve lived long enough to have actually seen a lot of these changes. For example, I’m mixed race. Today, in 2022, that’s no big deal. When people dislike me, it’s because of what I have said or done. However, back in the 1960s, my nick-name was “Breed”, short for Half-Breed. Sometimes it was said as an insult, sometimes it was simply descriptive. Sometimes it was even said with affection. No-one gave a through to the word.

Today, if you were to call someone of mixed race: “Breed”, there would be all sorts of problems.

Similarly, the name of the dog appearing in the film Dambusters is historically accurate. At the time the film was set or when the film was made, no-one would have given a second thought to it. Today, not so much.

If I were to write something set in the American south in the pre-ACW period, I would have great difficulty in creating a sympathetic character with historically accurate attitudes towards slavery. Current readers would struggle with the idea that anyone could imagine it morally OK to own slaves, no matter how well one might treat them.

Or, to take an example from alternate history, Simon Brading’s Misfit series is set in an analogue of WW2. The squadron consists of pilots who are a mix of male and female, hetero- and homosexual. For a modern audience, that raises a big: “So what?” However, in our version of WW2, such a thing would be simply unthinkable. Simon is able to do this with a combination of good writing and because the Misfit world is not our own, and he is able to adjust the attitudes in his world. Quite where you draw the line and how you draw – that’s where the skill of the writer comes into play.

Sometimes there is an element of history that will have a major impact on the characters, who will know exactly what something means. However, the reader may well be in complete ignorance of the implications.

To take the case of a servant being sacked without references during the Edwardian era. The average reader would realise that this was bad, but they probably wouldn’t realise just how bad it was. Without references, one simply couldn’t get another position. One became unemployable. Without social security, that meant no income. Many – probably most – charities operated a gatekeeping exercise to make sure payments went to the “deserving” poor. This wouldn’t include anyone who had been sacked without references.

It isn’t easy for a writer to get across to a modern readership the magnitude of the phrase: “You are fired and you will not be getting a reference.”

The commonplace then may be esoteric today. Hands up anyone who has ridden a horse for more than three hours at a stretch. I know modern car mechanics who look blankly at you when you talk about adjusting the fuel-air mix on a carburetor. It’s like you’re talking a different language to them.

Which leads me neatly into the next part of this little essay. Talking a different language. How does the author balance how people spoke with how they speak now?

For example, no modern writer would construct a phrase:

So they lived, these men in their own lusty, cheery fashion – rude and rough, but honest, kindly, and true. Let us thank God if we have outgrown their vices. Let us pray to God that we may ever hold their virtues. The sky may darken, and the clouds may gather, and again the day may come when Britain may have sore need of her children, on whatever shore of the sea they may be found. Shall they not muster at her call?
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The White Company.

That was written in 1891, and is clearly the product of the Victorian era.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The White Company

The author has to make a judgement on dialogue. If I am writing a piece set in the Victorian period, should I have a character say of someone: “They are a knave, but of lusty and forthright temper, who never fears a hale foe and never harms a fallen one.”

Such a phrase could be something a character may well say and gives the piece historical verisimilitude, but it also makes it hard work for the reader.

There is a point of view that says that the characters will be talking in what is, to them, modern terms. Is there a case to have all dialogue using modern styles?

There is the issue of phrases that arose because of modern technology, or technology that the characters would know about. I’ve seen a version of Robin Hood in which Robin describes someone as being a “flash in the pan.” The trouble is, that phrase arises from the incorrect operation of a flintlock musket, something that would be completely beyond the ken of Richard.

The choice is easy if one is writing a time travel piece. Using some form of distinction between the way historical people talk and modern/future people helps the reader distinguish between the two and gives some idea of potential language issues.

In the end, the decision as to use modern language or some sort of pseudo-historical language is up to the author. My personal view is that one wants to convey to the reader that this is a period piece, and give a light dusting of not-quite modern language. Something akin to how people from an older generation might speak.

To quote an example from a work of mine: “That is so, Roksana. However, under the circumstances, I think that our reputations for wisdom will be enhanced by our leaving people to draw their own conclusions.”

Which is, I guess, as good a summary as any on this topic. People need to draw their own conclusions. Be it attitudes, terminology, or phrasing, the author has to find their own balance between historical verisimilitude and modern understanding. That will, in large part, depend on the target audience.

Hopefully there will be more guest articles to come from David Flin – and many others – in the future! Until then, you can discover some of David’s novels and anthologies via his Amazon Author Page, as well as the website for Sergeant Frosty Publications, which publishes historical fiction for children and young adults.

1 Comment

  1. Agreed. Brian Jacques, in his very popular Redwall series, spelled the words of the Dibbens the way he envisioned them speaking. While it made the people group unique, it tended to pull the readers out of the narrative (or at least it did this one), while they tried to figure out what they were saying. Many writing gurus today suggest against that much “accuracy “.

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