This week I’m very pleased to have author Roberto Calas as a guest on Writing the Past. Roberto’s recent Kindle Serial, The Scourge, has definitely made a splash in the realm of historical fiction/fantasy and to me, it is a wonderful melding of good historical research and fantasy. Oh, and it has Zombies! 14th century England has never been so exciting and yet so terrifying. Roberto talks to us about the creation of this unique work and the choice that all historical novelists must face: History or Your Story?
Can you imagine what people eight hundred years from now would think of our civilization if all they had to judge us by was a Fox News story? Or a Huffington Post article? Or, God forbid, an article from the parody newspaper, The Onion?
I think about this sort of thing all the time as I research my stories. Because, really, we base all of our knowledge about the Middle Ages on personal accounts written by biased sources, and a tatty old tapestry in France.
How do we really know that King Harold was shot in the eye with an arrow? How do we know that Brutus stabbed Julius Caesar? How do we know that Justinian’s wife convinced him not to flee Constantinople?
How do we know that the 14th century plague wasn’t a zombie virus?
We don’t. Not for certain.
We take other people’s written accounts of it. If history is always written by the winners, then we never get more than half the story. But this nagging knowledge should not stop us from trying to be as accurate as we can.
We are writing a story that, we hope, will move readers. We want to entertain, we want to quicken pulses and control what readers feel and when they feel it. So we have to make the reader believe what we are writing.
Okay, so I’m fairly certain that the 14th century plague wasn’t a demonic virus. But if I want to write a novel like The Scourge, where a trio of knights travels across zombie-infested England, I need my readers to suspend their disbelief. I need to add enough realism and detail to the setting and language and props of the story so the reader can put aside his or her doubts and, for a time, believe that those plague victims staggered and ate human au jus.
How do I do that?
I have to learn as much as I can about the time period. From the clothes people wore to the political ideology of the time. I need to know common surnames in the region. If the towns and villages had different names in the 14th century. Which churches were around and which were not. Is there chalk beneath our heroes’ feet? Or slate? Are there elms above their heads? Or Ash? What type of flower grows in the marsh? What’s that little circular thing that dangles down over a knights’ armpit called? How much did a dairy cow weigh back then? Where in London did the peasants confront King Richard II? Why are there Flemish in Sudbury?
I need to immerse myself in 14th century England. And I need to do it from sources I know might well be flawed. Really annoying, actually. But I have to do it. Because there will be someone out there who knows the established wisdom on Richard II and the Peasant Revolt. Or what a dairy cow weighs. Someone who knows what that little dangling thing is called. Who knows exactly why the Flemish came to Sudbury.
And even after researching it, someone will still point to a fact and say (probably in a nasally voice) “Um, actually, that sort of cannon wasn’t around until 1401,” or something similar. There are too many contradictions in historical research. But you have to do the legwork. Try to visit the places you write about. Read books, don’t just search the Internet. You can find fifty great facts in a book in the time it would take you to completely research one fact on the Internet.
Okay. Now that I have said all this, I will refute every word.
After all your research is done, forget it. Write your story. The research is for the world and the details. It is the anchor that grounds your tale. When there is a conflict between history and your story – an honest to God one that you can’t possibly avoid no matter what you try – then your story should always win out. Because story is what readers really want. They just want to believe that the story you wrote could have happened. And it takes a lot of work to satisfy them. Historical fiction lets you lean on factual people, places and events, but it is merciless in your accurate portrayal of them.
Even though no one is completely certain what that accurate portrayal is.
Roberto Calas is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. He lives in Sandy Hook, Connecticut (yeah, that Sandy Hook), with a set of wonder twins. His fiancée lives in England and his closest relative lives four hundred miles away. That’s how he rolls. His most recent novel, The Scourge (47North), takes place in a demon-ravaged 14th century England and is completely, one-hundred percent, absolutely, historically accurate. Sort of.
I’d like to thank Roberto Calas for taking the time out of his very busy schedule to write such an interesting post and give us a hint as to what went into the writing of The Scourge. If you haven’t read this yet, I highly recommend it. Part of me was left thinking that the Black Death was indeed a plague of zombies! As ever, historical fiction/fantasy can explore beyond the boundaries of what is known, and that always makes for an exciting read.
To get your copy of The Scourge visit Amazon.com