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Historical Devil in the Details


Sphinx and Great Pyramid after dark
Sphinx and great pyramid after dark (Nov. 2022)

We've all had that boo-hoo moment when the book we eagerly anticipated reading goes south. With historical fiction, it's always either a glaring anachronism, or an obvious lack of understanding of life in that setting.

Fun Fact: The legend of the Sphinx says that when Napoleon came to Egypt, he blew off the Sphinx's nose with a cannon to "add insult to injury." Alas, it isn't true. In fact, nobody knows for certain what became of the Sphinx's nose. But they know it wasn't Napoleon because there are drawings published of the nose-less Sphinx that predate Napoleon's campaign by sixty years. More credible legends say that the nose was knocked off on purpose in the 16th century. Isn't it fun to know things?

I recently read "Redeeming Love" which is a Historical Romance (with emphasis on the romance) by one of the most prominent Christian fiction writers in the world. Francine Rivers is a good writer and the romance was not formula at all. But the devil was in the details.

The foods she had them eating showed her ignorance of frontier life as well as cooking and baking. (Did you know that jackrabbits are inedible? Their flavor is said to be too foul to consider consuming unless starvation is the alternative. I've had regular cotton tail sorts of rabbit many times and they are tasty, if a bit greasy.)

She had them eating foods in the same meal that are not in season at the same time, nor do they grow in that area. She listed flowers blooming in a meadow that don't have the same bloom seasons or climate requirements. The characters were also two-dimensional (two of the characters were excusable because they are based on a Bible story.)

Nevertheless, with all those weaknesses, I still enjoyed it. (I rarely read anything classified as "romance" but this was recommended by my daughter-in-law and so I wanted to know her taste better.) I cried my eyes out during the whole last quarter of the story!

(Treasure of the House of Levi has plenty of romance, but the structure of the plot makes it so it would not be classified as romance.)

I have heard writers say that their imagination is enough. Is it? Maybe my years writing for the newspapers made me overly cautious, but if you're bluffing, someone, somewhere is going to know. I mis-stated the weight of an air craft carrier in an Americana column and the next day, someone 1200 miles away sent me a nasty-gram for the mistake. Readers are everywhere in the world. I was once contacted from a man who had his dad's journal from the battle of Market Garden in WW2. (He lived in The Netherlands and read my column about WW2 glider pilots.) Another man contacted me after I wrote about Pearl Harbor Day offering me a chance to interview one of the last remaining survivors of the Pearl Harbor sinking of the Arizona. Another man shared his ancestor's story of being enslaved to give tours in Mammoth cave.

So I don't bluff. It's not hard to find out what kind of flowers bloom at that place and season. There are lots of cookbooks from frontier times (or any ethnic variety or time period) There are people who know the answers to the questions the writer should be asking and they're not usually too hard to find.

My relentless policy is that I don't write about places I've never been. I find out what foods, treats, customs, landscape, vehicles, family structures, and buildings would have been in the place and time. There's nothing like smelling the roasting corn in Istanbul while walking a rainy, cobbled street or counting the cats in the twisting byways of Athens to give you an understanding of what the place is truly like. Here's another little fun fact/photo:

Here's a piece of ancient Papyrus. It's made by peeling the outer skin from the reed and rolling the gluey interior flat. Those flat strips are woven into a mat and the natural glue from the plant welds it into a paper-linen like sheet when it's dry. The writing on this piece is ancient Egyptian. I took the photo in the Cairo Museum.

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