Earlier this month I attended my first meeting of a local book group that specializes in historical mysteries. The current mystery was Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun. Huh? What does a story set far in the future share with stories set fifty or five hundred years in the past?
Lots, I soon realized. Readers explore an unfamiliar world through the eyes of characters already at home there, who rarely pause to explain what’s going on. Interspersed with the puzzles in the plot is the puzzle of figuring out how an alien society works. It's like foreign travel without a guidebook or interpreter. As a reader of historical novels, I may try wrapping my mind around futuristic science fiction more often.
Writers' workshops on “world building” attract historical novelists and science fiction writers alike. As an author, how do you convey the sounds, smells, customs, technology of an alien culture? Its assumptions, habits, day-to-day relationships? Because of the need to build a world, novels in both genres are typically longer than most other fiction (see sample word counts here and here). The need to keep a mystery moving adds a delicious challenge.
In ecology, the term edge effects refers to phenomena at the boundary between two different habitats, such as woodland/meadow or pond/shore. I first learned about edge effects in work for the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, a meeting place of sand dunes, wetlands, prairie, forest, oak savanna, and Lake Michigan beach. More than a thousand plant species at IDNL range from orchids and prickly pear cactus to bearberry of the Arctic tundra.
Magic flourishes and sparks fly at the boundaries. How many folktales begin with a little old couple who live in a cottage by the edge of the forest or sea? How many human conflicts erupt at cultural borderlands? Some years back I explored edge effects between nomadic and settler cultures, where systems based on kinship clash with systems based on territory.
In my writing about polio eradication, the main story begins in the 1980s on the boundary between a private service organization (Rotary) and multinational agencies (World Health Organization, UNICEF). They took years to learn to work together and trust each other. Now polio eradication efforts in parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria focus on the boundary between modern epidemiology and some of the world’s most traditional cultures.
My historical fiction-in-progress is set on an eastern Mediterranean island on the border of Europe and Asia in the late fifteenth century, the cusp of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Edge effects among Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Jews, and Muslims create a breeding ground for tensions galore.
Returning to work after the holidays was less jarring than usual this year. A board game from under the Christmas tree set my mind on course for two days of meetings about the global eradication of polio.
Pandemic challenges a diverse team of specialists from CDC Atlanta to stop four deadly infections before they engulf the world. Players race around the continents in a collaborative effort to bring outbreaks under control. Should we suppress an outbreak from the epicenter or work in from the edges? Focus on one disease till it’s gone for good or strive to maintain low levels of each? Divert staff from existing programs to respond to each new outbreak? Invest in research for future cures at the cost of immediate treatment?
This map-based strategy game reminds me of the Avalon Hill war games of half a century ago, such as Waterloo, Gettysburg, or Battle of the Bulge. While Pandemic isn’t overtly historical, that’s only because the game doesn’t name the infections. In any recent year, the international health community has battled multiple pandemics such as HIV/AIDS, diphtheria, cholera, SARS, MERS, H1N1 flu, Ebola, Zika virus, or Lassa fever. Pandemic mimics reality in the way deadly infections spread and the strategic challenges of combating them.
Would a character in this time and place really do that? Reader feedback helps novelists make draft characters more credible, but unfounded expectations complicate matters. Recently I’ve had a protagonist challenged for failure to act like a typical medieval woman: meek, docile, obedient, and subservient. Where did that come from?
Though men held most of the formal power and property, medieval literature and history abound in assertive, influential women. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath (Canterbury Tales) and the women in Boccaccio’s Decameron were feisty, if fictitious. Blood feuds in Icelandic sagas depended on women goading reluctant men to fulfill their vengeful duty.
Abbesses ruled monasteries that included men as well as women. Women of rank plotted with sons and lovers to control the English crown. Some queens governed as regents for minor sons or demented husbands. When feudal knights rode off to war, the complex management of their manors fell to their wives or widows. Widows who inherited property enjoyed considerable independence.
There are lots of good reasons to question a character’s behavior, but the presumed docility of medieval women isn’t one of them.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.