Readers bring expectations to historical fiction and resist when the expectations aren’t met. What’s a writer to do when popular preconceptions don’t match the facts?
Misconceptions about medieval culture abound. The earth was flat, science was stalled, all medicine was superstition, witch burnings were common, sex wasn’t mentioned, orgasms were only for men, and peasants routinely starved. Here are a few I’ve met as a writer:
Age. Readers question the plausibility of characters older than thirty-five or forty, or unmarried women over twenty (other than nuns). Averages are not limits. Life expectancy was low for newborns, but if you survived childhood and childbirth, you were likely to live into your sixties or seventies. One scholar puts medieval average age of first marriage at 17 in Italy, 16 in France, and 18 in England and Germany. Some wed much younger and others waited until their twenties.
Filth. Everyone knows that people bathed once a year and everyone stank. Wrong. Most medieval towns had communal bathhouses, diners washed hands in a basin before and after eating (important if you eat with your fingers!), and soap-making was a major industry.
Vocabulary. This one’s complicated because we don’t write in Middle English. But some readers insist that medieval folk spoke stiffly and formally, never used contractions, and never addressed friends or lovers by given name. Everyday life wasn’t like that. The seemingly modern words puke and booze go back at least to Shakespeare. Contractions were plentiful. Given names existed before surnames and stayed in common use. Ordinary speech was often playful, humorous, and cheeky.
10/10/2016 10:13:35 am
I want to submit that readers bring expectations (and limits because of our educations) to ALL of their... OUR reading. Thanks for updating us on some nuances of that time, especially the thing on lifespan.
Indeed, readers come with expectations. Some attach to genre. We expect a resolution of some sort, whether happy or bittersweet. We expect the protagonist to survive and the sleuth to solve the mystery. It's the counter-factual expectations that pose a challenge. If going (realistically) outside the expectation is not the main point of the novel, does a writer have to avoid it or spend a fair chunk of text justifying it?
Mary Helen Conroy
10/10/2016 10:15:29 am
Interesting Sarah we carry so many assumptions about what we don't know. Must be difficult writing fiction to support or enlighten the reader on those assumptions.
3/3/2019 08:12:28 am
In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with readers having expectations on the satires they read. When you are a readers, you always look for the possibility; you always hope for the ending you have formulated in your mind and you wish those characters to play the role well. I see that nothing is wrong with her because we are supposed to let our readers have a great imagination! That's just one thing I have realized, and I am happy that the writers have always been open with the said idea!
Yes, readers always have legitimate expectations about how the story will unfold. The writer has an obligation to meet them. My problem is when readers have expectations about a culture, time, or place that I don't think are accurate. Must the writer go along with their assumptions, or can the writer provide a more accurate picture?
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.