I have two fantasy projects set in feudal societies similar to medieval Europe. The fun part is, I get to play with the customs and behaviors. I can change what we know about earth’s feudal societies and bend customs and rules to fit my non-earth worlds.
The challenge is to bend reader’s expectations while grounding them in something I hope they’ve at least heard or read about. Medieval Europe spanned a century–yes, hundreds of years. As you can imagine, much changed during that time. Customs developed into traditions. Language and clothing evolved. Tools and weapons became more sophisticated.
Most of us think of a specific period when we hear the word medieval. Do you envision King Arthur and his twelve knights of the Round Table–reputed to have lived in the 500s or 600s? Or is it Charlemagne’s rule in western and central Europe in the 700s and 800s that comes to mind? Perhaps you’re more attuned to William of Normandy’s transformation of England in the early 1,000s or the Crusades against Muslims in the late 1,000s into the 1200s.
Then there were significant events such as the signing of the Magna Carta in England (1215), the Hundred Years War, the Black Death that plagued much of Europe, and the burning at the stake of Joan d’Arc (1431). History and progress marched on, and eventually trade revivals in Italy and the development of the Guttenberg Press in Germany–both in the 1400s–pushed the world into the period we call the Renaissance. (Other developments helped, but these two were particularly prominent.)
So much history from which to choose. The research is fun, especially when I see articles that contradict another’s “expert” article. That makes me dive more deeply into my resources, only one of which is the Internet thing.
My oldest brother is an historian by nature and has lived all over the world, studied ancient architecture, and explored many historic sites in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. He suggested I go back and reread Chaucer. Doing so reminded me that piety among the clergy could be dodgy in those days. Another thought for my manuscripts–what are my societies’ religious beliefs? Do they believe in a single god or many? Are these societies I’m creating more like Western Europe or Eastern Asia? Because somehow, I think most Americans’ view of the Middle Ages is about Europe. But what about Asia? What did their feudal societies look like and what time periods did that cover?
Such research helps with large and small details. For example, to denote a soldier’s role in a military group, I’d designed a clasp that secures one’s cloak near the neck. Then I remembered that they’d often wear a cowl (some call it a hood) over the cloak. Cowls were generally short-bodied and slipped over one’s head, draping enough over the shoulders to hold a cloak in place without impinging on arm movements. The hood covered the head during inclement weather. Later Middle Age cowls extended the hood into a longer, pointed piece.
Hmm . . . if my soldiers wear a cowl, is my clasp a moot point? I changed the clasp to be a secondary closure, thus showing below the cowl. Get small details like that wrong, and you can jolt the reader out of the story and lose their trust in you as an author. That’s why research is so important. Even in a make-believe world, authors need to keep the reader grounded in something familiar.
In other posts, I’ll talk about other things that affected my writing in this time frame and where some of the research has taken me, albeit virtually.
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My historical fantasy novels (the 1st, unpublished one & the 2nd I am currently working on) are both set in early 16th C. Scotland, which I adore —to the pint of distraction from actually writing— researching! My own academic area of expertise is the Scottish Highlands a couple centuries later but I feel very comfortable in the 16th C. now. I absolutely agree about trying to capture the world view of the people of the period and also the accuracy of everyday experience. Having started off in the SCA doing Mediaeval reenactment has certainly helped me too.
Roxie, I didn’t even need to see your name and knew that was you! You’re one of the people I should ask to do a final read of the finished novel before publication. You would probably pick up on something or make helpful suggestions. I may be calling on you, when I get through with these danged revisions.
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