"If you love history and you’re hard at work writing your first historical novel, but you’re wondering if your medieval Irishmen would live on potatoes, if your 17th-century pirate would use a revolver, or if your hero would be able to offer Marie-Antoinette a box of chocolate bonbons ... (The answer to all these is “Absolutely not!”) ... then Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders is the book for you. Medieval Underpants will guide you through the factual mistakes that writers of historical fiction—both beginners and seasoned professionals—often make, and show you how to avoid them. From fictional characters crossing streets that wouldn’t exist for another sixty (or two thousand) years, to 1990s slang in the mouths of 1940s characters, to South American foods on ancient Roman plates, acclaimed historical novelist Susanne Alleyn exposes the often hilarious, always painful goofs that turn up most frequently in fiction set in the past. Alleyn stresses the hazards to writers of assuming too much about details of life in past centuries, providing numerous examples of mistakes that could easily have been avoided. She also explores commonly-confused topics such as the important difference between pistols and revolvers, and between the British titles “Lord John Smith” and “John, Lord Smith” and why they’re not interchangeable, and provides simple guidelines for getting them right. In a wide assortment of chapters including Food and Plants; Travel; Guns; Money; Hygiene; Dialogue; Attitudes; Research; and, of course, Underpants, she offers tips on how to avoid errors and anachronisms while continually reminding writers of the necessity of meticulous historical research."
The blurb says it all for this fascinating non-fiction book. It is a must for all writers of historical fiction for, apart from the useful reminders of what is or is not OK to use in an historical setting novel, it is a joy to read for parts of it are hilariously funny.
A novel can be ruined by an enormous blunder (Romans eating rabbit and potato stew on Hadrian's Wall for instance - that is an error I found in a novel many years ago. I was so jerked out of the feeling of believability that I stopped reading it. A pity, because otherwise it was a good novel, but once that atmosphere of reality has been shattered it is difficult to repair it.)
Despite the title, this is not a reference book: it is meant as a reminder for writers to do their research and to corroborate the facts. Nor is it for the Medieval period alone, it covers several periods and a variety of topics in a light-hearted, entertaining and informative way, exploring common errors and assumptions that many writers make, either inadvertently or because it doesn't dawn on them to check.
The book is a little bit 'mix-and-match' in places and the author admits that she is using her own hotch-potch of thoughts and observations, but outside of that very minor criticism Medieval Underpants is great fun and very useful.
© Helen Hollick
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