Thursday, February 17, 2011

Making the Foreign Familiar

One of the more interesting challenges I faced when I was writing Impaler is something that tends to happen to anyone writing historical fiction - although fantasy and science fiction suffer from it to a lesser extent. Basically, people have a tendency to assume that other times and places, real or imagined, are pretty much like they are now but with different clothes, magic, spaceships, or swords.

Heck, this is something that gets people into trouble now, with cultures as apparently similar as different regions in the USA, the USA and Australia, Canada and the USA, or New Zealand and Australia. It gets worse the more differences there are between where you're writing from (or reading from) and where/when the book is set.

Let's face it, fifteenth century Eastern Europe might as well be a different universe.

I know Sarah rants periodically about authors who'll have a servant buying baby-blue blankies in a medieval marketplace, and I really did not want to be on the receiving end of that rant. And that's really just the start.

Dave and Sarah know this, because I hammered them with all manner of weird questions early on, mostly about "stuff" - 15th century Wallachia wasn't a wealthy principality, and it had armies looting their way through the place on a pretty regular basis, so I needed to have a clear idea what kind of furniture there'd be, what the everyday plates and things would be made of compared to the best quality, what people of different ranks wore (fabrics and colors as well as styles), what would be considered the height of luxury at the time, and what kinds of food would be served at a regular meal compared to a feast. Not to mention what would be a treat for small children, and a whole host of other details.

Google got a heavy workout for a lot of this, and Dave and Sarah fielded more questions than any sane person should (thanks, by the way). There are no "Everyday life in 15th Century Wallachia" books out there, or I'd have bought them.

Mostly what I found were tidbits. Comments by bemused travelers of the period that even though Bucharest was ransacked and burned to the ground every few years the survivors rebuilt in wood (the place was in the middle of a huge forest at the time - wood was presumably the most accessible building material). The main streets 'paved' with wooden slabs where side roads were packed dirt. Somewhere else I found a mention that in winter everyone from the highest rank to the lowest wore sheepskin coats and boots for warmth. Information about what plants were native and what was introduced when. Domesticated animals (mostly sheep and pigs) and wild animals. When forks were introduced.

All the information went into a kind of mental map of what Vlad Dracula's world looked like, even though he's only in it for maybe a third of the book - and spends most of that time planning his southern campaign and carefully manipulating his boyars (the ones I mentioned in my blog spree - was it only 2 weeks ago? - as unscrupulous backstabbers with a well-known propensity for unseating princes and often murdering them as well) so that they're both afraid of finding themselves 'enjoying' the view from a stake and grateful for his generosity.

Then there's the culture. At that time, the culture was predominantly an honor-shame culture where appearances mattered. Vlad couldn't just be a fair, generous ruler - he had to show it as well. That meant calculated gestures of mercy, as well as placing himself at risk by not eliminating those he knows are traitors: instead, Vlad tries to arrange for those men to die in battle, which was considered an honorable death, and meant that he didn't need to make new enemies by executing the dead man's family as well - and gave him a chance of winning the loyalty of the dead man's heirs. Similarly, he had to show courage in battle despite the risk of getting himself killed (This doesn't seem to have been an issue: Vlad is reported to have led charges and taken the most dangerous role in more than a few of the battles he was in).

It was also a very male culture. Women fell mostly into the traditional roles - maiden, mother, whore and crone. In noble culture, women were effectively invisible: while they weren't sequestered the way they were in the Ottoman Empire, they had their part of the palace or manor where they and their servants did what was considered the female work.

To Vlad, the women's lives are an alien world - his last real encounter with female roles was when he left the nursery at the age of five and started training as a warrior and nobleman. Apart from his wife and his young sons' nurse, the women in the palace are irrelevant to him. It certainly never occurs to him to question this segregation - it's simply how things are. His decision to leave young Vlad in the nursery for longer than usual is one of his few unusual 'domestic' choices (He wants to protect his two young sons, and doesn't want to leave his sickly youngest boy with no company).

It's all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that women in that time would respond as a modern woman would to that environment when for them it was how things worked. As often as not the wife was independent in her domain, as well as managing the entire estate when her husband was away at war - a situation that was far from rare. Since most noble marriages were arranged and usually political as well, love wasn't common (and it was very common for the husband to keep one or more mistresses - and to some extent it was expected that a virile man would need a mistress or two). Try portraying that sympathetically in today's world!

I hope I got a good balance with the way I portrayed Vlad in Impaler, but I guess March will be when I find out.


C Kelsey said...

Perhaps you could write a companion book on every day life in wallachia?

The nice thing about Impaler is that you manage to portray Vlad as a real person in a real time that is not our time.

Mike said...

I was thinking the same thing. The Unexpurgated Guide to Everyday Life in 15th Century Wallachia?

MataPam said...

Guys! We need a sequel, not a guide!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kate, I have a friend who is an expert on medieval food. She often runs workshops at conventions.

Kate Paulk said...

Chris K,

Thanks! Although that companion book could get kind of... well...

"Rule 1. Don't piss off Prince Dracula.
Rule 2. See rule 1"

Kate Paulk said...


This is the problem. The unexpurgated guide would be too shocking for words, and the expurgated one would be very, very short ;)

Kate Paulk said...


Sequel? Oh lord. Then there'd be the guide to Ottoman-Wallachian Fusion Life. I think I shall hide under the desk until the urge to write a sequel passes.

Kate Paulk said...


When the sequel drags me kicking and screaming into writing it, I just may harass your friend, if she doesn't mind?

I'm going to need to add in late 15th Century Ottoman, Greek, and Balkans culture, and then twist.

Mike said...

Hum... take the parts that are too shocking for words, and make stories that show us that it really did happen just that way? I mean, I have conversations that start with someone saying something like "Why don't the North Koreans revolt?" and then we talk about what life is like in North Korea -- and I can tell most people really don't want to think about it, but... maybe you could do the same?

A sequel should be easier, since you've got at least some of the background already under your belt (or wherever you keep your background -- personally, I like to keep it in the closet, but that's just me :-). So what would you call this sequel?

Unknown said...

As i have written all over history, two of the things I established rapidly: 1)The entire world outlook of many of our revered ancient cultures was so alien to us as to make Taliban and your average vegan latte sipper seemed identical (a problem I believeyou average vegan latte sipper has too, I believe) Eg. Infanticide in pre-Christian Roman society was commonplace and barely worth mention as babies were not considered human. No more a crime to kill than an irritating dog, or sheep for dinner, although cannibalism was tabu. So the idea that sacrificing babies is the archetypical evil act... was imported from Israel. Expecting our morality and ethics of people of a different time and place, is like expecting the Taliban to respect 'human rights'.
2)People really don't get it, and don't want to get it. Part of what we as writers do is get our audience to care and identify with the characters. And yet... we want write and yes read that aura of reality. I cheat. I leave out bits, or slide them in gradually in among a whole lot of other stuff. It's a fine line - because there are things to admire about even the most alien and abominable bits of history.

Kate Paulk said...


That's part of what I'm planning for the sequel - which will be called Kaziklu Bey (which is what the Ottomans called Vlad - the translation is "Impaler Lord")

Kate Paulk said...


Absolutely. Cheating a bit and not mentioning certain aspects is essential to not losing readers. In Impaler (and any future books) I'm not mentioning the keeping a mistress part, because today that would be a massive turn off.

(Personally, I suspect Vlad's mistresses were more for appearance and possibly companionship than sex - he doesn't seem to have been anything like as prolific as his cousin King Stephen of Moldavia - who's recorded to have fathered a ridiculous number of children between his wives (one at a time) and his mistresses (reputedly several at a time).

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I've censored heavilly when writing the Musketeers (Mysteries AND vampires.)