In Sailing ships and heavy gold I was thinking about why we bother to research facts that no one will notice, and in Carracks, kerseymere and other last straws I was thinking about how you deploy and write those facts so that they're at once new and interesting, and not so baffling that the reader trips up or, worse still, gives up. But in many ways the facts of shoes and ships and sealing way - and even cabbages and kings - are the easy bit. What's much harder is pinning down how people think, and how that makes them act.
Fiction of the time helps if you're setting a novel when contemporary narratives portrayed life naturalistically. But of course it's not that simple, because so much of what we know must have been going on wasn't written about. We intuit or research that many sixteenth-century women, for example, did go beyond our vague, erroneous, post-Victorian idea of their confinement to home and hearth, but who and how far and in what way is hard to pin down. Even if we discover the medieval church's writing of women not as the weakly angel on the hearth but as a frighteningly powerful source of evil, again it's hard to know how that plays out in real life: real men and real women did fall in love, after all, and it's hard to believe that all men thought of their sisters and mothers like that. So how did they think of them, and treat them?
Not long ago Harry Bingham of Writers' Workshop asked me for a little piece on writing historical fiction, for their 'Free Advice' section of the website. Harry writes hist. fic. himself, and I found his piece very interesting:
...you do need to be careful about the attitudes of your characters. A bloke born in the nineteenth century would almost certainly have been a racist, misogynist, homophobic bigot by our own 21st century standards. In maintaining the empathy of contemporary readers, you will need to finesse these issues.
This is very true. Harry's talking about commercial fiction, but I was aware, for instance, that in The Mathematics of Love only some of Stephen's attitudes would sit comfortably with ours. For example, so hyper-sensitive are we to anti-Semitism that I couldn't have given him even the least uncomfortable aspects of the average contemporary attitude to Jews. I sacrificed this interesting bit of historical insight because for modern readers I simply couldn't have it and know they'd still read Stephen as the decent, trying-his-best officer, squire and husband-to-be that he needed to be for my plot to work, and for readers to care about him. I made up for this by giving him a less challenging prejudice: the automatic anti-Catholicism which pervaded English society well into the 19th or even 20th centuries.
Is this cowardly? Certainly there's plenty of historical fiction in the bookshops where the manners and morals are so relentlessly modern that you wonder why the writer's bothered with corsets and carriages: no finessing there at all. But if you make them too unsympathetic, however heroically uncompromising you may feel you're being as a writer, you have to realise that many readers will simply switch off, and in tossing the book aside miss all the other things you're trying to say. The opposite problem is that you're also dealing with the reader's idea - however wrong - of How Things Were. Not every reader was convinced by Lucy's independence in TMoL, but you can actually find everything she does somewhere in the historical record. The post-Victorian point is important: we still have a Tennysonian image of medieval noblewomen locked in their towers, embroidering the Bayeux tapestry and waiting for their lord to come home. Never mind that they actually ran estates, businesses and workshops, or that Eleanor of Acquitaine crossed the Pyrenees and then the Alps, in the winter, at the age of sixty-seven.
And never mind that my beloved Anthony Woodville in A Secret Alchemy - clever, thoughtful, humane, a man even whose enemies admitted was both honest and honourable - could be propelled by his intense faith to undertake what at that date was simply one kind of holy pilgrimage: murdering Moors in Portugal. He did, though, and any readers who are shocked are just going to have to get over it.