One of the main reasons historical fiction remains entertaining is the fact that fundamental human emotions have not changed over time. Whether in ancient Greece or medieval England, greed, ambition, jealousy, pity, love, hate, passion and compassion have motivated people. It is because of these shared emotions that we can identify with people from a different age. But the technology which surrounds us has changed, and when writing a historical novel this simple reality cannot be ignored.
The problem of technology is two-fold.
On the one hand, the technology of other periods is often unknown or at least unfamiliar to us as novelists. We may literally not know exactly how a fire was lit, a wheel mounted, or a door secured in a particular period of time, and because we don’t know, we can make errors that scream out our ignorance and so shatter the harmony of the picture created. Imagine, for example, reading a book in which a medieval shop-keeper picks up a phone to dial 9-1-1 when he sees a robbery taking place? Suddenly, the world carefully constructed by the novelist collapses, leaving nothing but laughter and scorn.
On the other hand, readers really do not want to read a user’s manual on lock design each time a character opens a door or read a lecture on the operation of each rope on a full-rigged ship when a character’s vessel changes course. Indeed, most readers don’t want to learn about the technology of a different age at all, they simply want to be able to better picture the world in which the story is taking place. This means the characters must interact naturally with the technology of their age.
Used discretely and strategically, descriptions of technology can greatly enhance the authenticity of a historical novel. They can make a blurry picture more precise, add an extra dimension to the plot, or even tell the reader more about the characters by the way they relate to the technology.
Here’s an example from Chasing the Wind:
She didn’t even have time to shout “yes” before the beepers started. She shouted “yes” anyway, and hoped he’d heard. Then she sat there trying to make sense of it.
Here, an RAF officer calling his girlfriend in wartime Britain uses a pay phone to propose to her. Because he’s running out of coins he’s in a rush. The “peeps,” indicating his credit is used up, cut him off before she can give an answer.
In the next scene, the technology itself becomes a factor influencing the relationship. This example is from The Lady in the Spitfire.
Jay leaned forward to help her adjust the seat, but she was still reaching. “No problem. Just stuff my parachute pack behind my back,” Emily ordered, and Jay obliged. Then she familiarized herself with the jeep as if she were in a cockpit. “Let’s see. Headlights? High lights? Windscreen wipers? Turn indicators? Horn?”
Jay responded to each question as if they were doing the cockpit checklist before take-off. They both fell into the roles without thinking about it, and yet, all the while Jay felt his admiration growing. He liked the competent way she went about it. Some girls, Barb for example, would have just roared off to show they were as good as any man – and cracked up at the next corner because they hit the wipers rather than the lights.
Here two pilots, an American B-17 pilot and a British Air Transport Auxiliary pilot, are on their first date. American jeeps, like American aircraft, were built to be driven/flown by tall men and Emily is comparatively small; describing her using a parachute pack to be able to reach the pedals is accurate and more evocative than simply stating the fact. More important, as the reader by now knows, Emily’s job requires her to fly unfamiliar aircraft just by going through a check-list so she is only doing what is natural, but Jay’s experience is with women who relate to technology differently and Emily does well by comparison, impacting their relationship.
In this third example, I use technology to make a point but consciously avoid boring the reader with the details. This example is also from The Lady in the Spitfire.
They reached the maintenance hanger, and J.B. introduced Barb around to all the ground crews. She was offered coffee, cokes, sandwiches and chips from dozens of oil-stained, eager hands, but she bowled them all over when she started asking technical questions about the engines. J.B. laughed aloud at the dumb-founded expressions that greeted her. Fuentes angrily told her he had better things to do than answer a lot of “dumb questions” and stormed off. Most of the other mechanics were not so bigoted, however, and eagerly started explaining everything to her.
In my last example, technology is a catalyst for the entire novel, and it is particularly important that the description does not disrupt the plot. This example is from The Olympic Charioteer.
A gigantic crane with a block of marble hanging from its hook was being swung slowly to the right by two slaves controlling the drum around which the rope was wound. Antyllus slowed his fractious horses to a walk as the slaves at the crane slowly started to slack away, hand-over-hand, lowering the giant stone gently toward a waiting wagon. Antyllus watched warily, because he knew this manoeuvre required both strength and control.
The near-naked slaves operating the crane shone with sweat, and their muscles stood out sharply – or should have. One of the slaves, however, had little muscle left. Even as Antyllus watched, this living skeleton was seized with a coughing fit. At once the other slave called out in alarm. The sick slave was losing his grip on the ropes as he crumpled onto the ground. The second slave, although a powerfully built Ethiopian, could not take the strain alone. He shouted in alarm again as he was dragged forward. Any second he would either have to let go or his hands would be pulled right onto the drum and crushed. Shouting with terror and pain, he started to let the rope slide through his sweating hands.
The stone slid downwards, no longer fully controlled.
The reader needs to be told how cranes were worked in ancient Greece in order to understand what is happening, but the description of the technology is intended to enhance, not disrupt, the suspense.