Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades including:
BEST BIOGRAPHY 2017: "Envoy of Jerusalem"
BEST CHRISTIAN HISTORICAL FICTION 2017: "Envoy of Jerusalem"
BEST SPIRITUAL/RELIGIOUS FICTION 2017: "Envoy of Jerusalem"
Find out more about her published and future novels, and share insights from her research here.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Physical Factors: Darkness

Continuing with my five-part series looking at how objective factors can cause havoc for an unwary writer of historical fiction, I look at darkness. The problem, as I noted at the beginning of this series, is that even these measurable and seemingly immutable physical factors impacted people differently in the past.


Modern man is so surrounded by light that even when we seek the darkness it can be hard to find it. Cities have so many lights that they blot out the stars at night -- while revealing human concentration from outer space. Light is also available (most of the time) at the flip of a switch or the push of a button. It is readily available without noise, smell, sound or danger. This was not always the case. 

What this means is that before the advent of electricity, light was much scarcer than it is today. For much of the past -- as is still the case in much of Africa today -- there was very little light after sunset at all. For the poor, activities requiring light -- repairing tools, needlework, reading -- could not be done after dark. Enter the story-teller and singers!

While there were some forms of lighting (to be discussed below) for lighting the interior of houses, workshops and taverns etc., there was no effective way to light up exterior spaces, except in densely populated cities. These, in periods of intensive urban life, possessed "street lighting" based on gas or oil lamps. What this meant is that travel beyond urban limits by night was greatly inhibited. Horses do not have headlights to help them find their way along the (often poorly maintained) roads. A lamp or torch had to be carried by a rider, which meant it did not light the surface of the (probably uneven, rocky or muddy) road on which the horse had to travel -- or by someone walking along beside or in front of the horse, which meant, of course, that the pace of travel was slowed to the pace of that man walking. Galloping across country in the dark of night is for Hollywood (which artificially darkens scenes filmed in broad daylight) not for the real world of the past. (I've tried to ride after dark by the way; it was a terrifying experience.)

Even inside, before the age of electricity, light was either natural light (from the sun) or it was produced by some sort of flame. Flame/fire, by its nature, brings a variety of risks with it. Fire/flames are hot and they can burn -- or set fire to other materials. Just as a reminder. A candle that simply falls -- or is knocked over -- can set an entire barn on fire, the straw easily igniting if dry. Hot wax burns. It can be a weapon. Things for a novelist to think about....


There were a variety of materials used to produce flame over time -- e.g. wood, reeds, wax, tallow, and different kinds of oil from blubber (whale fat) to olive oil. They have various properties, were more or less readily available depending on location, and more or less expensive.  Tallow, for example, smokes and smells; bees wax, olive oil and blubber are comparatively clean flames -- and correspondingly  more expensive. In short, a novelist needs to keep in mind a character's means and his/her ability to buy candles before describing their profuse use.  Likewise, the number and kind of lighting can be used to hint at the economic status of a character.


Because candles are still in use today, we are generally familiar with the kinds of candle-holders that can be used. We are less familiar with candles marked with lines at intervals so that time could be measured by how far down they burned. Candelabra and chandeliers were also available to the wealthy in most past centuries, but the larger they were the more candles the consumed and so the more expensive they were to light. In most societies it was a sign of wealth to be able to burn chandeliers and candelabra. They were more likely to be used only on special occasions even by the rich. 

Less common today, but very popular in ages past, particularly the ancient world, were oil lamps. These could be very cheap and simple pottery lamps, or more expensive and elegant lamps of bronze or glass. Below some examples from Roman times.





 









Note that two of these have handles so they could be carried around. As with torches and candles, the mobility of light was important because it was expensive and dangerous to leave flames, whatever their source, burning unattended. So rather than leaving lamps, lanterns, candles or torches burning everywhere, they were lit where people were collected and taken with people when they moved. 

While candle and oil light, not to mention flames from a fireplace are less intense than modern electric lighting, it also has it's appeal. It is less harsh, less revealing, and less steady. It flickers and wavers. There are reasons why the classic "romantic dinner" is by candle-light. And anyone who has experienced the splendor of a candlelight mass will understand the spiritual strength of a candlelit cathedral or crypt.

(I know, not candle light, but lighting designed to imitate it.)
For readers tired of clich├ęs and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and characters based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.



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