When I teach history, I always ask my students to view every "fact" as relative and subject to interpretation. Inevitably, someone will ask: "Well, what about dates? Those are facts." But dating and calendar systems vary widely, and may not be consistent across different groups of people.
I've been thinking about this recently as I struggled with the timeline of my own novel. Monster at the Gate begins a few months before the plague struck London in the 1660s. I start the novel on Shrovetuesday in February 1665 (a crazy strange day before Lent) and end with the Fire of London the following year (September 1666). Two clear beginning and ending dates, spanning about nineteenth months in total. Easy enough?
NO! As I was writing, I kept running into odd inconsistencies with the historical records I was using (such as Pepys' Diary), trying to double-check details. I kept finding that Tuesdays should have been Sundays, or that Easter had occurred at a different time than I expected. I knew that historical records would say 1664/1665 or 1665/1666, but I couldn't remember the exact details of how contemporaries kept time.
(MUCH GNASHING OF TEETH!!!!)
Finally, I sorted it out. England was still on the Julian Calendar (which had been adjusted for a missing ten days), rather than moving to the Gregorian Calendar used by most of Europe (it did not reform its calendar until 1752). To make it even more confusing, the Julian Calendar year starts on March 26, not January 1. But luckily I found a historic date calculator to help me keep it all straight.
So, my book technically starts on Feb 7 1664, and ends September 3, 1666, and that's still only nineteenth months. You do the math!
But I'm wondering if it will confuse my readers if they think the book is starting in 1664, when by today's modern calendar, it would actually be 1665. What do you think?
12/4/2011 09:47:29 am
This fascinates me--two different calendars, missing days, and a new year on March 26th! When people say that 'time is relative,' I never thought that applied to the past as well.
12/5/2011 01:13:20 am
Tricky tricky...but then what is a misplaced year or two between friends and readers. Assuming the majority of your audience will not be hardcore historians, your attention to detail will be applauded but not scrutinized...breath a sigh of relief.
Alexander, I think that's a great idea! thank you. I do want to situate my reader, so I'll do that the easiest possible way (by saying Feb 1665). And then if someone tries to call me on it, I'll have my bases covered with the historical note at the end. Thanks for the comment!
Jaynes, English sci-fi books--so awesome!! My novel (thankfully finished!) is meant to be true in spirit, but not to the letter, to the seventeenth-century era. I originally thought about writing it in the prose of the time, but I thought it might be off-putting to the reader. I have scoured the text for clear Americanisms (okay, gotten, etc), and I try to sprinkle in language from the time (gaol, not jail). But I don't go overboard. Honestly, English at this time was not standardized, and it would read a lot like Shakespeare (although not with his beauty of course) or Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe). I might write more fully on this topic, so stay tuned! thanks for the comment! (and hey, are you still writing these days?)
12/5/2011 08:49:50 am
I like Alex's idea...seems like the best of both worlds. Easier for the reader, but you maintain your historical integrity with the note.
12/5/2011 09:25:11 am
Matt, yes gaol is pronounced like jail. It comes from an old French word. I believe it is still spelled that way in Great Britain today, but for sure that's the spelling in seventeenth century. Thanks for commenting!
12/6/2011 05:51:14 am
On second thought, I think I am going to ding you on the date problem on my Amazon review of your book. It will go something like this:
12/9/2011 09:35:49 am
You know I will take you up on that offer. A couple of my relatives have had their books published, (a couple of years ago) which caused me to seriously put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). I have a few storyline skeletons and one story (few hundred pages). Part of the reason I stopped, I didn't know which ones would really interest a reader more.
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Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.