Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer's (and Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, and Myths
2012, Spyderwort Press
A guide to common historical errors made and perpetuated by fiction writers, and how to avoid them.
One gets the clear and early impression that Alleyn has read How Not to Write a Novel (as should everyone, incidentally — it’s a useful and hilarious guide to fiction writing in general), and thought, “Hey, I’ll bet I can be even snarkier than that!”
Unfortunately, that snark does not come accompanied by all of Mittelmark & Newman’s wit or knack for helpful analysis. Instead of laugh-out-loud, over-the-top caricatures of a systematic list of general errors, followed by discussion on exactly what's going on and what could be done better, we get repetitive ramblings, calling out specific authors (often by name) for the very specific errors they’ve made that particularly annoyed Alleyn, usually related to the French Revolution.
There are many points when the whole book feels like an excuse to vent these annoyances, in better English but with comparable pomposity and unnecessary meanness to an Internet comments section, cloaked in a line or two of lip service to the cover’s promise of constructive advice. This constructive advice generally boils down to the true but unhelpful “do more research.”
Underneath the off-putting tone, there is some good general advice to be found here as well, particularly about common areas where errors are made, and therefore good targeted starting points for some of that research. There are sections on things like money, noble titling conventions, the availability of certain goods and technologies throughout time and space, origins of common phrases, and traditions (like permanent graves) that are newer and less ubiquitous than many people think.
Other advice — such as choosing time periods you’ll actually enjoy researching, anticipating the different mindsets of people with different experiences from your own, and distrusting the accuracy of movies and historical propaganda penned by the victors — should be fairly obvious to those with some existing background in either writing or history, but are certainly valuable pointers for brand new beginners.
For more seasoned writers/historians, the most useful part of this book will likely be the appendix, detailing rich and underutilized sources of historical information.
Altogether far from a comprehensive guide for beginners (or anyone else), but worth adding to a large stack of introductory books for a hopeful future historical fiction author.
Agree? Disagree? Comments are always welcome (just keep it civil, folks)!
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