Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Historical Accuracy and other Peeves: Skip the hugs and kisses.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 09•20

With apologies–an early draft to this article was mistakenly published before it was completed. Updated November 17.

Obviously I’m not alone in declaring this a humbling, angst-filled, anxiety-inducing year. Did I mention fattening?  Like many millions around the world, I’m following the COVID numbers with growing horror and paranoia. I’ve been wearing a mask and scrubbing like a surgeon since March and cannot imagine why other people simply don’t use common sense and seek reliable news sources. Don’t get me started on governors that won’t protect the lives of their citizens with mandates.

I’ve been limiting my exposure, meeting a few friends distanced and outdoors, am not traveling, and have rarely eaten in restaurants. I missed my father’s 90th birthday because he lives more than 2,000 miles away. Like millions I’m exhausted by an administration that refuses to admit they lost an election. Lately I’ve been chased from my home by a mouse invasion because I’m unable to share my residence with rodents of any sort and poison takes awhile to go through a population.

My plans for Thanksgiving are still not firm even though our family gathering would be small. This midafternoon the Portland sky was so black and foreboding it looked like a horror film imposed on top of another horror film. Then I slept through the crashing downpour that ensued. Because I feel like a could sleep for a month. Did I mention it’s sloshy wet and mostly gray here?

All I know for sure that it’s soup and reading weather.  I’m grateful for my clients and their stories that give me lots to ponder, and stories wherever I encounter them. I’m currently watching a  British crime series with only 4 episodes called Collateral. It begins with an unlikely event, the murder or a pizza delivery guy and is twisty, layered, and well acted.

My  current read is Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself  a gritty fantasy in The First Law series. I’m on book one and it’s long and the editor in me wants to dig into it with knives and scalpels, but then maybe I was a surgeon in a previous lifetime.  I mostly want to get to book 2 Before They Are Hanged, because I’ve read the opening and it’s far stronger, the language is more appropriate, and the whole seems more plausible in a grimdark sort of way.

I’m reading it because I’m analyzing grimdark fantasy of which Abercrombie, George RR Martin, and other mavens are shaping unsettling, haunting realities. Need I mention I’m escaping into worlds more improbable than this one?

Grimdark is boundary pushing. It’s influencing entire genres.  It’s a subgenre that’s takes an anti-Tolkien approach with more grit, realism, violence, and sex.  Science fiction and dystopian fiction also fall under this category. You’ll often find hard-bitten anti-heroes leading the casts, brutality, ash, and ruin. Stories also hearken back to the earliest legends and tales, along with echoes from history.

Which leads us windingly to appropriateness and accuracy when writing fiction. If you’re stopping by here, no doubt, you know just how hard it is to write any kind of fiction. You also know that when  you’re writing a story that veers far from your everyday reality that it requires a lot more work and objectivity. Sometimes it’s hard to really see what you’ve got on the page, how your story holds together.

That’s where educated readers come into the picture.

Editors notice a lot. Our attention is piqued by voice and  language, moves on to plots and the pitfalls therein, and slams on the brain brakes at inaccurate details.

Let’s consider one such problem.   First, a confession: I’m not always comfortable with PDAs–or Public Displays of Affection. Especially teenagers pawing each other at the mall. Even close-up kisses in movies aren’t my thing. On the other hand, football fans exchanging a celebratory touchdown smooch meets my approval. I could watch babies and toddlers cuddling and loving up  their moms and dads and siblings all day. I can’t get enough of babies.

But I’m also averse to PDA in fiction where it doesn’t belong. Turns out there are lots of stories where it’s erroneous or silly.

Certain fiction genres place huge demands on writers. Require enormous rigor and exhaustive research and multiple rewrites. Often these demands mean acquiring reams of knowledge outside  your own purview. I’m especially thinking of historical fiction, but then I’ve also worked on some dystopian fiction that lacked the internal logic and science to create the dire future depicted in the story. As part of my gig I’ve spent countless hours combing original sources, medical journals, old texts, university catacombs. I also study maps, paintings, and portraits from past centuries and suggest writers should too.

If you are writing historical fiction that takes place before the 19th century please, please lay off with the hugs and kisses. And declarations of  I love you and I need a hug. Also, just lay off the hugs.  They simply weren’t common gestures as they are now. In fact, PDAs were often seen as classless, lacking in manners. Intimate gestures mostly happened between married folks behind closed doors. (Please understand I’m not saying there was no extramarital sex.)

Bear with me because PDAs and romantic acts need to be accurate across many genres.  A Western where you’ve placed a trail boss on one knee to beg for a woman’s hand in marriage might come off as ill-suited. If you write a fantasy set in an alternate universe with swords and sorcery, but then the setting is similar to Europe in the Middle Ages, then stick to the general mores of the Middle Ages unless you’ve got a logical reason to vary things. Like your characters are visiting a brothel or a highly-paid courtesan is in the scene. Couples canoodling as they stroll down a cobbled street, not so much. A drunk pinching a barmaid’s plump arse, yes.

Also, in times you need to imagine a world of  inconvenience. For centuries open sewers were common and diseases spread easily. Many people stank. Often only the rich could afford soap and hot water to fully bathe in. Servants and slaves were typically involved in these ablutions. In centuries past teeth might be missing, but since there was little sugar, not everyone would have rotten teeth. Skin might be pox pocked, scarred, and weatherworn; then there were goiters, missing digits and limbs. Human bodies often underwent extraordinary wear and tear. And many people died young.

As I was writing this I was reminded of the Westerns I’d sometimes watch at the Cosmo theater in my home town when I was a girl. Saturday matinees often featured Westerns and I’m remembering cowboys who rode into town after a long, arduous cattle drive, but carried none of the dust and grime of the trail into the saloon with them. And the (mostly)lovely young women who worked in the saloons sometimes looked more like beauty pageant contestants than whores. And the pioneer wives were typically pink-cheeked wearing pristine aprons. Romanticized. Sanitized.

Don’t pretty up everyday life especially when it comes to relationships unless you’ve got an impeccable reason. And please don’t call them relationships. It’s a contemporary term. Of course you get to choose details that suit your cast and plot. Create complexity  and plausibility because love within a marriage wasn’t always seen as vital to it’s success. Take care with chivalry and courtly love; don’t forget the common practice of arranged marriages, along with notions about chastity, church and convent schools teachings.

Don’t forget the inherent  dangers of sex in ages past like sexually-transmitted diseases. Here is an account of a duke dying of rotting genitals. Factor in little birth control, few cures for common diseases, famines, plagues, and such and it adds up to a world where your characters might not be looking fabulous and romping it up all the time.

And when your maiden character finally succumbs, it’s likely her beloved cannot count every freckle on her henceforth covered body. Before  electricity candles, lantern, and firelight didn’t alight a whole room unless it was room where the inhabitants were wealthy. For most people throughout the ages candles were dear, as were lanterns and fuel.  And I know it sounds picky, but getting the lighting wrong is a dead giveaway that the setting details are inaccurate. As is leaving it out. Starless nights were beyond black, they were infinite, mysterious, and scary unless you were seated near a fire.

Now of course your characters can find each other under crazy circumstances and celebrate love and birth healthy children, and and even frolic naked in a meadow. But as I’ve recently reminded a talented writer: fiction is a world of threat. Even if there are giggles under the covers and orgasms along the way, bad things will happen to characters we adore. But first turn down the lights.

Winter is coming 


Stay strong, have  heart, write about these crazy times even if you’re writing from loneliness or rage or outrage. Or because you’re writing from your lonesome, pissed off, heavy heart.


You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.