When one reads (or writes) historical fiction, some modern preconceptions must be suspended.
Sometimes these things are small.
Example: Egyptians often walked around half-dressed. Or entirely naked. (Have you ever been to Egypt in August? It’s really flipping hot!)
Sometimes these things are big.
Example: Egyptian royal families were incestuous.
Yes, incest was common in Egypt’s royal family, a handy way of keeping the crown in the family. (However, the rest of the population tended to shy away from marrying their brothers, sisters, fathers, etc. Go figure.)
Incest tends to make modern readers squirm. I still think it’s gross, but now I just take it with a grain of salt. In fact, National Geographic reported earlier this year that King Tut was the son of a full fledged brother-sister marriage. That goes a long way to explaining his club foot and the cane he needed to walk, probable results of a genetic bone disorder.
So was there incest in Hatshepsut’s time? Yeppers. There’s just not much I can do about it. I suppose I could re-write history, but that just seems wrong. (Although I do like the idea of having such power. Mwahahaha!)
Has there ever been a topic in a book you’ve read that made you squirm? Did you keep reading? Is there a topic you’ve shied away from as a writer?
Intelligent readers — and that's 99.9% of historical fans — know that books set in exotic times will not reproduce modern, first world ethics and culture. This is by definition!
So yes, there's weirdness, and some of it's icky, but that's why we travel: to experience difference.
My two trickiest issues:
The Carthaginians practiced child sacrifice. It's one of the reasons the Romans loathed them.
Simon Levack has a mystery series set in Aztec culture. The opening scene of the first book, Demon of the Air, describes people having their beating hearts torn out of their living bodies. And the scene is 100% brilliant. The unremitting brutality of the culture though, over the course of the entire book, does become a trifle difficult.
I can't really think of a time when I read something that made me uncomfortable. It's those uncomfortable topics that I actually enjoy reading about. I wish more authors would tackle them and incorporate them into their writing. There's something exciting about taboo things — even if they weren't taboo during that time period or aren't taboo in that area.
As a fellow historical writer, I totally get it. I had a scene in one story where a king basically raped and "sacrificed" five women to gain favor from a particular deity in Ancient Greece.
I agree with Gary in that historical readers tend to be an intelligent lot.
I don't write historical fiction, but I read it. I don't want an author to pretend something didn't exist, but I also don't want the nastier issues to overwhelm the story. I think there's a reason 'civilized' culture moved on from incest, cannibalism, human sacrifice, etc. The question that comes to my mind is were those things repugnant to people then but there was nothing they could do about it? Yeah, I think so.
Hmmm…I wonder what inspired this post. 🙂
I love the MG series, The Last Apprentice. However, it dabbles with the devil, and that has made me uncomfortable at times. Mostly because it is so disturbing and creepy. 🙂
I tend to agree with others who have said that the type of people who pick up historical fiction are sort of pre-prepped for these kinds of situations. Mostly, if you pick up a book about an ancient civilization, it's because you have some passing interest in the culture and know that they are not necessarily up to our modern sensibilities.
It sort of comes under the umbrella of suspension of disbelief, too, in that the reader is willing to take it as face value if the writer is trustworthy with everything else.
I think you handled any culture shock in HATSHEPSUT just fine!
I really love learning the ins and outs of other places and other times.
The history that attracts me are the more 'uncivilized' cultures, not so much, say, the Victorian era. It's the differences from our way of life that make history interesting to me.
If you want to see some neat ways to do incest on the page (I know that sounds odd) try George R.R. Martin's _A Game of Thrones_. Several instances of incest in this fantasy novel, but he manages to do it in a way that doesn't gross out the reader or disconnect us from the narrative. Just a thought:)
I like my historical reading to be accurate – even when it makes me squirm. Although… if you need votes to put you in charge of rewriting history, I'll deinitely vote for you! 🙂
I've read works that caused me to squirm, but the notion of revising history to make it more palatable makes me squirm even more. Studying history means learning what we can from and about those who have gone before. And the bottom line is, if you fictionalize the historical in historical fiction, you're just writing fiction.
You know where I stand on this already but definitely I fall on the support for historical accuracy side of this spectrum. Different peoples and time periods had different cultures! What's the point of reading about DIFFERENT if it's all turned into SAME. bleh.
I had a big problem myself, with Theseus. And the marriageable age of women in the bronze age. And that whole Theseus' kidnap of Helen business. I ended up erring on the older side for Helen, as opposed to the young side, and bringing Theseus's age down as far as I could, but it still is, I'm sure, going to offend some people. Fact of the matter is, Older guys married fresh-out-of-puberty girls for the MAJORITY of history. We don't even have to go back as far as Theseus for the precedent. They were doing it in the middle ages, and EVEN 1800s America.
History is important. Even the squicky stuff. If people are going to be offended by it, maybe they shouldn't be reading historical fiction (OR they should be FORCE-FED it until they realize that not everyone has the same beliefs, culture, etc).
That's a tricky one. Cause some stuff I just can't read about. But I understand that writers of historical time periods need to do that period justice.
Excellent post. I like Amalia's word for the difficult stuff–"squicky"–it fits. But that otherness, even the shocking, is why so many of us like reading about history. It gets a little tricker writing about this stuff for kids, but I'm firmly in the camp of tellin' it like it is!
I'm fairly open-minded on things like this. Most of the distasteful practices you read about arose out of a different set of circumstances that we live under today.
Who's to say what we would/wouldn't do if we were faced with the same environment/knowledge base/consequences?
I actually have a harder time reading about "icky" things in current day fiction, because you are viewing the incident through the lens of what was accepted at the time. In so much of history, the behavior of royal families was accepted (for example, incest, as you said, to keep the crown in the family). It's just fact, and if you're writing historical fiction, I think it's perfectly acceptable to include things like that.
This summer I was reading an adult fiction novel that included some depraved incidents that are clearly not acceptable today and were meant to be shocking. It stuck with me in a bad way for a while after reading it.
I think that context makes a world of difference.
Since I read Shogun as a teen and several times since then, I have been fascinated by the samurai tradition of honor and "face" and ritual suicide.
In one of my manuscripts I used ritual sacrifice as a plot device. In ancient times, those sacrifices were made to appease the gods and entreat favor. Those gods were mercurial and inconstant. I think that is why when in ancient Ireland, when Patrick came and brought news of a "foreign" who didn't require sacrifice but was Himself sacrificed for the human race, it made such an impact.
I meant to say "foreign God" above.
Reading about incest would definitely make me uncomfortable but I'm all for historical accuracy!
I don't like to read about rape. That's hard for me.
Incest is pretty high up there as well.
This is an interesting post!
Well since I've read your first three chapters, I'd have to say that you handle it very well. And altho it sounds sick and disgusting from our modern sensibilities, you explain it enough that it doesn't gross people out reading your story.
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