Details Of Daily Life In Historical Novels, by William Dietrich
Frontier Americans watered whiskey for breakfast because sanitation was so poor. Traveling males frequently shared a bed with strangers in overcrowded inns. Warships used a ragged rope end towed in the ocean as toilet paper. French apartments had no hallways.
These everyday details help history come alive and are an important part of my Ethan Gage series of Napoleonic novels. As interesting as what happened is how it happened, meaning how people of another time lived, loved, dressed, ate and slept (half-sitting-up, in Napoleonic times).
Accordingly, my bookshelf has books on clothes, uniforms, naval life, soldier life and everyday life. I glean details from general histories and memoirs. I pick up books on canoe building, the history of gambling, and Kentucky long rifles. I never, ever, have enough.
A good historical novel is a time machine, but to be truly transported we need details of what life was like. Modern readers lead radically different lives.
In Napoleon’s day, the basics of transportation, heating, and cooking were not greatly different than Roman times. Life moved at a few miles an hour. Refrigeration was unknown. The Battle of New Orleans was fought because participants didn’t know the War of 1812 had already been ended by treaty.
Today, it takes a power outage to give us some inkling of what life was like a relatively short time ago.
So the historical novelist has to make an effort to realize how things have changed. With life spans averaging half of what they are today, the greeting “How are you?” was much more meaningful in times past. One is struck by how often even the rich and famous were frequently incapacitated by illnesses we’d brush off with antibiotics today.
Child bearing was constant (mothers frequently giving birth to a dozen children, half of whom might survive) and dangerous. Historians have calculated that more Roman women died of childbirth than Roman men died in war.
Poverty was usually inescapable, social security non-existent, superstition rampant, and social order was preserved by beatings, torture and public execution.
All those paintings, stained glass windows, and statues were created in part because illiteracy was so high and pictures were the way stories were told, the movies and TV of that time.
America’s PBS did a series on modern people trying to adapt to life in a 1900s house, a frontier house, and a colonial house. Many were left in tears.
It wasn’t all bad. There was sumptuous elegance in ages past we lack today. We dress comfortably but drably compared to our ancestors. Costume museums can give a sense of the difference.
Museums in general are excellent for everyday details, including the Napoleonic equivalent of the modern shaving kit that officers took on campaign.
Recreated towns and villages, historical re-enactors, rebuilt sailing ships, and quality historical films have all been useful to me.
Pick your period. Then mentally live in it.
William Dietrich’s author website: www.williamdietrich.com
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