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Science And Technology In Historical Novels, by Anne Perry

Science and technology can serve several purposes in a story.  The great caveat at the very beginning is: Don’t confuse or bore people with details that have nothing to do with the story.  If we want the history of invention and discovery we’ll read a textbook on the subject.  To understand the details of scientific discovery we might need at the very least a degree in mathematics and possibly basic physics.  We want to tell stories.

Science and technology, particularly the latter, are excellent for giving us a very sharp sense of time period (and make us pretty grateful that we live when we do).  Daily life is full of technology.  The kitchen is a great place to start.  All sorts of vital conversations can be held over meals or chores.  What do you cook your food with?  An open fire?  A range oven you have to clean out, re-set and light every morning?  A microwave?  How do you get your water?  Will it be hot if you turn on the tap?  Do you even have running water in the house?

Note – Caesar’s Roman soldiers who staffed Hadrian’s Wall on the English-Scottish border had under-floor central heating.  It isn’t always a matter of time.  The medieval Byzantines were pretty good with running water, toilets, tiled floors, etc.

But you get the idea.  There are also tiny things like safety pins, thumb tacks, erasers, paper clips, blotting paper (as opposed to a tray of sand).  How do you make soap?  When could you buy it?  Canned goods?  Zip fasteners – a whole lot better than rows of buttons.  When did people discover rubber, or elastic?  When did people first get glass windows?

The big thing is not to get it wrong.  You may get no praise for being right, but you’ll certainly get plenty of blame for being wrong.

Science is another field and, for those who tell stories, possibly a more fertile one.  Getting the science of a time and place correct is important, exactly as it is for technology, but it is a field far more full of passion.  Technology might arouse greed, but science can strike at the core of what we believe of God and man, and the rest of the universe.

Science is the exercise of the ever-enquiring mind.  Present knowledge can always be improved upon.  No theory is worth even considering if it is not capable of being tested, and therefore disproved should it be in error.  Religion, on the other hand, is very often received wisdom and belief handed down through the generations, and to question it or attempt to change it is often considered as heresy.  It threatens the heart and soul of man. It destroys safety and even civil order.  How many people have been put to death for questioning an orthodox faith, usually in extremely unpleasant ways?  The Inquisition and The Scopes Trial are only a couple of well-known examples.

The whole subject of physical truth and spiritual truth can give you stories of intellectual honesty or dishonesty, passion, belief, rage, fear, the struggle for identity, the loyalty to family roots, versus integrity to what you conceive to be the truth, whether you like it or you don’t.  Perhaps above all, it is the courage to face what is, whether it costs you and whatever else you have to re-think.

It is the greatest of all struggles – and so the greatest of stories.


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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Quite right – it’s the detail that counts, and readers will happily point out anachronisms. It would be quite fun to play on that by including a detail that is historically accurate – like the hypocaust – and seeing if anybody thinks the Romans weren’t up to it. In point of fact, as far as I can tell, in an everyday sense of general household tech like combs, pots, pans, curtains tables, chairs and so forth, and with the exception of underfloor heating and under-house sewers – there wasn’t a lot to choose between what the Romans had and what was available a thousand years later in Medieval Europe. A lot of it boiled down to an individual being able to afford it.

    One of the other big pitfalls when handling science and tech in a historical context is to inadvertently frame attitudes to it around today’s ideals. That’s especially true when considering periods that came before the Age of Reason, where much of the current attitude was broadly framed. During the medieval period there was a quite different viewpoint to these things.

    August 27, 2013
  2. Another thought-provoking post from Anne Perry – thank you!

    August 27, 2013

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