A long, long time ago now, I wrote an essay that appeared in a couple of different periodicals, Phantastes in 2001 and the Canadian Writers’ Journal in June 2002. The original title was “Belief is in the Details (Avoiding Anachronisms in Writing Fantasy and Historical Fiction)”. Over the years, there has been continued interest in the subject, so I’ve decided the time has come to publish it on my blog. Before it was an article, I should mention, it was a talk and a workshop, “Belief is in the Details — Don’t Take the Present For Granted!” … hence the somewhat breezy tone.
When you’re reading a fantasy novel and the author makes some error, usually a glaring anachronism but sometimes an obvious mistake in common sense, you can “trip” and fall out of the story. Too many such stumbles and the story loses its power to enthral. Quite often, many of these stem from the same cause — the author has been taking the present for granted.
This problem can occur in all the aspects that go into the creation of a believable world or believable characters, but it happens particularly often in matters having to do with agriculture. Farming is a complex business; it goes on all around us, but most people never give it a moment’s thought, with embarrassing results for their fiction. My favourite example of “taking the present for granted” in this way has shown up in a number of otherwise scrupulously-researched and wonderfully-realized fantasy novels with a medieval-technological setting. In this article I’ll take this particular error as an example and demonstrate how to be aware of such anachronisms.
Suppose you’re writing a story. As your starting point you’ve created a society loosely modelled on that of Norman England — the setting is a country recently conquered by the ruling class of a neighbouring country. You’ve researched the feudal system and the manorial and have discovered that, contrary to what the high school history texts tell you, these two terms are not synonyms. You’ve read up on eleventh- and twelfth-century architecture, warfare, and government. You’ve considered the implications of a ruling class that speaks a different language from the majority of the population and the use of a third language for administration and the rituals of the priesthood. You’ve worked out your system of magic.
Your hero, Hilda, is a serf, a bastard with the stigma of the conqueror’s blood in her fathering and a power she doesn’t yet understand and can’t control beginning to manifest itself in dangerous ways. Hilda runs away to find her sorcerer-priest father and demand her heritage. The first night, unaware of her lord’s pursuit already close behind, Hilda breaks her journey in a barn, sleeping amid the sweet-smelling bales of hay.
And at this point, despite all the effort you’ve put into creating a convincing reality, you lose some of your readers. They no longer believe in your story; you’ve kicked them out of it. Why? A matter it never occurred to you to research, something you observed as you sped by on the highway, something you, like so many urban writers, took for granted.
When writing a fantasy or an historical fiction, the author needs the readers to believe in the reality of the story. If it’s not real to the audience, how will the author keep them involved, make them care? Coleridge writes in Biographia Literaria of the need to create supernatural characters with whom the readers will nevertheless be able to identify, so as “to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith” (London: Dent, 1975 (1817), pp. 168-169). In other words, if something in the characters, despite their existence as ghosts or demons, isn’t recognizable to the readers as something in themselves, they’re not going to care, and even in the most intense part of the story they’re not going to feel that it could be real. But this is true of all aspects of a story, not just its characters. If the world doesn’t have a coherent reality, it won’t win a sustained willingness on the part of the readers to enter into it.
You want to give your story what C.S. Lewis, in An Experiment in Criticism, calls “Realism of Presentation — the art of bringing something close to us … by sharply observed or sharply imagined detail” (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1961, p. 57). You attempt to do by describing your weary hero asleep in the scent of the hay, unaware of approaching danger. You want to convey the feel of a real barn, make your readers experience what Hilda is experiencing. But you inserted a glaring anachronism and completely destroyed that very realism of presentation you were trying to create.
They didn’t bale hay in the eleventh century.
It’s a fantasy novel, you might argue. You’re supposed to make things up. True enough. But they’ve got to be things that make sense within the reality of your story. And when it comes to both the natural world and agricultural matters, too many writers of fantasy and historical fiction don’t stop to think; they make jarring, careless mistakes that trip many readers into falling right out of the story. I don’t mean the apparent anachronisms that some writers deliberately use to reveal more about their world — often, that it has passed through our technological period and out the other side. I mean the small careless details intended to create a reality, which, when harshly incongruous with the rest of that world, have the opposite effect. Ripe peaches in early spring in a climate comparable to that of New York State? Not a chance, if there’s no way to fly them in from the opposite hemisphere. Hair “the colour of corn-silk” in an historical fiction of fifth-century Britain? Maize is a New World crop. Columbus is a thousand years away. Baled hay in a society with the technology of eleventh-century Europe? Highly improbable.
Here’s why that particular example, which shows up in far too many books, ruins my suspension of disbelief. Bear with me; I’m going into details here. It’s important to understand not only why they didn’t have balers in the real world, but why they’d be unlikely to have them in this particular made-up one. This is the sort of thing you should have been considering when you wrote that passage. Brace yourself for a history lesson and remember that baled hay is my chosen symptom of the problem, which covers anything dependent on the Industrial Revolution.
The stationary baler or hay press was invented in the 1850’s and wasn’t common until the 1870’s. The “pick up” baler, the modern square baler (now largely supplanted by round bales and bale-wrappers — and I recently read a medieval fantasy where the hay was in “rolls”, so I guess the round-baler has taken up time-travel as well) only came into being around the 1940’s. These dates are from International Harvester, but other equipment manufacturers would have been building the same types of machines around the same time. And the thing about balers is that, like the automobile, they have the whole Industrial Revolution looming behind them. They’re not something the village blacksmith whips up in his spare time. Sure, maybe he could have made a baling machine of some sort. But why would he, in a society that hadn’t experienced its Industrial Revolution? Would the investment of his time and materials have been worthwhile to him and his society? The Greeks, after all, did invent the steam engine, but they never used it for anything much. They didn’t need to. They had man- and woman-power.The Victorian hay press, like every other piece of technology, was invented to meet a need: the nineteenth century had more horses in cities than any other era, and the reasons for that are traceable to the great increase in the size of cities after the Industrial Revolution. Those horses needed to be fed, and the hay press facilitated the export of hay from country to city. Before that, most horses were kept fairly close to their food supply. People rarely needed to ship hay long distances, and when they did, it seems to have been packed in barrels (Ann Hyland, The Medieval Warhorse, Phoenix Mill: Sutton, 1994, p. 146). The modern baler came into being because of the decline in rural manpower over the last two centuries — people were leaving for the growing towns, for factories. Mowing machines, drop-rakes, and hay-loaders had been an answer to part of the problem, but by the middle of the twentieth century you couldn’t get a fork-wielding haying crew together. Baled hay was the solution to the problem of fewer people available to get the hay in.
Except in certain rare periods, the Middle Ages, like classical Greece, didn’t have a enduring manpower problem. That came about as more people left rural villages for industrial towns. The real dividing line when you’re considering whether a technology is probable or even possible for your created culture is the Industrial Revolution. It’s not that everything pre- was “crude”; far from it. Try using a scythe instead of a motorized weed-trimmer and you’ll quickly find out which is the more elegant, refined, skill-demanding tool. But the Industrial Revolution changed the kind of work that people did and how they did it. And that’s something all fantasy writers should be aware of. You wouldn’t stick in a jet or a fibre-optic cable without a deliberate reason, but too many people, when it comes to farming matters, toss in without a second thought what they glimpse through the car window. They’re using images to which they’ve given no consideration at all as a shorthand to say “this is an agrarian society.” And they’re getting it egregiously wrong.
You don’t need to know the entire history of “hay-making through the ages” (though there’s a really interesting blog here with lots of photos), but you should be thinking a bit more about the evolution of technology and most importantly, the reasons for that evolution. A quick check can tell you that medieval hay was not baled. A bit of thought can explain why it would be unlikely to be baled in Hilda’s society.
So, whether you’re writing fantasy or historical fiction, which has the same pitfalls, the way to avoid jarring your readers loose from your story through such careless mistakes is, of course, to put a bit of thought into it. Keep the implications of the Industrial Revolution in mind. Do a bit of research. Give agriculture, arguably one of humanity’s oldest sciences, the respect you would any other field of knowledge. Admit you aren’t sure and look it up, the way you would Anglo-Norman jurisprudence or Samurai armour, if either of these formed an aspect of the culture you were portraying. A good encyclopaedia is an excellent place to begin. The basic “Life as a Medieval Peasant” type of book is also a reasonable resource to start with, although these latter tend to oversimplify and occasionally misunderstand more complex issues and machines. They’ll keep you from assuming hay sprouts up prepackaged, though. Their bibliographies can also lead you back to more detailed, scholarly works. Archaeological texts are a wonderful resource, as are plain, old-fashioned histories.
When you’re creating your medieval or even Victorian rural setting, give that setting a bit of respect. Don’t assume you know something about farming and the history thereof just because it’s not done by people who live in cities and must therefore be simple and obvious. Don’t take the present for granted. Don’t assume that nothing’s changed in the previous eight or ten thousand years of farming technology. We’ve been doing this for a long time; it’s humanity’s most fundamental industry; it drives every society save those which are hunter-gatherer or pure pastoralists. If you want to sustain your readers’ belief in your world, grant that world the dignity of a bit of thought. If you want Hilda to be snugly asleep in the hay when her pursuers overtake her, consider the various ways that hay was and could have been harvested and stored in that type of society. This isn’t something that needs to go into the story in detail; it’s just something you should be aware of, to avoid making silly mistakes. The background through which characters in fantasy or historical fiction move doesn’t have to be overbearingly detailed, but it should be more than wallpaper. If the world doesn’t feel real to the reader, how can the hero, and how can the story?
It’s your job, as a story-teller, to enable your readers to maintain that “willing suspension of disbelief” necessary to a complex and total enjoyment of your work. You want them to lose themselves totally in the reality of your world. When you disrupt that, jar them out of it, through simple careless incongruities and anachronisms, they come away with the impression that you haven’t made enough of a commitment to your story yourself to worry about its internal reality, its “reality of presentation.” And if you haven’t made that commitment, many of your readers will find that they can’t either.