Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders

I love this stuff.

I didn’t so much want to read this as a writer as as (as as?) a reader. I used to write, though not historical fiction (HF) – but I am a long-time (sometimes I feel it should be “long-suffering”) reader of all-sorts, including lots of historical fiction and mystery. And as I know I have said in several HF/HM (historical mystery) reviews, one thing that is sure to make me fling a book against the nearest wall (unless I’m reading on my Kindle) is for anyone in any story set before about 1875, or an equivalent time period, to say “okay”. It’s not okay.

Susanne Alleyn is a lady after my own heart. She knows the pain of an anachronistic “okay”, or an out of place revolver, or an impossible cup of tea – and instead of just complaining about it like me she aims to do something about it.

And so, in an intelligent and fun-to-read format, she proceeds through the various areas where authors, and not just new authors, tend to screw up. Don’t – as Adam Schell so wonderfully explained in Tomato Rhapsody – include tomatoes in Italian (or any European) cuisine before the 1500’s; don’t have a chipmunk run over someone’s foot in 16th century England or have an Apache brave leap onto his horse in 15th century North America; don’t – DON’T – have anyone say “okay” before 1890, no matter what.

I’ve been looking over some of my book reviews lately, and I’d love to anonymously send at least a few of those authors copies of this book. Because just about everything she tries to instruct against has come up at some point. (Except tobacco… I don’t think I’ve seen misuse of tobacco in a book. I think I would have flagged it.) Like the Restoration Era CPR in one book, along with the use of “hammered” to mean drunk; the references to personal space in another; an accusation that one person is “playing” another in 15th century Scotland, along with a reference to “play[ing] that card”. All the bits that seem to be written with a tin ear toward historical accuracy … I’ve never understood why someone with that sort of tone deafness chooses to set his tale in another place and time. I’ve never understood why someone who chooses to set his tale in another place and time can’t do the research. Here, in one easy dose, is an antidote to a whole heck of a lot of that nonsense – and it’s also a gateway drug, to abuse that metaphor further: with this as a starting point, it can’t but be a great deal easier to know whether that one character should be eating spaghetti … or if that other one should be wearing underpants…

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