Doing Due Dilly Dilly Diligence for Faux Medieval Fantasy

If you know me at all, you know I get a bit twitchy when it comes to what I like to call ‘faux medieval fantasy.’

It’s not that I have a problem with dragons, magic, or even princesses-in-disguise (okay, well, yes, I have a problem with that). What makes me turn into a biter is the way so many writers take the easy way out with world-building.

You now what I mean. It’s the fantasy where everything is vaguely medieval, as if The Princess Bride, Shrek, and Lord of the Rings had a threesome that they really, really regretted in the morning.

There are stone castles and towers, flowing gowns, crowns, kings, warriors, sorcerers, the systematic oppression of women into traditional gender roles, etc. You know, the usual.

I think one of the reasons writers pick this model is because instinctively, it feels like it should be easy. I mean, from Errol Flynn to Flynn Ryder, we’re constantly exposed to effortless interpretations of medieval culture.

The thing is, to build a faux medieval fantasy world that is compelling, unique, immersive, and most importantly MEMORABLE, we as writers need to stop taking the EASY way and start taking the RIGHT way.

The easy medieval way and the right medieval way

Walk with me through a hypothetical situation here.

We’re writing a scene where Seraphina, a thief-princess-in-disguise *twitch*, is tending Sir Taylor’s sword wound. For our purposes, the scene requires some description of the healing process.

The EASY way to handle it is to fall back on a spurious mix of the BBC’s Robin Hood, Harry Potter, and maybe the Tudors if we’re feeling highbrow. The description would go something like this:

Seraphina took some willow bark from her pouch of herbs and dropped it into boiling water to make a pain-relieving tea for Sir Taylor. She fetched clean bandages and wrapped up his wound as best she could.

First of all, why is it ALWAYS willow bark? It’s like that’s the one fact about old apothecary practices that writers have picked up, and they toss it into their manuscripts so often, it’s practically a  ye olde opioid epidemic.

The RIGHT way might not require us to spend half-a-day researching 13th century wound care, but, just a simple Google search immediately yields a great Wikipedia article. Another Google search for medieval folk remedies turns up a few more useful articles.

Fifteen minutes of skimming later, I haven’t miraculously become an expert in medieval medicine, but I’ve gleaned some good details that will make my descriptions more vivid.

I know that dressing a wound might involve grease, honey, stuffing it with absorbent dressing, turpentine (I know, right?), and clay. Hot oil was often used to cauterize wounds, especially in cases of amputation. There were many herbs and plants used as painkillers, not just willow bark. Also, remedies available were highly dependent on geography and economic resources.

So, if I were to rewrite Seraphina’s loving care of Sir Taylor the RIGHT way, it would go something like this:

Seraphina carefully packed the tufts of wool into Sir Taylor’s wound and smeared honey around the edges, all the while praying the surgeon would arrive soon to stitch him up. She then held to his lips a cup of wine to which she added a few precious drops of pain-killing extracts of poppyseed and belladonna.

Okay, I know we’re all cringing a bit at this point, but we can now visualize tastes, textures, movements more clearly. Our reader brains have glommed onto these details as a subconscious affirmation that this world is believable, and we settle even deeper into the story.

but magic! fantasy!

But if it’s fantasy, we can do what we want, right? We don’t have to worry about accuracy. We don’t have to worry about details like that. Right?

Ehhhh….

Technically, no. But, we can’t pretend to be surprised when our books don’t get long-term market traction.

There are several reasons why skating by with a working knowledge of The Princess Bride just won’t work in the long run.

The most fundamental rule of fantasy is that….there are rules. Magic must have limits. Kingdoms must have borders. Dragons must have soft underbellies.

Without rules and limits, there is nothing for the characters to struggle against, no odds to win over, no room to grow or become wiser.

How does this apply to the application of wool, honey (and possibly turpentine) to Sir Taylor’s wound by Seraphina? It’s nuanced, but work with me here.

We can change out the pain relieving herbs (if absolutely necessary – see my next fundamental rule of fantasy), and we can add magic to the healing (if it fits with our world-building). BUT, in addition to creating limits to healing magic, we also need to know the limits of whatever medicine and medical techniques our characters are using.

Why do we have to be so specific about the medicine and medical techniques? Because that is the craft: adding details to descriptions that turn the illustrative into the evocative.

Maybe it’s not medicine. Maybe it’s the fletching on an arrow, or the design of liveries for footmen and pages. It could be how long it takes to bake bread, or what kind of cheese travels best for weeks-on-end without refrigeration through varying climactic conditions. (Because it seems like no self-respecting fantasy ever has anyone traveling without bread and cheese.)

Skip these details, and the result are bland, cookie-cutter, forgettable settings with characters who subconsciously annoy us with their anachronistic behavior.

I’m not saying we have to become professorial-level scholars. However, I am saying that to write good faux medieval fantasy, we should become excellent lay scholars.

Yes, it’s a pain at first because it feels like we have to look up all kinds of little things. It makes us feel like writing is less a flow and more a stop-and-start process. The thing is, though, like all good habits, the more we do this, the more knowledge we acquire, and the more knowledge we acquire, the less we have to look up.

I probably won’t ever need to look up general wound care for the 13th century again. I might need to research sleep remedies, amputations, and fever treatments, but again, once I learn about those, I’ve got that knowledge, and it’s one less interruption to the writing flow.

just because we can fantasy! doesn’t mean we should Fantasy!

The next fundamental rule of fantasy (whoa, way to bring us back to the point, right?) is that we only change and create that which is absolutely relevant. 

There is no need to create a whole other word for apple if apples have nothing to do with the plot or the climate/geography/world-building…especially if we are working in a faux medieval fantasy setting.

If we were on an alien world, then maybe there might be a reason. But if we are looking to add dragons and magic to a faux medieval northern European setting, then apples can stay apples.

Just to prove I’m not a total raving bitch when it comes to world-building and history (oh, who am I kidding? I totally am a raving, twitchy bitch about this stuff), let’s look at a case where apples might be something else.

I’ve just spent ten minutes digging around Wikipedia, online old Norse dictionaries, and following a couple of footnotes. I can now tell you that if we wanted to write a story about a quest for golden apples of immortality (à la Idun in Norse mythology), we could use the word ‘epli‘ for apple.

Without going into a minor diatribe about etymology (though, that’s another post coming soon), let’s go with the idea of ‘epli.’

First of all, I would probably have the term ‘golden apple’ be the common usage vernacular for everyone in my faux medieval world. It wouldn’t be the first word to have a casual nickname. We do it all the time – even to this day…like the new additions to M-W of ‘googling’ and ‘facebooking.’

I might change up the actual spelling of epli for fun and to keep it from being strictly identifiable as old Norse (again, the etymology beast pokes its head up, but I tuck it back down for later). Let’s go with eppele because it keeps the general feel and sound of the original.

In my little world-building, the word eppele is a formal, sacred word, used only to refer to the ‘golden apples of immortality.’ Only nobility and religious figures would use it, and probably only on formal or nonsecular occasions. It would be the equivalent today of using ‘prithee’ in conversation. Awkward. Not done. Saved for drama or religious services. Unless you do have a habit of using ‘prithee’ in everyday life, and if so, bonus points for you!

Now…let’s make things even MORE fun. Yes, this is fun. Seraphina and Sir Taylor are closing in on what they think is the end of their quest, the orchard of golden apples. Except…PLOT TWIST! When they get the apples, the apples don’t do what they’re supposed to do. No rush of immortality, no instant healing of Sir Taylor’s wound.

That’s when they meet the guardian of the orchard who reveals their mistake. By just taking the term ‘golden apples’ at face value, they’ve chased down the entirely wrong object. If they had researched the term a bit more, they might have discovered that the formal world eppele actually referred to any fruit or nut. What Seraphina and Sir Taylor are really searching for is the golden acorn of immortality in the next sacred orchard over.

How did I come up with that? Easy. In my little ten minute skimming, I read that the old Norse word epli was often used to denote any fruit or nut.

So…pulling this all back to the point I’m trying to make (yes, there is one), we can change the word for apple if it is relevant to our plot/world, but by using a solid grounding in medieval history and mythology, we not only embed details that help the reader sink deeper into our world, but we discovered a cool little plot twist.

proof i’m not a total bitch about faux medieval fantasy

I’m here to help. No, really, I am.

I’m also here to attempt to insidiously inculcate a love of non-fiction in writers…and the public in general.

To that end, I now give you a very special Cait Reynolds Catalogue Raisonné: Ye Olde Before it was Olde.

This is a collection of general medieval history (and a little fiction) that ranges from the deliciously quick read to the super-dedicated months-long study.  Reading order and Amazon links below.

medieval, faux medieval fantasy, history, middle ages

Reading order:

The Year 1000 by Robert Lacey and Danny Danzinger

1215: The Year of the Magna Carta by Danny Danzinger and John Gillingham

Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis

In the Wake of the Plague by Norman F. Cantor

The Edge of the World by Michael Pye

A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchmann

God’s Philosophers by James Hannam

Want more reading? Check out my whole PAGE of Catalogues Raisonnés!

want to see what else i’m a bitch about? Check out my class this week!

FROM FIZZLE TO SIZZLE: THE SECRETS OF WRITING SUPER HOT ROMANCE ( <— CLICK TO REGISTER)

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $65.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, March 9th, 2018, 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

We all know that book…the romance novel where we skip over the bits of description and the actual plot until we get to the next part where the romantic protagonists interact again. We also all know that other book…the romance novel where we devour every word because every piece of it is so hot, it should come with a flammability warning.

It’s not hard to notice the differences between the two types, but when it comes to articulating them, and what’s more, putting them into practice, we often find ourselves struggling against ‘Fizzle Factors’ such as trite dialogue, trope-y characters, and a plot that is so doughy, it’s mushier than the trite dialogue.

In this class, we will take apart and analyze piece-by-piece the ‘Fizzle Factors’ and then learn how to use the ‘Sizzle System’ to turn the heat allllllll the way back up!

Topics will include:

  • The two super-secret elements of every single mega-successful romance novel;
  • How to create a plot that doesn’t interfere with and actually supports the romance;
  • The easy way to create truly memorable characters that readers will care about;
  • ‘Russian’ literature: the problem of rushin’ into conflict and rushin’ out of it in romance writing;
  • Coming up with an original and unusual ending that STILL fits the Happily Ever After requirement.

Note: If you have taken one of my ‘How to Dominate Your Sex Scenes’ classes before, this is going to be different in that I won’t be covering specifically how to craft a sex scene. I will be talking at a bigger picture level about plot structure, character development, and fine points of the genre.

REGISTER TODAY!

***A FREE recording is included with purchase.

About the Instructor

Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in the Boston area with her husband and small, neurotic dog. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. When she isn’t cooking, running, reading nonfiction, or enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes.

 

Amazon–no, the OTHER Amazon (A Catalogue Raisonne)

amazon exploration
Amazon rainforest
Photo by Eutah Mizushima on Unsplash

It’s that time of year again. You know what I mean. Time for diet sabotaging, socializing with people we can’t stand, and going way over budget on Amazon.

But, there’s another Amazon, one that can take us away from all this noise (i.e. non-stop Christmas music), hustle (sit DOWN, Black Friday), and bustle (don’t even think about it, traffic jams!).

I’m talking about the Amazon that is south of the border. Really, really south. Like, WAY south.

That’s right. Today, I’m bringing you a slice of Amazonia, courtesy of a Cait Reynolds Catalogue Raisonné. I’ll be sharing some of my favorite non-fiction and fiction about South American rainforests, rivers, and exploration.

The best part? There is absolutely NO risk of flesh-eating parasitic infections, malaria, or being eaten by one of the many, MANY things that can kill you in the Amazon.

The Rainforest Shmainforest episode of South Park is a classic and must be watched on a semi-regular basis. Because.

Oh, and just for a quick refresh, a catalogue raisonné translates to ‘annotated bibliography,’ but I like to think of it as a curated syllabus.

Yes, there is a difference. Yes, I am a geek.

No Camping gear required for this amazon

I do not like camping. I’m just being honest. I don’t enjoy dirt and discomfort. God gave us indoor plumbing for a reason, and it seems a shame to dishonor His gift by squatting in the woods.

I will be the first to admit that I do not have what it takes to be an explorer, at least physically. This is probably why I am endlessly fascinated by people who are driven to go to such extremes to either prove something, discover something, or solve something.

Frankly, the Amazon sounds like one of the more challenging and unpleasant places to do that…which is why it’s so delicious to read about when I’m all cozy with a cuppa and a puppa under a blanket.

Amazon exploring dog
This is not the face of an explorer. This is the face of a dog who likes his thousand-thread-count sheets, tyvm.

The books I have selected for this catalogue raisonné are, as usual, a mix of fiction and non-fiction. I am going to list them in order of how I think they should be read, because really, they do build on each other.

And, frankly, I’m having a hard time not adding in yet another catalogue raisonné specifically dedicated to Dutch exploration just in this post because it dovetails so beautifully…but, I will refrain. Until next week.

Without further ado…

amazon exploration

READING ORDER

The Conquerors by Roger Crowley

The Gold Eaters by Ronald Wright

Measure the Earth by Larrie D. Ferreiro

The Mapmaker’s Wife by Robert Whitaker

Exploration Fawcett by Col. Percy Fawcett

The Lost City of Z by David Grann

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

River of Doubt by Candice Millard

If you like my catalogues raisonnés, check out a whole page of them here!

Also, I’d love to hear from you about topics you’d love to see a catalogue raisonné on!

Obsessed with the Catalogue Raisonné

catalogue raisonne

What on earth is a catalogue raisonné you ask? (And very reasonably so.)

A catalogue raisonné is a systematic, annotated catalog. Put another way, it’s a critical bibliography.

Or, put most simply, it’s my guide to little reading projects on a topic. 

Want to know about Victorian Murder? South American exploration? Ancient Greece? So do I. I’m insatiably curious. This is why I like to read both fiction and non-fiction on any given subject. You can read more about my non-fiction fetish here or why I struggle to find good enough fiction that makes the cut for one of these lists.

THE FIRSST SIGNS OF THE DISEASE

Over the years, what started in college as a head-over-heels love affair with reading every book on the syllabus turned into a truly integrated fiction and non-fiction exploration of any given subject.

What’s even worse (yes, worse), is that I love, love, love talking about these lists. I love talking about books and writing in general, but more than that, I love pointing out the connections between books, their approaches, and their conclusions.

This makes small talk extremely difficult for me. Someone asks me about the weather, and I end up telling them about the evolution of the differentiation between astrology and astronomy in the 16th century German university scene.

I can’t help it. It just spews out of my mouth. Ask Kristen Lamb. She once asked me an innocent question about the equivalent of a 19th century bra, and I gave her the entire history of bustle era underpinnings, from the truth about corsets, to the fact that underpants and pantaloons hadn’t become commonplace until the Regency era.

catalogue raisonne
I’m not obsessed. I’m…thorough. I like the word ‘thorough.’

So, what has all this led to?

incurable and incorrigible

This leads to me having to buy more bookshelves. But, aside from that, it also means I arrange my bookshelves. By time period and topic.

Quite properly, fiction is on its own shelf, arranged by time period and genre. *shifty eyes*

It also means that my Amazon wishlist is obscenely long. (My goodness, how did I get to 35 pages of books?)

It ALSO means that YOU get to enjoy the fruits of my labor.

THE CAIT REYNOLDS CATALOGUE RAISONNÉ

You won’t have to go digging through my posts to find a catalogue raisonné. I’ve collected the all here on one page for your easy access. I even put a little link in the site menu.

Yes, it’s awesome. I’m awesome. I look forward to bringing you even MORE of obsessive reading! (Because that’s how I’m justifying all the books. Really, that’s basically it.)

Do you want  to see a catalogue raisonné from me on a particular topic? Leave me a comment and let me know!

(Chances are, I own books about it, LOL.)

If You Write Fiction, Read Non-Fiction

The top half of ONE of my bookshelves.

I am insatiably curious. This has led to a slight issue (some might say addiction) with buying books.

Non-fiction books.

For an author, my actual collection of fiction is quite small. That’s probably because I’m such a picky bitch about the caliber of storytelling and writing I will read.

But, non-fiction? OMG, it’s a real problem. Eric and I recently went to IKEA because I had to buy a whole new bookshelf system. I got the Billy bookshelves…and the extra shelf extension. I literally have books floor-to-ceiling now.

Yet, I regret nothing. NOTHING.

but…but…isn’t all that non-fiction boring?

Hardly! Most of the time, I end up reading things and am like, ‘You seriously can’t make that shit up.’ Reality is way, way weirder than fiction. Dragons included.

I will absolutely admit that non-fiction has experienced a renaissance since the 90’s, shaking off the dust of academic ponderous pomposity and embracing engaging narratives, clever topics, and intelligent and witty writing.

Most importantly, though, is the fact that through non-fiction, we learn more about the world and people around us. What’s more fascinating than that? The more I read, no matter what the subject, the more I see intriguing connections that help me weave more complex, compelling stories.

It doesn’t matter if you are writing historical, contemporary, paranormal, romance, or even epic fantasy. Reading non-fiction will make you a better writer.

Non-Fiction and Research

It’s hard to think of a single really good work of fiction that hasn’t relied on some pretty solid non-fiction research.

I can think of a lot of really, really bad fiction that clearly shows signs of the author not giving a fuck about facts. I remember reading an erotica story where the main female character is an interior designer.  She lands a multi-million dollar project designing a hotel…and pitches in with the painting crew she hired to help paint the owner’s suite to get it done on time.

REALLY? REALLY???? Seriously?

It would have taken exactly six minutes to go to Wikipedia, look up ‘interior designer,’ and scrolled down to the bottom where it lists exactly the type of work that interior designers do, as opposed to…interior decorators. As opposed to people pretending to be interior designers who violate all kinds of union, OSHA, and other insurance and contract restrictions to ‘pitch in’ and help paint walls.

Sure, we could say that it’s ‘just’ erotica, and we’re supposed to be suspending disbelief anyway. Let’s just put aside any kind of professional pride, attention to detail, and desire to produce quality books. From a purely technical perspective, taking care to get a little detail like that right (even if it means reading a boring Wikipedia article) actually encourages the suspension of belief.  Accuracy grounds a story in reality in a way that is absolutely tantalizing because it is logical and could happen, and therefore enhances the fantasy.

Okay, I may have gone off the rails a bit here, but my main point stands. Good fiction needs research, and research gets easier the more we accustom ourselves to reading non-fiction.

It’s almost as bad as wearing a pocket protector

Okay, fine. I’ll admit it. It’s not just books I have a problem with.

I am an insatiable magazine article ripper-outer.  Daphne Lamb, Kim Alexander, and Genevieve Raas from The Fabulous Fictionistas can attest to this, having seen me tear through show dailies, catalogs, and other periodicals at Book Expo America.

My husband, bless him, knows me so very, very well. For Christmas one year, he got me a subscription to ‘Astronomy.’ I have my own subscriptions to ‘Discover’ and ‘Archaeology.’

I am the chick on the beach, drinking things with umbrellas in them and completely engrossed in an article about black holes. Don’t get me wrong. I am not a scientist and even less of a mathematician. God invented calculators for a reason. ‘Discover’ is written for people like me. Obscure scientific ideas are broken down simply. The writing is clear and entertaining. And, over time, the more I read, the more I learn, and the more familiar scientific concepts become.

I know what you are thinking. Don’t I write historical romance and paranormal YA? What am I doing reading about amoebas and pretending it makes a difference to my writing?

Well, just for the record, I drew on some of the articles I had read about quantum physics and astronomy for ‘Downcast,’ and the sequel has quite a bit of science behind the scenes. In fact, the whole premise of ‘Thunderstruck’ came from an article in ‘Discover.’

It’s more than that, though.

I’ve come across articles about how neurochemistry can explain why we get such a rush from reconnecting with a first love. I’ve read about pioneering immunology research in the 1880’s that used bacteria and provided a critical breakthrough with major writer’s block. I get clues I didn’t know I was looking for, plot bunnies, and just the sheer pleasure of exercising my brain.

Science and history are not everyone’s cup of tea…or Petri dish. I get it. But, we should all be constantly learning and expanding our horizons in both literature and non-fiction. The more we learn and know, the more we naturally anchor our story to facts, pay attention to world-building, and create connections between characters and concepts that make our stories deeper, richer, and most importantly…more worth reading.

Cue NBC’s “The More You Know” theme music.

via GIPHY