The ‘R’ Word

Writing historical novels has one major drawback – the ‘R’ word.

 Research.  Because however well you think you can write, unless you immerse yourself completely in the period it’s impossible to get characters absolutely right. The way they act. They way they interact. They way they eat; drink; sleep, even. And even though you may decide they will speak in what we might consider ‘modern’, language, how did they talk to one another?

 You see, major events are relatively easy to find out about; they may even be generally well known. But it’s the small things that make stories come alive. How do you load a pistol with powder and ball?  How long does it take? What covering was used on the floor of a peasant’s house in 1800? What in the house of a Duke?  And how would a footfall sound on each, in darkness?

 So you have to read. And often you have to read pretty obscure texts. Diaries. Letters. Pamphlets. Books so long out of print your local library will laugh uproariously when you ask for them.

 I’ll give you an example. The Napoleonic Wars have probably been written about more than any other conflict in history. But the cavalry of that time suffered a bad press, so books about them are relatively few. But many of the tactics used then are based on 18th century Prussian cavalry manoeuvres, and I was lucky enough to come across a reprint of Major General Emanuel Von Warnery’s 1798 treatise ‘Remarks on Cavalry’: on Ebay, of all places.

 There’s just one problem. The reprint uses the original, old-fashioned typeface where ‘s’ is printed as ‘f’. Thus we have ‘Pruffians’, ‘Huffars’ and sentences like ‘A fquadron ought to be often exercifed without faddles…’ Try reading that aloud without it sounding as if you’ve had one too many after closing time!


So that’s what I’ll be doing tonight. The ‘R’ word.

 Reading, instead of ’riting.


~ by cavalrytales on May 11, 2010.

2 Responses to “The ‘R’ Word”

  1. Oh is this ever true. But then my question is…how much is too much as oh say. “The Tribune Laticlavius spoke to the Primus Pilus about the new miles and speculatores that arived at the principia that afternoon.” Would a reader want to throw a book down if this use of Roman terms continued through the book? Would a reader who simply loved history but didn’t know Roman Legions scream? Sure the Roman reenactor would love and understand easily. But then this reenactor would be frustrated if you use the simpler terms as “The tribune spoke to the first centurion about the new recurits and the spies that arrived at headquarters that afternoon.”
    So, how much is too much or not enough to the readers?
    Happy Reading Researching and ‘Riting…the new RRR’s


    • Ah…the eternal conundrum.
      I have two rules:
      (i) Dont underestimate your readers intelligence – they had the good sense to buy your book!
      (ii) Offer an explanation somewhere that isn’t ‘in-your-face’ eg. ‘ The cavalryman picked up his dolman and pulled on the short jacket, fiddling its braid loops over the row of buttons that ran from his waist to his throat…’ or ‘Voce e matado, Lock said, loudly enough for everyone to hear, and he smiled, ‘You’re dead!’
      Well, that’s how I deal with it, rightly or wrongly. Must admit that I find novels where I have to look something up before I can carry on a bit frustrating.



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