Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Historically Speaking...

In light of the election today, or at least the fact that historically an election has taken place in this country, I thought it would be fun to do something geared (very loosely) towards that.

My hat is off to any author that attempts to reconstruct a historical period. It's a daunting task I assure you, with many layers of investigation and research involved. Here I will try to break down this process into easy steps that will shed more light on the process as a whole.

I'd say the most important step in any reconstruction of a historical setting is in the preliminary research phase, where you narrow down your time period as much as possible. This can be attempted two different ways, but when used in conjunction you cannot fail. In Proper history, that is books containing a large amount of contributors and editors, the time setting you have your eye on will be mostly flattened of any tertiary commentary. I generally start here because it's the least biased. Now I understand that there is really no such thing as unbiased history but, semantics aside, generally when you have more contributors the authorial spin is diminished significantly, allowing for you to get a balanced perspective. Now the other way, the exact opposite way to be exact, is getting your information from Popular history. It is invaluable. Starting here though can be potentially dubious because your author will generally have an opinion, one that they are very certain of, but what it does is it gives you a much more intimate connection with the history at hand. I say this because, if you think about it, a writer generally won't waste six months to a year of his life to write something they barely enjoy. Rather what you get here is something that the author is dying to tell you. He bets his whole life that if he could get just one point across about the Battle of Hastings to you, that he would die a fulfilled creature. This is what I like about David Howarth's 1066:The Year of Conquest. It sets out to do exactly what it promises to do, and that is paint a picture of the common life of the lay peoples of pre-Norman England and the unfolding drama between King Harold and that douchebag William the Conqueror. What you get when you combine these two sources is a nice foundation of generalized history with an overlay of the specific passionate account that you are concerned with. It really helps, especially when you have at least three Proper histories and three Popular histories to work with.

After establishing the historical circumstances of the era, its important to encounter their worldview and ideas. I think we often forget that when research the habits of those living even a 100 years back, that these people saw the world with completely different eyes than today. For instance, take the late 18th century. During this time was the peak of the French Enlightenment where Deism was all the rage and much of the ruling power of the Aristocracy was being questioned when the rise of merchant authority was beginning to burgeon, making the once poor middle class into a Nouveau riche elite. The state's power of divine right was disappearing along with the common epistomological assumptions of how the cosmos interacted with the divine. It also fostered the beginnings of a modernized theory of the mind, where people began associating the human mind less with the immaterial soul, and more with the mechanics of a complex machine. So, understanding how different this time period was, it is important to enter into their worldview to establish a grounded, realistic historical narrative. Generally the best place to start is to assess your period. If it is taking place from 1400- to present, generally the first place to start is with the predominant philosophy of the era, especially if your period setting is in Europe. If it takes place any time before, the former information is still relevant, but so is the common folklore of the area. Europeans are notorious for their syncretism, that is combining their Western beliefs with common indigenous values. We see this with Saint Nicholas, who, though initially a saint of the Patristic era, is combined with the enchanted Sami medicine man, who flew on enchanted reindeer and gave presents to little children. So then if you are writing about the events of 1066, it would be good to read Beowulf, and Nordic literature to get an understanding of their contemporary values, such as their reverence toward the sea and it's power, and also their connection to the primal lands of the north that still possessed demons and other Antediluvian creatures.

Lastly, and I wager the most important, learn their language. I cannot stress this enough. So much of a culture's heritage lies in their language, how it's constructed, what it's grammar allows one to do with phrases and thoughts. Tolkien learned Old Finnish and Icelandic so that he could read the old sagas and construct with them the artificial languages of the elves and the creatures of Middle Earth. Though this is probably the most difficult of all three tasks, it is not so unreasonable when you do some research. For instance, when I was trying to learn Norwegian, I first looked for cultural clubs that had people of Norwegian descent. Generally at least one of them is native, or expatriated from their country of origin. After you find that person, you have to beg them to teach you, or ask them what the best way is to learn their language. I was lucky in that my informant teaches the language as a hobby once a week at the Sons of Norway Hall, and recommended some good books to start with. I also got some books of my own, like a grammar book for Norwegian and I am currently in the works of getting a really nice dictionary.

Like I said, these are mostly guidelines, and are in and of themselves easy tasks to take on provided you have the patience to sit down and read. I don't expect any of you to become scholars overnight. But if your follow these steps, you'll be on the right track!

See you Thursday!

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