Victoria Bitter (victoriabitter) wrote,
Victoria Bitter

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Once Upon A Time...


Some of the long barrels in the corners of his vision trembled slightly, but Private Sharpe held his own musket with a stillness born of ironclad fury. This weapon did not hold the magical accuracy of a rifle, but as the rumble of the lancer's boots thudded out a heartbeat on the uncaring French earth, he set the crude nub of a sight between the eyes of a green-coated, pigtailed Frog with the damning sword of an officer branding his side. There would be death on this field soon, but not his. Not today.


Archie bit his lip, stifling a schoolboy's laugh as he closed the door of Horatio's cabin behind them. His friend was quite serious, clearly finding no humour in their situation whatsoever as he pulled off his blue midshipman's jacket and twisted to regard the evidence with a horror that seemed indeed no farther from tears than the breadth of his determination. The dark eyes flinted accusingly up, and Archie raised his hands above his head in innocent surrender. "By my honour, Horatio, I told you the very moment it came to my eye."


Duncan allowed a thin smile to bleed across his mouth as he regarded the other Immortal, seeing the hardened eyes and broad shoulders betrayed beneath the dandy's powdered wig and silken coat. "Six o'clock, then. But I fear one of us will not be attending M'Lady's dinner this evening."


But there...the candle had burnt nearly to a stub, the stew from luncheon was congealing in its bowl in a way that suggested tea had been utterly ignored, and the shadows across the floor were long and russet in dying light. Frodo pulled the pocket watch from his weskit and snapped it open, swallowing hard as it gave the final seal to the signs arrayed before him. Suddenly, the neat lines of Tengwar traced across the parchment seemed to mock him, and he jammed his pen into the inkwell so harshly that the delicate feather tip split in two. He didn't care. He'd missed it.


Okay, what's wrong with these pictures?

Yeah, the characterization's okay. Prose is fine enough. Grammar is workable. Can't tell much about plot in a single paragraph. No egregious spelling errors. So far so good.

Except that when Sharpe was a Private, he served in India, not France, and green-coated, pigtailed Dragoons were neither lancers nor foot troops anyway. Midshipmen did not have their own cabins on even the largest of His Majesty's ships of the line, and unless Archie were a hobbit, there would be no way for him to raise his hands above his head without slamming them awkwardly against the less-than-five-foot-tall ceilings belowdecks. During the era of bewigged, silk-clad dandies, dinner was at one or two o'clock in the afternoon, even for Immortals, and Tolkien specifically states that hobbits have no technology more complicated than the loom or waterwheel, making pocket watches a definite no-no.

Can you tell what the latest thing to drive me nuts about fanfic is? If you guessed sloppy or no research, you're right.

Now, of course, I do participate in unusually research-heavy fandoms. When writing fanfiction for, say, Buffy, if you know the show's canon and a thing or two about vampires in general, you can write with a fair amount of confidence. If you can’t, betas are easy to come by with most modern fandoms. Even if you’re not a native of the country where the show is set, or where a major character is from, such as an American writing Benton Fraser on Due South, real-life people from era in that country are no more than a click away. Slightly further back, Professionals and Man from UNCLE writers have relatively little trouble contacting willing betas who were of age during the days of bell bottoms and free love, and if one does not have convenient grandparents at hand, a quick stop by the local nursing home can bring you slang, pop culture, and specifics as far back as the Roaring Twenties.

It’s not so easy when you’re writing about the seventeen twenties. Though we have their memoirs and letters in some cases, I can’t think of a single surviving Napoleonic soldier with an email address, and just reading the books and seeing the movies does not always prepare you to write in a bygone era. You may know that Sharpe carries a Baker Rifle during most of the series, but do you know where the safety is? Where the cleaning tools are kept? Do you know where a miller would be found on a ship?

Writing historical fiction - even historical fanfiction - requires a heck of a lot of research work. The world of the past smelled differently, worked differently, lived differently, loved differently, and even died differently. The language was different, even when it called itself English, and unexpected period mores and manners often undermine character responses and plot devices we take for granted, much to the head-aching dismay of modern authors.

Fortunately, when you get all the details right, it shows, even if you're certain that your three hours spent on google figuring out whether or not Lawford wore underwear were for naught. It creates a sense of realism that the lay reader notices and admires even subconsciously, and that causes the geeks among us to worship at your feet.

The designers of LOTR, though their medium is visual arts rather than text, understand this perfectly. They could have easily gotten away with putting random pretty swirls on Sting, but it's inscribed instead with genuine Tengwar. Go them.

Admittedly, not all of us know Tengwar, and the opportunity to spend a year or two learning the ropes on a frigate is certainly not available to everyone who wishes to write Hornblower fic. But there are many good sites on the internet that are chock-full of all the information a writer could want, and better still, there are other fans. I go to Lorelei when I want Elvish, because she's fairly fluent in both Sindarin and Quenya, and I go to Ragged Rose to make my nautical details ship-shape, but I also have my own areas of expertise, and more than one author has come to me for info on properly undressing an 18th century tart or writing Westron.

The truth is out there. Yeah, sometimes you do need to make things up - especially in a fandom like LOTR where, although I group it with historical fiction because of the sheer depth of canon and the pre-industrial setting, Tolkien still did not tell us what a Rohirric peasant woman wore - but those cases are few and far between. It takes work, and it slows you down, but go ahead...visit that library, use those search engines, and network like crazy.

Your readers will thank you for it.

Oh, and there is no safety on a Baker Rifle except the Rifleman's good sense, the cleaning tools are kept in a chamber in the butt behind a sliding brass plate, and millers are found just about everywhere onboard most ships, as that is simply a name that the sailors used for rats.
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