Saturday, July 10, 2010

The problem with endpapers

Recently, the history blog 1775 questioned the validity of my use of beards in the Crogan series, the primary concern being that both David and Jonathon Crogan have them despite living in the mid-eighteenth century, in which beards were rarely, if ever, sported by English citizens, even those on the fringes of society.

And the thing is… the writer, J.L. Bell, is absolutely right.

I’ve talked at length about the genesis of the Crogan family tree in interviews (here, here, and here, if interested), but one thing I haven’t talked about is the age at which I conceived it – twenty-four – and the challenges that it now presents me.

The first point – the age – is of note because, however interested in history I was, I had but a cursory understanding of a great deal of it. I’d spent a lot of time researching pirates, the Crusades, and the mid-to-late nineteenth century British Empire, but aside from that the majority of my knowledge was peripheral at best. This means that a few of the characters portrayed in the family tree are going to require some creative solutions in order to make them jive with both real history AND with what will deliver the most entertaining (and genre-satisfying) narrative, which is where the challenges come in. 

Take, for example, Peter Crogan.  Originally I had his endpaper picture dated 1922 - luckily I'd begun researching the Legion before Vengeance was published, and discovered the the emotionally satisfying navy blue coats fell out of service during WWI.  I'd always thought of the Legion as a twenties thing, but thankfully I was able to revise the tree before the first book saw press.  Now, however, I'm stuck with whatever mistakes I've made, but rather than thinking of them AS mistakes I prefer to think of them as challenges.

The most pressing of these challenges is one of the points of contention raised by Mr. Bell, namely the beard and outfit of Jonathon Crogan. Though the buckskin has precedence, I picked the hat and beard at random, and both have proven anachronistic. My thought, at the time of the initial drawing, was that the French and Indian War was going on in the late 1750s, and that most of the men on the frontier would have been the trappers and hunters of popular imagination.

Now, while the presence of trappers and hunters is without doubt, the ones most often documented and popularized (with the furry hats and furry faces) date from the 1820s – some seventy years after my character’s visage is depicted.

This is going to require some sort of rectification, but my ideal is to create a solution in which the anachronism is explained away rather than disowned. Perhaps this picture is following a long trek, before razor’s return, or maybe Jonathon lost a bet requiring him to forgo shaving for a full year. Whatever the cause, I hope that readers will have confidence that I will do all in my power to ensure historical accuracy, including matters of hirsutism.  And, as I've mentioned, the years shown in the endpapers are not necessarily when the books themselves will take place

With each new volume I am confronted with the sheer joy and overwhelming terror of engulfing myself in an entirely new period, and in learning about said period I often find out information that requires me to take the project in a different direction that originally intended – the current project is a testament to that. I am by no means a historian – I am an entertainer, but part of my job is to make sure that those who ARE historians have as much if not more enjoyment than the general populace, free of inaccuracies except when narratively unavoidable, and in such instances I hope to make certain that the spirit of the time and people involved are depicted justly, if not factually.


Pat Bollin said...

This is fun stuff. Do you have an historian friend or two that you can use as consultants for this stuff? That would likely help out.

Ted Dawson said...

Y'know, some men wear beards to hide scars, weak chins or just ugly faces.

Doing historical fiction is tough. And there's always an expert out there who'll catch you. But luckily, it's historical fiction!

I bet the old Daniel Boone show with Fess Parker puts historians into apoplectic fits.

Scott Chantler said...

Same guy made the exact same complaint about NORTHWEST PASSAGE.

Nevermind the fact that Charles Lord is SUPPOSED to look out of place in his gentlemen's clothes, SUPPOSED to be a throwback to an earlier era, and SUPPOSED to have visibly made a break with English ways. And nevermind the sheer practicality of a beard in a frigid northern climate.

Just like a guy who makes hammers thinks that a hammer is the solution to every problem, I guess historical bloggers think that jibing with their research is the most important thing for books like ours. Whereas you and I are much more concerned with (at least) two dozen other storytelling choices when it comes to a character's appearance.

So don't let people like this mess with you. If a beard feels right, it's right, historical blogger guy be damned.

Alan OW Barnes said...

HA! Today on This Beard in History... Anyway, I agree with Mr. Chantler, storytelling is more important than historical accuracy of facial hair. Still, it's a fun conversation.
- Looking forward to the next Crogan book.