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Cliches in Historical Fiction

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boswellbaxter
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Cliches in Historical Fiction

Post by boswellbaxter » Sat March 2nd, 2013, 2:48 pm

Divia, Tanzanite, Gillian Bagwell, Sophie Perinot and I are doing a panel at the upcoming HNS conference titled "The Feisty Heroine Sold into Marriage Who Hates Bear Baiting: Cliches in Historical Fiction and How to Avoid Them." In preparation for the panel, we thought we would ask you to list some of the cliches you run across. Thanks!
Susan Higginbotham
Coming in October: The Woodvilles


http://www.susanhigginbotham.com/
http://www.susanhigginbotham.com/blog/

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Interest in HF: started in childhood with the classics, which, IMHO are HF even if they were contemporary when written.
Favourite HF book: Prince of Foxes, by Samuel Shellabarger
Preferred HF: Currently prefer 1600 and earlier, but I'll read anything that keeps me turning the page.
Location: California Bay Area

Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Sat March 2nd, 2013, 2:56 pm

Main cliche: hero or heroine is facing death and has absolutely no concept or curiosity about what might happen to their soul afterwards. Or the death of a loved one, no problems or wrestling with their belief system. Be they Catholic, protestant, Orthodox, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan or Animist, people facing death believe in SOMETHING.
And since, unlike most modern readers, people 100 years ago (or people today who live in the undeveloped world) had many more loved ones underground than above it, the possibility of death and the sense of 'after' cast a much greater shadow over the living.
Last edited by MLE (Emily Cotton) on Sat March 2nd, 2013, 3:00 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Posts: 3560
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Interest in HF: started in childhood with the classics, which, IMHO are HF even if they were contemporary when written.
Favourite HF book: Prince of Foxes, by Samuel Shellabarger
Preferred HF: Currently prefer 1600 and earlier, but I'll read anything that keeps me turning the page.
Location: California Bay Area

Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Sat March 2nd, 2013, 3:04 pm

Second cliche: Woman of childbearing age engages in a sexual encounter involving possible conception where consequences said pregnancy would be disastrous, and not a thought of that possibility or the repercussions thereof crosses her mind.

Sex was the number one cause of death for women of childbearing age. As in, pregnancy and its attendant complications. Something that is not true of modern readers and which writers are either blissfully unaware of themselves, or too lazy to add an uncomfortable historical truth to their sex scenes.

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Misfit
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Post by Misfit » Sat March 2nd, 2013, 4:38 pm

*ponders*

I'm sure there will be more, but I'm still waking up. Have to agree about the having sex without thought of consequences.

Modern mindsets and values drive me batty.

Young heiresses being able to lose their chaperon and run off with the chauffeur and have hot sex/young women of earlier periods being able to lose their duenna and run off with whoever-the-hell she might run off with and have hot sex.

No barriers between classes, e.g. a maid being BFF with their mistresses (or queen, take your pick) and having unlimited access to say, the upper decks of the Titanic.
At home with a good book and the cat...
...is the only place I want to be

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Interest in HF: started in childhood with the classics, which, IMHO are HF even if they were contemporary when written.
Favourite HF book: Prince of Foxes, by Samuel Shellabarger
Preferred HF: Currently prefer 1600 and earlier, but I'll read anything that keeps me turning the page.
Location: California Bay Area

Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Sat March 2nd, 2013, 5:42 pm

Important people like kings, dukes, lords, (or female equivalents) and heads of large religious organizations with little or no ceremony in their daily lives. Even up to the 20th century this was the rule -- look at Downton Abbey!

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Misfit
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Post by Misfit » Sat March 2nd, 2013, 6:23 pm

Perhaps not a cliche, but something that drives me nuts - Mary-Sue and Richard-Sue and absolute perfection. On the other hand, using yellow teeth/snarls/onion breath/gravy dripped beards to tell your reader how bad the baddie is. Round them out with (hate to use the phrase) shades of gray.

Here's a big one:

DO. NOT. DEFAME. THE. DEAD.
At home with a good book and the cat...
...is the only place I want to be

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emr
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Post by emr » Sat March 2nd, 2013, 8:21 pm

K I have to say this. **pulls up her sleeves** Why is it that every time there is some Spanish character described he's always got black hair and black eyes? What? (sorry EC your description of El Cid having black hair and black eyes really hurt me ;) :D Black hair maybe. Black eyes I don't think so.)

Most people around here (north of the peninsula) have dark blond hair. The black hair is something I've found in people who after some conversation end up confesing some gipsy or morish background. And I've noticed it's something that it's common in closed communities (you can still find large villages where most of the population share the same surname because they are all somehow related) Funny enough when these people marry "outside" the children tend to have straight blondish hair. So the blond is in their genes somehow (or a lack of melanine).

But the eyes? I haven't met anyone with black eyes in my life. (Not even people from other races.)
In my fathers generation (he was born in 1912) everybody in his family and in a 200 km radius from where he was born had blue or greenish eyes. It's a generation that it's disapearing and who married mostly people from other regions so their children tend to the green- light brown eyes. There are grandchildren and great granchildren being born still with beautiful blue-violet eyes. They are a minority though.

But. Let's go back in time. Blue eyes in the 20th century means ancestors with blue eyes. Not one black eye in sight in the region of north Castilla and Pais Vasco. Then there is Asturias and Canarias where you find many people blond with blue eyes because they are descendants of the viking raids. See? Blue again.
The south of the peninsula is different. You can see the arabic and gipsy ancestry everywhere. But you find mostly brown eyes.

Of course the high amount of central europeans moving here are unbalancing the gene pool (I guess that's the expresion) And now you see many children with blue eyes yes and curly blond hair. I can't help but stare at there children. And there are more and more twins and triplets.. but yah that's a different topic.
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Lisa
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Post by Lisa » Sat March 2nd, 2013, 9:36 pm

emr I agree - I've never met anyone with black eyes either, of any race. I'm surprised at how often it comes up in physical descriptions of fictional characters. And as for the black hair, one only has to look at how poor Katherine of Aragon is portrayed in nearly every film or tv series she's in. Although of course historical fiction is at least usually way above the stupidity of that :)

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EC2
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Post by EC2 » Sat March 2nd, 2013, 11:02 pm

I guess black eyes are a poetic description of very dark brown and are a frequent description. Everyone knows what it means. My son's best friend, of Scandinavian parentage has raven-black hair, eyes as dark as bitter chocolate and a sallow complexion. Another Swedish friend has black hair and very, very dark brown eyes, so it's not exactly cut and dried about Scandinavians being blue-eyed blondes all the time, even as it's not cut and dried that every Spaniard is dark haired and dark eyed. I apologise for El Cid. That's the way he came to my imagination.
Les proz e les vassals
Souvent entre piez de chevals
Kar ja li coard n’I chasront

'The Brave and the valiant
Are always to be found between the hooves of horses
For never will cowards fall down there.'

Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal

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EC2
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Post by EC2 » Sat March 2nd, 2013, 11:20 pm

Casual attitudes and over-familiarity between the classes.

High status aristocratic women with common peasant women for servants.

Heroes and heroines who take a bath every day. (okay, the medievals did bathe and did wash every day, but not total bubble-bath immersion), but there's a school of novel that panders to the 'we must be squeaky clean' version of history where the protags are plunging themselves into a tub every 5 pages, usually before a sexual encounter).
Les proz e les vassals
Souvent entre piez de chevals
Kar ja li coard n’I chasront

'The Brave and the valiant
Are always to be found between the hooves of horses
For never will cowards fall down there.'

Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal

www.elizabethchadwick.com

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