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Cliches in Historical Fiction

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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) » Wed March 6th, 2013, 3:26 pm

[quote=""EC2""]I think the dress description item is a bit more nuanced than just a cliche. It's the kind of thing where there's a division in the readership. Many readers buy the books with the expectation and even enjoyment of reading about the clothes. They get a real buzz out of the sumptuousness and the imagined feel and texture, especially when it's the garments of the court. I would say it's part of the fabric (pun intended) of HF. Done well it's fabulous. Just put out there as a list and doing nothing to enhance the story then it can be a bore, especially for readers not into that aspect of HF.[/quote]
Re-enacting made the whole dressing thing (both sexes) very real to me. Any scene of mine where clothes can go on and off does not need dialog tags--getting dressed provides as many 'action beats' as could be desired. Or getting armored. But you have to know it so well that it almost goes without saying: first the under layer (armor padding or corsets, take your pick) then the outer layer, and last the decorative bits. Which are often the real cause of discussion or concern -- is this (whatever item) suited? will it be enough? too much? is it in bad repair? will it get your protag killed? (as in, inadequate/damaged armor).

I have the same opportunity when my characters manage their animals. ;)
Last edited by MLE (Emily Cotton) on Wed March 6th, 2013, 3:33 pm, edited 3 times in total.

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
Bibliomaniac
Posts: 3562
Joined: August 2008
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) » Wed March 6th, 2013, 3:31 pm

This isn't a cliche -- just a glaring big hole in most HF: either there are no animals, or they are rather robot-like: turn the key and the horse goes 40 miles. In a day. :rolleyes:
Urban readers probably don't miss it, and urban writers likely just aren't thinking about it. But any time earlier that a century ago, animals were woven into your daily life so completely that there was almost no avoiding them. Whether it was the horse that got you around, or the dog that hunted your supper, or the chicken whose neck you had to wring to eat that supper, or whatever the animals left on the streets, they were there. And they created a lot of plot and drama in daily life. Animals are routinely inconvenient.

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Ludmilla
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Post by Ludmilla » Wed March 6th, 2013, 5:46 pm

I know nothing about horses, but it's my understanding from people who do that a lot of authors get basic stuff wrong about horses, such as how you mount them, kneeing a horse, basic behavior, and so forth. The horse is a much mythologized animal. I do think many urbanites' vision of horses is rooted in fantasy and Hollywood movie images.
Last edited by Ludmilla on Wed March 6th, 2013, 5:52 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Lisa
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Post by Lisa » Wed March 6th, 2013, 6:06 pm

[quote=""Ludmilla""]I know nothing about horses, but it's my understanding from people who do that a lot of authors get basic stuff wrong about horses, such as how you mount them, kneeing a horse, basic behavior, and so forth. The horse is a much mythologized animal. I do think many urbanites' vision of horses is rooted in fantasy and Hollywood movie images.[/quote]

Yeah... having never had the chance to get involved with horses myself, I have to say, most of my knowledge of horses has come from fiction, especially Elizabeth Chadwick's novels. A particular scene involving a horse giving birth sticks in my mind, from The Conquest, I think...

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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) » Wed March 6th, 2013, 8:04 pm

Mind you, a horse CAN go 40 miles in a day. But that's like the traveller on foot who covers 20 miles in a day. It isn't the usual, so if it happens, that would in itself be part of the plot, or part of the characterization. And a human who rides 40 miles in a day had better be fit and an excellent rider well accustomed to the saddle.

A few horses can go 100 miles in a 48-hour-period. The winners of the Tevis Cup endurance races do. But those are less than 1%, at the peak of their fitness, riding light, and with riders who do everything possible to help them win.

In emergencies, horses ridden hard often died under saddle. I can't think when the last time I saw that in fiction was. If ever.

You can't do that to a mule or a donkey. They just lie down and quit when they've had enough.

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Margaret
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Post by Margaret » Wed March 6th, 2013, 9:06 pm

In emergencies, horses ridden hard often died under saddle. I can't think when the last time I saw that in fiction was. If ever.
I'm sure I have seen this in fiction at least once or twice, but can't remember where. The threat of it has loomed large in a few novels I have read over the decades. It makes for an exceptionally suspenseful and dramatic situation. I suppose if this were used too often, it could become a cliché!
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Misfit
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Post by Misfit » Wed March 6th, 2013, 10:06 pm

I vaguely recall something in a novel about Catherine Howard (drawing a blank here). There was this marathon horse ride from York to London that seemed a bit of a stretch to accomplish. I am drawing a complete blank on the title/author's name.
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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Posts: 3562
Joined: August 2008
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) » Wed March 6th, 2013, 10:09 pm

[quote=""Margaret""]I'm sure I have seen this in fiction at least once or twice, but can't remember where. The threat of it has loomed large in a few novels I have read over the decades. It makes for an exceptionally suspenseful and dramatic situation. I suppose if this were used too often, it could become a cliché![/quote]
It happened rather routinely in times past, I'm afraid. But yes, it would definitely shock a modern reader, and seem cliche simply because it was noticeable.

A quick question: when does something that is routine and/or typical become defined as cliche? There's the middle-aged man who has a first child, and it's a girl -- I can think of several real-life situations, and they are all simply knocked off their feet by the experience. If I write that, do readers roll their eyes and say, "Oh, that was done in Gone With the Wind. And Silas Marner. So cliche."

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Margaret
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Post by Margaret » Thu March 7th, 2013, 12:56 am

There's the middle-aged man who has a first child, and it's a girl -- I can think of several real-life situations, and they are all simply knocked off their feet by the experience. If I write that, do readers roll their eyes and say, "Oh, that was done in Gone With the Wind. And Silas Marner. So cliche."
It would take more than two examples, I think. And a lot depends on the quality of the writing. There are situations that seem clichéd in the hands of the average writer, but when a really skilled writer adds texture and nuance and psychological depth, bringing the situation to life and making it unique to the characters and setting at hand, it can suddenly rise above cliché to become really meaningful.
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Alex Worthy
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Post by Alex Worthy » Fri March 8th, 2013, 12:52 am

One expression I've run across in both fiction and historical fiction is "His/her smile didn't reach his /her eyes". I've seen this from good writers like Gabaldon as well as from hacks.

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