Writing in the Past Sucks

Full Moon by @Doug88888 from FlickrOne of the interesting things about writing an Urban Fantasy novel is the number of doors that are open to you as an author. Of course, this is also one of the more annoying aspects of the genre as well.

For example, some part of my brain decided that it would be fun to set large chunks of Book Three at various points in the past.

Now, when writing a book where your characters’ pasts are examined, it makes a big difference if those characters are human or if those characters are nearly immortal beings of somewhat indeterminate age, such as you might find in Urban Fantasy. If I’m flashing back for a character, and they’re human, then maybe I have to go back a few decades. I’d have to remove cell phones and make TVs bulky again and change who is president and so on and so forth. Which is challenging, but not very daunting…to me…at the moment…considering.

Because currently what I’m doing is flashing back to completely and utterly different historic periods and geographic areas. And I know nothing about history. I’ve done research, a lot of research, but research can’t really get you the “man on the street” sort of perspective. I mean I’m panicking because I’m pretty sure that I’m calling the local political big-wig the wrong word. But, there’s no real way to know if I’m being accurate because details are sketchy for the area and time I’m writing about. Plus a lot of history books will throw out a title that sounds foreign and exotic, but really it’s just the word “lord” in the region’s language. Which means that the average peasant would just use the word “lord.” Right? Or they would use their word for “lord,” except I’m writing their dialogue in English so do I use their word for “lord” or just write “lord?”

Sometimes my head hurts.

Also, you know what? There’s a lot of history. And you can always dig deeper. It’s like a fractal picture or something where if you zoom in enough you just get the same picture. Your brain just rests at whatever scope it is comfortable at. So I have, sort of, an idea of what European history was all about, and I kind of have it in my head that England was a big deal? But England, in its prime, was actually a bunch of different parties and leaders vying for control and input. And those parties were a bunch of individuals vying for input. And those individuals were a constant churning of emotion and reaction vying for input…so at what level to I paint my history?

And then you start telescoping into the past. If you keep going back England fades and the Netherlands rises, and then Spain, and then France, and then the Hapsburg dynasty, and does any of this matter in Romania? Of course it does because policies effect neighboring states which then effect neighboring states which then effect neighboring states…and Europe was just one giant intersecting mish-mash with like a billion different eras. But does any of that matter to my story? Sort of. I need some of  in there but, again, what level of history do I want to include?

Then on the opposite end of things, it’s possible to write something that is historically accurate and have it come across as fake. People back then chilled out and ate lunch and built buildings and made fun of friends just like people always have. But if you slip in too much of that stuff, readers will actually reject it because it’s not all historical sounding.

In Probability Angels I had Isaac Newton living in an apartment at Trinity college. This is because all of the books I read about Newton, when discussing his Trinity years, referred to his living space as an apartment.

And yet I’ve had readers complain that that word, “apartment,” seems far too modern and that coming across it jarred them out of the story.

But it’s the freaking word they used!

I don’t know.

I guess you just use that “art of storytelling” thing and find your fine line to walk.

But damn does it suck sometimes.


  1. Research, research, the nuisance of both writers and translators… I know the feeling so well. And I remember writing a story that partially took part in the ancient Egypt – that was one hell of a research. But it is also the part where one can learn really much about stuff that they would never touch otherwise.

    Apartment – the word in the US vocabulary appeared in 19th century, but it is an older word coming from Latin (used often in French and Italian). I may not be a native, but I have some linguistic knowledge and… research skills. So whoever complained, should have firstly taken a look into an etymology dictionary…

    I’m not sure I can help you much, but I did major in history at high school and had some really intense history classes at university (especially the UK and the US), so if I can help you, please just give me a sign! :))