Susanne Alleyn: Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders

If you write historical fiction, you need Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders, Susanne Alleyn’s “Writer’s (& Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, & Myths.” If you read historical fiction, if you’re a history buff, you will enjoy this voyage into everything that goes wrong in writing about the past.


medieval-underpantsUnder General Rule #1, Never Assume, Alleyn discusses underwear, geography, dialog and slang, British vs American English, foreign phrases, what Alleyn calls “presentism,” that is, inserting modern attitudes into historical situations, first names, and introductions.


Why didn’t most women wear underpants until fairly recently? What do the modern British mean by “pants”? Why doesn’t fall follow summer in Britain? What’s the difference between “arse” and “ass”? When should your characters call each other by their first names? Who should be presented to whom, and why?


General Rule #2, Wikipedia Is Your Friend, gives a starting point for basic research on food, plants, and animals (Old World vs New World), names (all the way back to ancient Rome), and guns.


Where did dandelions come from, and when, and why? What plants and animals had Europeans never seen before the sixteenth century, and when did they make their way into widespread use? What does anybody mean by “corn”? What plants and animals had pre-contact American Indians never seen? What’s the difference between a pistol and a revolver? Between a musket and a rifle?


Under General Rule #3, Do Not Borrow Your Period Details & Information From Other People’s Historical Novels and Movies, Alleyn discusses unnamed novels, Braveheart (Wallace never wore a kilt, and as for that French princess, forget her), several versions of A Tale of Two Cities (even Dickens flubbed a few details when he wrote historical fiction), money, English aristocratic and royal titles (with examples from Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey’s family and Downton Abbey,), lighting, and travel (historically very slow).


What was money really worth, and what would a sou buy? How many farthings made a penny? How many shillings made a crown? A pound? A guinea? What’s the difference between John, Lord Throckmorton and Lord John Throckmorton? Between a marquess and a marquis? Why is an earl’s wife a countess?


General Rule #4 is Don’t Just Swallow the Propaganda, Cliches, and Myths. The English and French versions of the French Revolution (Alleyn’s specialty) were very different. This section also includes hygiene and cleanliness, table manners, physical stature, teeth, servants and housekeeping, cafes and coffeehouses, doorknobs, glass and pottery, paper, pens, and pencils, restaurants, rubber and elastic, stirrups, telephones, window screens, and finally death and burial.


Why did Renaissance doctors discourage bathing? What was the etiquette of eating with one’s fingers, and when did forks come into use? How tall was Napoleon, really? Why were servants more necessity than luxury, and why was being a servant a good job? What’s the difference between a house maid and a parlor maid? How did execution by guillotine proceed? What was life really like in the first half of the twentieth century? When was the fountain pen invented?


Alleyn includes a final section on research, with several pages of references, broken into time periods, covering ancient times to 1950.


Even if you are writing about a time and place far removed from Alleyn’s specifics (mostly France, England and North America), her topics and information will give you insight into the details you should be researching rather than assuming. Even if you are building your own world of fantasy or the future, these are details you need to consider.


And if you are reading the book for entertainment, there is so much interesting material here, and more than a few mysteries solved.

Two Historical Novels

Recent reading: two historical novels loosely based on the lives of real American women.


I stumbled across Thelma Adams’ The Last Woman Standing by chance and thoroughly enjoyed it. Adams has taken what little is known of the life of Josephine Marcus Earp (and much of that is hazy and/or disputed) and the-last-woman-standingwoven a fascinating tale of her meeting and falling in love with the legendary Wyatt Earp. It’s no spoiler to say that Josie (or Sadie, as she was also known) and Wyatt remained together for nearly fifty years, until his death, for Josie tells that story herself in the first chapter.


When Josie leaves her humble Jewish home in San Francisco to marry a man she met in Tombstone (when she spent a brief time with a traveling theater troupe), she finds her fiance unreliable, and Wyatt Earp irresistible. A great deal happens in the next year or so (1881-1882), both in Josie’s personal life and in better known history (remember the OK Corral?), and Josie relates it well.


The book has not been marketed as a romance—it doesn’t really fit the genre pattern—but romance lovers will enjoy it. So will readers who enjoy historical detail, including some insight into Jewish family and community life in nineteenth century San Francisco and Tombstone.


The Last Woman Standing isn’t biography (and doesn’t claim to be), but it is wonderful story telling, and lays out Josephine Marcus Earp’s life the way we all might hope it was.


Lady Cop Makes Trouble is the sequel to Amy Stewart’s Girl Waits With Gun, relating the further adventures of Constance Kopp and her eccentric sisters, loosely based on real people and events. In this second novel, Constance is working as the jail matron while awaiting her official deputy sheriff’s badge, Norma continues lady-cop-makes-troubleher passion for messenger pigeons, and Fleurette has turned eighteen and become a blossoming performer in local theater.


At the jail in New Jersey, Constance deals with women who may be criminals or victims (in 1915 it could be hard to tell the difference), especially one who seems remarkably happy to stay in jail, even when it appears she could not have committed the murder she’s accused of.


When a prisoner escapes on Constance’s watch, she throws herself into the pursuit, defying Sheriff Heath’s orders and charging into New York City in search of the criminal. Along the way she stays at a hotel for women, where she meets a lawyer, a reporter, and a filing clerk, and she roams the streets of the city, where she meets much less respectable characters and makes an arrest.


Lady Cop Makes Trouble is just as entertaining as Girl Waits With Gun. Stewart adds an author’s note at the end separating fiction from fact. I hope we’ll be seeing more of Constance Kopp, Lady Cop.

Natalie Meg Evans’ The Milliner’s Secret

Natalie Meg Evans’ The Milliner’s Secret dragged me in from the opening pages and never let go. As The Milliner's Secretthe novel begins in 1937, Cora Masson works in a London hat factory while trying to avoid her abusive Belgian father. The only thing he’s given her is a working knowledge of French, which she uses to flee to Paris when a near-stranger, German art dealer Dietrich von Elbing, offers her his valet’s seat on the boat train.

That impulsive decision changes her life in ways she could never have imagined. With forged documents, she becomes Coralie de Lirac, turning her back on England and making her way in the cut-throat world of Parisian fashion as a milliner. Working her way up in the trade, Coralie never hesitates to fight for her future, for the people she loves, and, as the war sweeps through France, for survival.

Her complicated, changing relationship with Dietrich von Elbing forms the core of the story. Dietrich’s secrets are deeply buried, gradually peeling away like onion skin. An ace pilot for the Luftwaffe in World War I, the approach of another war draws him back into the military as a respected senior officer. His relationship with Coralie serves to protect her—when it’s not proving to be her greatest danger. Drawn together and driven apart, Coralie and Dietrich move through one another’s lives and through the dangers of occupied Paris.

The backdrop of war mixes with the more intimate world of high fashion and the highly competitive, and sometimes vicious, millinery trade. Even as the Nazi occupation dims the Paris lights, women want their hats, and Coralie often serves French customers in the morning and German officers’ wives in the afternoon. The Milliner’s Secret overflows with fascinating background details about fashion and hats, nightlife, feast and famine.

Evans’ previous novel, The Dress Thief, explored the world of high fashion in Paris in the 1930s, ending before the war reached Paris. Although The Milliner’s Secret is not a sequel, supporting The Dress Thiefcharacters from The Dress Thief reappear in Coralie’s life, sometimes as friends, sometimes as foes, sometimes as both, as well as new characters, some trustworthy, some not.

I don’t want to give away too many details: this is a book filled with surprises best unspoiled. The Milliner’s Secret is one of the most gripping novels I have read in a long time.

Both The Milliner’s Secret and The Dress Thief are available as ebooks from U.S etailers. Paper editions are available (fast delivery and free shipping) from the Book Depository in Great Britain.

Recent Reading

I’ve been enjoying Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone mystery series for many years, since it began with Edwin of the Iron Shoes back in 1977. When I noticed that Muller had published the first in a new series, written with her husband Bill Pronzini, I bought a copy and quickly misplaced it in my fear-inspiring collection of unread books (so many books, so little time). When I learned that two more books have come out in the series, I found The Bughouse Affair on my mystery shelf and read it.

“Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services,” has been in business in San Francisco for The Bughouse Affairthree years when The Bughouse Affair opens in 1894. Sabina Carpenter is a former Pinkerton investigator, widowed when her husband was killed on a case. John Quincannon is a former Secret Service Agent. Their partnership is strictly business, although Quincannon would like something more to develop (and perhaps it will, in time).

While an Englishman who claims to be Sherlock Holmes meddles in their investigations, Sabina and John find that their separate cases, involving burglars, pickpockets, and murder, are actually related. But the real charm of the book for me is the detailed and very believable description of life and business in the San Francisco of 1894. If you enjoy the setting, you will enjoy the book.

Also set in the late nineteenth century, but not fiction at all, is Evan Schwartz’ Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story. As the subtitle suggests, this is less straight biography than a portrait of the society and political events that influenced Baum. I picked the book up because, although I Finding Ozam a life-long Oz fan, I knew little about it’s creator. I learned that Baum dabbled in a variety of business ventures, most of them less than successful, lived in a number of places, and married the daughter of a well-known crusading feminist. I also learned a great deal about the life and times of the period.

I found some of Schwartz’ conclusions a bit far-fetched (he did not convince me that the massacre at Wounded Knee was reflected somewhere in The Wizard of Oz), but the book was definitely entertaining. I have a couple of anthologies containing the first ten Oz books on my shelf (Schwartz shows little interest in Baum’s career post-Wizard) and I may just reread them one of these days.

Howard Blum’s American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century is the story of the terrorist bombing of the Los Angeles Time building in 1910. Like many “crime of the century” events, this one has been largely forgotten. I’d never heard of it, and when I mentioned it recently to a friend who grew up in L.A., she didn’t know about it, either.

American LightningBlum’s narration mostly follows the efforts of William Burns, known in his day as “the American Sherlock Holmes,” to identify and track down the bombers, but he also brings in D.W. Griffith, who finds inspiration in the case as the movie industry moves from New York to Hollywood, and the attorney Clarence Darrow, who was involved in the defense of the accused bombers. Griffith’s involvement seemed a bit tenuous to me, but I enjoyed the descriptions of the early movie business.

American Lightning gives an interesting picture of the U.S. (and Los Angeles in particular) a century ago, and reminds us that terrorism is nothing new.

Hell on Wheels: Ruth’s Decision

I don’t think I’ve written about Hell on Wheels this season, although I’ve been watching faithfully. Last night’s episode, Thirteen Steps, revolved around Ruth Cole, the Church Lady. If you haven’t watched but plan to, you may want to leave now. There will be spoilers.

Ruth Cole

Two episodes ago, in Return to Hell, Ruth shot Sydney Snow, who had come back to town after setting the church on fire and killing (although not intentionally) Ezra Dutton, the boy Ruth had taken in. The fact that Snow was facing off with Bohannon at the time had nothing to do with Ruth’s action. She simply wanted to kill the man who had killed her child.

In last week’s episode, Bloody Kansas, Snow died, despite the best efforts of Bohannon, Durant (who once attended medical school, studying ophthalmology, but never graduated), Eva, and Louise, leaving Ruth open to a murder charge. (The only reason anyone wanted to save Snow’s life, mind you, was to protect Ruth.)

This week, in Thirteen Steps (the number of stairs to the gallows), no one wanted Ruth to hang but Ruth. Bohannon swore that she had saved his life by shooting Snow, but she would have none of it. Governor Campbell was willing, even eager, to grant her a pardon, but, following the letter of the law, only if she would formally accept it. She refused, saying that pardons are for cowards. Bohannon even tried to drag her out of her cell and put her on a train to New York, but she refused that, too. The people of Cheyenne, gathered in the street in front of the jail, holding candles while the hangman rebuilt the gallows that Bohannon had pushed over, could not shake her resolve.

Ruth gave no reason beyond the fact that she was guilty of murder, that she had shot Snow simply because she wanted to kill him.

So many small things made this a fascinating and multi-layered hour of television. Bohannon and Ruth talking in the jail most of the night, he telling her about a botched hanging he had once witnessed, she telling him about the time she slipped in a mud puddle that was really a deposit of horse droppings, the two of them sharing a genuine laugh over her embarrassment—how may times have we seen Cullen Bohannon laugh?

Louise catching Campbell dancing, alone in his room, and telling her that back East, after a hard decision, he would take his wife dancing.

The grave and courteous professional hangman, assuring Ruth that he would be with her, explaining exactly what would happen, patiently rebuilding the gallows Bohannon had pushed down. The hangman’s strange assistant, a little boy wearing the same uniform of black coat and top hat.

The writers on Hell on Wheels don’t pull their punches. There was no last minute reprieve, no miraculous rescue, no sudden change of heart, only Bohannon, who had stormed off, unwilling to be a party to it all, reappearing at the last minute so that Ruth, by now terrified, could see him there before the hood dropped over her head, and we heard the trap door open beneath her feet.

At the end of Thirteen Steps, perhaps moved by Ruth’s insistence that “the brave choice is always family,” Bohannon, who has buried Ruth next to Ezra, tells Durant “I quit,” and heads for Fort Smith, Naomi and baby William.

One more episode this season, and then a final season, another fourteen episodes split between 2015 and 2016 (oh, the waiting!). Will Bohannon find his family? Will the railroad cross the mountains? Stay tuned.

(Kasha Kropinski and Anson Mount discuss the episode and their characters on the AMC Hell on Wheels web site.)

Summer TV and History

Remember when the TV season ran from late September through sometime in May, and the summer was populated with reruns and variety shows? These days summer TV is still full of reruns, as well as countless “reality shows,” but the cable networks have thrown the old calendar aside and put some of their best (scripted!) shows on in the summer. I often say I don’t care for violence, but apparently it’s only twenty-first century violence that bothers me. Dress the offenders up in costume and send them back in time, throw in some beautiful scenery, and I’m there for all the blood and guts.

One of my favorites, Hell on Wheels, began its 2014 season this weekend, catching us up with most of most of its established characters and adding some new ones. Protagonist Cullen Bohannon is still trapped in the Mormon fort, digging a well under the supervision of his long-time nemesis the Swede (who pointed out once again, in his assumed identity as Bishop Dutson, that the “late” Thor Gundersen was actually Norwegian). The opener saw the birth of Cullen’s son and his new determination to take Naomi and the baby with him when he leaves.

Meanwhile in Cheyenne, Durant manages to sink an entire train in a frozen river, auction off his land to raise money, and get himself thrown out of the hotel by an angry Maggie Palmer. General Grant, about to be elected President, has sent a new watchdog to make Durant’s life miserable. Eva is doing laundry for the brothel, determined not to go back to whoring (“But that’s what you’re good at,” says Mickey McGinnes, now the mayor of Cheyenne—and still running the brothel), and mourning the loss of Elam.

That’s right, there was no sign of Elam, not even in the opening credits, but I’m hoping he’ll be back. Maybe he’s been hanging with Joseph Black Moon’s folks since he had that run in with the bear. It would be nice to see Joseph back again, too.

Hell on Wheels 2014

Another period show I’ve been enjoying this summer is The Musketeers, a rousing swashbuckler from BBCAmerica, featuring swords, guns, and four very attractive men. I haven’t read Dumas in several decades (my tolerance for long, involved nineteenth century epic novels is not what it once was), so I can’t even guess whether any of the story lines have been taken from the original novel. But I had no trouble recognizing the characters. Athos, the mature, responsible aristocrat, is younger than I always imagined him (he was my favorite), but carries the part well. Aramis is the devil-may-care swordsman with the heart of a romantic, and Porthos is the mixed race (as was Dumas himself) child of the streets. And D’Artagnan, of course, remains the idealistic young countryman, determined to earn a commission in the King’s Musketeers. The most recognizable actor, to Americans anyway, is Peter Capaldi, spot-on as Cardinal Richelieu. If a second season is planned, they may have to recast or eliminate the Cardinal, as Capaldi has moved on to become the new Doctor Who. The Musketeers was filmed somewhere near Prague, with scenery doing a remarkable job of passing for early seventeenth century France, from the underside of Paris to the glories of the palaces and churches.

The Musketeers

Vikings, perhaps the most violent of all, is over for 2014 but will be back in 2015. This season ended with a blood bath, leaving Ragnar, a simple farmer when the series began, as the apparent king. My favorite Viking, though, is still Lagertha, shield maiden, Ragnar’s former wife, now an earl in her own right.

Many of my friends are excited about Outlander, just starting this week. I’m afraid I’ll have to wait for the DVDs on that one, as I don’t subscribe to Showtime. That might just give me time to read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels. I know I have the first one, right over there on one of the To Be Read shelves . . .

Fifty Years Ago Today

To many of my friends, the tragedy that played out on November 22, 1963, and the days that followed, are pages in a history text, perhaps something their parents told them about, as my parents told me what they were doing when they heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor.

I was a junior at Coral Gables Senior High that day.  I didn’t hear the initial report of the shooting because I was outside in Phys Ed class.  I have no memory of what sport I was being forced to play that day–in November in south Florida it could have been anything–but I remember the buzz of talk in the halls when I came in for my next class, hearing the news that the President had been shot.  I think I was in English class when the news came that he had died, but most of that day still seems, as it did then, a bad dream.  Surely we would all wake up and find that it had never happened.

November 22 was a Friday in 1963, too, and I remember, dazed as we all were, leaving my gym bag at the bus stop, and going back to find it waiting for me hours later.  Collecting my gym bag seemed oddly important at the time, and I must have borrowed my dad’s car to do it.

I remember spending the weekend that followed glued to the TV, watching report after report, waiting to wake up from the dream.  And then watching the film clip of Ruby shooting Oswald, over and over again.

I remember watching the funeral, with all the pageantry, and all the sadness.  That was on the Monday, and I think school must have been closed.

It’s funny, but I suspect this is true for many people–my clearest memory of those four days is the beginning, where I was, what I was doing, when I first heard the news.  For the rest of it, it’s hard to separate my individual memories from the collective memory produced by the news coverage of the time and the decades of discussion and debate which have followed.

With all credit to Gary Brookins, who writes and draws Pluggers, one of my favorite comic panels:  I think he summed up the memories of my generation very nicely this morning.


What do you remember of that weekend in November, fifty years ago?

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