Saturday, July 20, 2013

Healthful Histfic

I read a discussion recently about the state of health of people in past centuries, and it got me thinking once again about a certain cut I made in The Ax and the Vase.  As people in historicals (novel or film) have a tendency to either be far too clean or dirty in the extreme, so they also often appear throughout an entire story to go through their lives in apparent good health.  Like the ubiquity of royalty in the genre, the curious absence of any infirmity, deformity, or disease not archly relating to a plot point has sometimes bugged me ... and, of course, is a tendency I have now perpetuated.

It turns out, there is a pretty good reason for this situation, and it is:  economy.

In its original draft form, Ax included a subplot in which Clovis suffers from trichinosis (the disease is unnamed, but I researched and used its symptoms) after getting some bad meat.  For the rest of his life, he has problems with meat, which is an issue for a monarch so concerned with status.  Meat was a status symbol, beef most of all, and for a powerful king interested in propagandizing his reign and displaying his wealth and power - to be unable to indulge in the finest would have been humiliating.

More than that - it's just realistic.  It's clear that among the most common ailments across time are gastro and digestive issues.

So why is it that we so often read the rich results of an author's research on the food a character ate ... yet we so seldom see "results" issuing from the sanitary and other elements of that food's making?  It can be as cosmetic an issue as writing every character as a brilliant intellect and stunning beauty.  In my case, though, it was mechanical:  there is only so much you can - or should - include.

Editing a novel is like editing a film; if a scene or subplot does not move the plot forward, it is unnecessary.  And so, when we do see any indication of a character's health, it almost certainly bears on their arc in some way - the young woman who feels nauseous is pregnant; the person who coughs is going to die of consumption - and we end up with cliches, because a character's health or lack of it almost invariably becomes a mechanism.  I justified Clovis' trichinosis as realistic and supporting the theme of his concern for status and display, but in the end it was a thread that added nothing but a bit of contrived/would-be "grit" that sat there sort of by itself like an introvert at a party.

It had to go.

In The Ax and the Vase, we still see some hints of the medical state of our friends in Late Antiquity.  The mother of Clovis' first son dies after childbirth, there are war wounds and deaths - Queen Saint Clotilde herself, after a difficult delivery, actually chooses to deprive herself physically for reasons of her faith.  But nothing sits around outside the plot, having nothing to do.

I cut the trichinosis story for the same reason I cut a bodyguard named Wilichar and, indeed, any presence at all of Clovis' father, Childeric (who, however, is so fascinating a character I have a very minor side project touching on his history).  The manuscript was bloated, and clearance was required.

So, sometimes, the cliches we end up with in historicals (or any writing, come to think of it) are born of the economies of storytelling.  Done well, it can still produce a worthwhile story, even if the portrait of a period remains focused and misses a more complete picture.  Read Ax when I get it out there - and tell me whether you agree ...


Mojourner said...

Nice post on the genesis of cliches and the infirmity of health and other details outside of the arc.

The post makes me wonder, did Clovis' people suffer respiratory ailments and skin problems as some of their primary health issues? My experience is limited to a few corners of the earth (none in Europe), but if you look at traditional medicines there, your typical character might have lesions and command his dust-raising army in a wheezy voice, spitting and coughing all the while.

DLM said...

I actually toyed with the idea of giving Clotilde issues with skin rashes and the like, but never went anywhere and that I would have to think is for the best. And, as you might know, when I first began writing this, I was still far too close to lung disease issues to think of that - though it's a good idea.

The WIP's MC has some health issues of her own, and is a decided non-beauty ... so stay tuned. You know, for like another eight years. *Eye roll!*