What Kings Ate and Medieval Underpants

I dropped the book into my lap in disgust. My real desire was to throw it across the room, but I was reading on my kindle and didn’t want to damage it.

What made me shake my head and roll my eyes? A glaring anachronism in what was touted as a “well-researched” historical novel. I’m not sure how the author (or editor, or the traditional publishing house that published the book, for that matter) defines “well-researched.” Obviously not the way I do.

The heroine was a Roman girl of high position. At one point, her mother sends her off to study her French lesson. Seriously? I felt like suddenly I was transported into Victorian England, when most well educated young women studied French.

Putting aside questions of just what education Roman women received, French as a language did not exist in the third century. The Romans knew that area as Gaul. The Franks didn’t even invade that territory for another century.

Someone didn’t bother to check his or her facts.

So what’s an author to do? There’s no shortage of picky readers like me. I can forgive small errors, but glaring ones like the French-speaking Roman princess rip me out of the story and make me lose interest.

Just last week I came across two great resources to help with this problem.

What Kings Ate And Wizards Drank

Written by fantasy author Krista D. Ball, What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank takes the reader on a comic exploration into food across the centuries. She covers how to feed yourself on the run, how to supply your armies as they invade and conquer, and why Irish peasants of the tenth century wouldn’t be eating potatoes.

Along the way, she shares some of the history how native plants (like tobacco) were spread around the globe. Why is this important? Because Egyptians of the time of Christ wouldn’t be wearing cotton (it hadn’t been imported from India yet) and Italians of the twelfth century wouldn’t have been eating tomatoes (Columbus hadn’t made it to the New World yet). And no one in the Middle Ages would have been smoking cigars.

This book provides a wealth of detail that can help writers build a more credible world and add to their story’s conflict. The really adventurous can try out the recipes of various medieval culinary delights.

Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer’s (& Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, & Myths

The second gem I came across covers more than food. Clothing, travel, bathing, funeral customs, you name it, What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank gives readers great information and detail. It also provides guidance for avoiding errors, tips for researching, and an extensive bibliography.

One topic the author covered was that of attitudes. For most of human history, women had a role in society, knew what it was, and stayed in it. The bolder learned to achieve what they wanted working within the boundaries of that role.

No one who tried to free herself from that role would be widely supported. Yet too many historical romances have their heroines striving for equality, to the applause of society. Wouldn’t happen. People in earlier times did not have 21st century attitudes toward life, and it’s jarring to read that they did. The author’s advice to read books written during that time (i.e., Shakespeare if you are writing about Elizabethan England) is sound and should help authors develop characters that fit the time they supposedly live in.

One caveat: there were a few historical errors in this book, as cited by reviewers. All the more reason to heed the author’s advice: do your own research.

What resources have you uncovered to help you write historically accurate novels or stories?

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