Non-Fiction Fridays Book Review: Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders by Susanne Alleyn
Full title: Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer’s (& Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, & Myths.
I’m going to put this in bold type so it’s very, very clear:
If you are an author, editor or aspiring author of historical fiction of any genre, this book should be in your reference library.
Divided into chapters on various useful topics, beginning with the aforementioned underpants and their usage (or rather, lack of) in history, Alleyn directs the attention to various pitfalls found while writing historical fiction. From grammar and colloquialisms to Americanisms and the origin dates of French words in the English language, anyone studying this book should quickly realise writing historical fiction isn’t as easy as it might first appear.
Readers are often knowledgeable and will pick up on anachronisms quickly. They can be merciless to an author who hasn’t done their research meticulously, and even on one who has made a relatively minor mistake. Alleyn hammers home, time and again, that there is no substitute for research, and most particularly, that you cannot rely on movies, TV shows or fiction of any kind as a source of research. Even top quality shows like Downton Abbey get things wrong, and Alleyn points out any number of factual errors from the mild to the disastrous to illustrate her point.
The book has chapters devoted to (among others) currency (and relative values and purchasing power thereof), travel times and distances by various methods of transport, foodstuffs and their availability, guns, hygiene, servants, daily life and habits, and a particularly excellent chapter on the English Aristocracy. This was definitely my favourite, and as a devoted reader of Regency romance, something I see authors get wrong far too often. If only this chapter, if not the whole book, could be required reading before an author was permitted to publish in the genre!
Yes, all the advice in this book can basically be boiled down to ‘do your research properly’, but the examples and specifics given here are really helpful in pointing out specific errors where it’s easy to make mistakes. Alleyn also includes an excellent list of reference books for various periods and places, a good starting point for any author looking to start research for a project.
I can only give this five stars, but I am recommending in the strongest possible terms that anyone even THINKING about writing historical fiction, whether romance or otherwise, should buy it and study it. Even if it only helps you identify the facts in your own work you need to verify, it’s an invaluable addition to your reference shelf.
Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders is available now, it’s only US$3.99 in ebook, and if you’re even THINKING about ever writing anything set more than 30 years in the past, you should go and buy it right now. GO. NOW.