Reminder: Book Giveaway #2 started yesterday and runs until midnight my time, which is Eastern Standard Time, on Sunday the 15th (meaning that Sunday is the last day to enter). If you would like to enter, write a paragraph or so in response to the following question, and post it as a comment to Book Giveaway #2 below!
Here is the question: If you could travel anywhere, where would it be, and what would you do when you got there? It can be a real place, or a place that you or someone else has imagined. Again, be creative!
Today I’m very tired, so rather than writing a long post, I’m going to show you something. If you’re the sort of person who reads this blog, I think you’ll find it fascinating. It’s a television show called Tales from the Green Valley that ran in 2005, but I just heard about it. Here’s a description:
Down on the Farm – 1620’s style
How do you gauge gas mark 7 when you’re using a 17th century bread oven?
Why did people 400 years ago save up their urine to help with the laundry?
Why did farmers in Britain traditionally plough with oxen and not horses?
These are just some of the questions five historians and archaeologists asked themselves as they spent a whole year working a farm restored to how it would have been in the year 1620.
Tales from the Green Valley follows the five as they labour for a full agricultural year, getting to grips with period tools, skills, and technology from the age of the Stuarts, the reign of James I. Everything must be done by hand, from ploughing with a team of oxen using a replica period plough and thatching a cowshed using only authentic materials, to making their own washing liquid for laundry and harvesting the hay and wheat with scythes and sickles.
Each of the 12 half-hour programmes, made by Lion TV for BBC Wales, follows a month in the life of the farm situated on the Welsh borders. Far from being a reality series, these beautifully filmed programmes revel instead in the period’s rich history, the British countryside as it changes through the seasons, and of course food. Every episode features a dinner cooked up using period breeds and varieties of animals, fruits, and vegetables, according to 400 year old recipes extracted from housewives’ diaries, farming manuals etc.
The five specialists wear period clothing – because they’re practical, real working garments, with the men in breeches so the bottoms don’t get muddy and wet, and the women wearing long thick skirts which protect from brambles and keep them warm.
And when historian Stuart Peachey, costume and social customs specialist Ruth Goodman, and archaeologists Alex Langlands, Peter “Fonz” Ginn and Chloe Spencer don’t have the answers, they call in outside experts: a host of traditional British artisans – charcoal burner, butcher, hedge-layer, candlemaker, dry-stone waller, thatcher . . . all working with period tools.
Now doesn’t that sound fascinating? It certainly does to me. One of the wonderful things about being a writer of fantastical stories is that I get to go everywhere – all of space and time is open to me. I’m not confined to the present. But to make my stories real, I want to make sure that I’m presenting other times in a reasonably authentic way. (Reasonably because you don’t want to write a history of a particular period, but a story in that period. So it’s often more important to get the feel of a period than to make sure you know every single thing about it. But you don’t want to get anything wrong – mistakes will inevitably stick out.) The other day, I found myself suddenly having to understand how a watermill actually works. Thank goodness for Wikipedia, which had a handy history of watermill construction! I could choose my preferred style of watermill from among the examples given. Programs like Tales from the Green Valley are so useful because they allow you to see the details: what food looked like, how clothes were made. The best thing, of course, is to experience some of these things yourself: find someone to teach you how to spin, spend some time among cows. This is one of my favorite things about being a writer: it constantly requires you to stretch, to learn more.
And I think fantasy does that more than realism, because when we say realism, we’re really just saying “the reality we know.” In 1620, people didn’t live in that reality. If we want to write a book about the seventeenth century, or even a fantasy book sent in a period vaguely like the seventeenth century, we need to know about the reality of other times. We need to work harder than the supposed realists, who can look around themselves for their material.
I recently heard someone turn the old advice “Write what you know” around, into “Know what you write.” In other words, if you don’t know, do your research. And I think that’s much better advice.
So, without further ado, here you go. Tales from the Green Valley, the Christmas episode (since many of us just celebrated Christmas, and the Solstice, and the end of the year in general):