Botany and Historical Fiction
Here's a throwaway paragraph from early on in Hours of the Dog that I recently wrote for the latest draft:
This is a simple scene-setting couple of sentences. A cop gets in his car. The secretary goes to work. It ought to be cracked out in a few minutes.
It took me near forty-five.
It's coming up for two years I've been working on HoD now and I'm asking myself exactly where all the time went. Writing anything novel-length is a challenge, and anyone who has sat down and wrote 60,000 or more consecutive words of fiction has my respect. Historical fiction adds the necessity of research, which drags things out immensely.
Let's examine the above paragraph,. There are three historical/cultural references: Imadegawa avenue, the crest/standard of the Tokugawa, and the kuzu vine. In this particular example I happened to know of Imadegawa avenue and the crest/standard of the Tokugawa being the hollyhock flower thanks to prior research. The forty-five minutes here went primarily to investigating the vine. I wanted a local stubborn and ugly plant to contrast with the hollyhock, so to google I went, typed in 'invasive japanese plants', searched through wikipedia, spent time sifting through all the bullshit, found the kuzu vine, researched whether it was native to southern/tropical japan around Kyoto so that the citizens of the city in 1604 might actually make that reference, get out my japanese dictionary to find the translation...
As I say, this paragraph is not particularly important. Less than a hundred words, out of a cumulative 250,000+ (mostly cut). It adds up and adds up.
Consider as well that it took me this long to write this paragraph with the tremendous convenience of the internet and a dictionary app on my iphone. For the major stuff I have to get the books out undoubtedly, but it makes you think: what must the effort have been before such ease of information? Think of Shogun say, or the Aubrey-Maturin books (particularly the Aubrey-Maturin books!) and all the effort Clavell or O'Brian must have put in down at some library accumulating all the required knowledge at painstaking length. It gives a new level of respect for the dedication.
But it needs to be done. Historical fiction is an illusion easily dispelled. Recently I've been watching Black Sails, which is a TV series about pirates in the 17th century. For the most part I'm enjoying it, but then someone will say "Get the fuck out!" or "Motherfucker!" or some other modern term, and it is so jarring it really takes you out of the scene. I'm aware that some of the dialogue in Child of Vengeance was guilty of this, and with HoD I've really tried to scythe it away. But neither can you make it too archaic, to the point of abstractness. The same with the prose...
Fuck, now I'm looking at that paragraph and I realise samurai probably wouldn't carry a palanquin themselves but rather have attendants from the lower castes to do it.