Like e’ does in her wonderful A BIRD ON WATER STREET, going back in time involves immersing the reader in the rich details of a different era. For me, that’s the best part about writing and reading historical fiction—I WANT to be taken to another time and place.
But what happens when the true details of history are so weird or uncomfortable, we can’t include them because they would derail the story or make our characters unlikeable?
For example, in my novel, Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii, a curse tablet plays an important role in the story. The ancients believed that if you appealed to the gods of the underworld and restless spirits of the dead—scratching your curses on lead tablets--they could be convinced to hurt, harm or kill someone you were mad at.
But I avoided one detail about to whom the ancients actually appealed because it was just too weird: some curse-makers appealed to the angry spirits of dead babies or children to help out with their nefarious cursing!
For example, one curse invokes the Fates, the spirits of the dead, and “also you young ones who have died prematurely [emphasis mine].” Whoa. Seriously?
Obviously, I did not have the curse-maker in my novel do anything of the sort. It would’ve been SO weird and unsettling that it would’ve taken the focus off of the emotional pain this character was experiencing and possibly changed your opinion of the character.
Another detail that I skirt right past in the book is the apparent problem of public defecation in the streets of Pompeii! Multiple notices and graffiti markings telling people not to evacuate their bowels have been found in Pompeii. One right outside one of the city gates was an official notice from a magistrate, which indicates that there was either a habitual offender or there was a favorite spot for these…er, activities. One graffiti message bluntly states, “Pooper—keep it in until you pass this spot.”
Honestly, you can’t make stuff like that up! But you can’t really feature it either because then the reader will be worried about whether your characters might “step in it” every time they leave the house!
Given that my novel is essentially a love story set amidst the “ticking time clock” of a deadly volcano about to explode, I had to be extra careful about including details that might distract from the heart of the story. But even though I didn’t include them in the book, I can talk about them in posts and presentations!
Vicky has graciously agreed to give a free, signed and dedicated copy of CURSES AND SMOKE to one of my lucky participants. Must live in the US/Canada to win. Enter below!