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How to use objects in Historical Fiction

If you only write historical fiction about the people who wrote history, you’re missing out a lot of the past.

But how do you write about people who couldn’t write about themselves? Or whose voices have not come down to us? The women, the poor, the marginalised, the criminals, the outcasts and the slaves?

Some of the approximately eleventy billion Roman shoes found at the Vindolanda Fort excavations in Northumberland. Every one tells a human story. Image Vindolanda Trust.

I had this problem in an unusual way when I started to write my historical novel, The Very Wolf. No written documents survive from the Kingdom of Pontos, where it’s set. Not even rich people’s letters. We have other people’s opinions on what life was like in Pontos (modern day Turkey) but we don’t have a single word written by an ancient Pontian. We don’t even really know what they called their country*.

Mithradates VI, the King of Pontos at this time, is for my money one of the most brilliant and scary people to have ever lived. But unlike his Roman counterpart Sulla or Caesar, the man who killed his heir, he can’t speak directly to us. Nor can his generals, or the aristocrats who ruled over huge estates in the country. As descendants of Persian nobility like their King, they granted him power and legitimacy. But we don’t know what their language looked like.

Even the rich and famous sometimes suffer from this problem.

We live in a culture that’s highly literate and venerates the written word. It’s become expected that there’ll be a long bibliography at the back of a historical novel. How else are you to know that the book is accurate?

Consider this, though: most people who have ever lived couldn’t read or write.

Of all the books ever written, a huge number have been lost. Even if you’re dealing with a society we think of as our literary ancestors, it’s a pretty tiny sample: it’s commonly estimated that only 1% of all books written in Latin or Greek survive. In many cultures, there have been great dyings-off of books for various reasons.

And sometimes, you get a situation in which a written culture has been systematically dismantled, and that’s the case with Pontos. When he was eventually defeated by General Pompey, King Mithradates’ private library and records were boxed up and taken back to Rome (including his saucy letters to his wives), his bureaucracy dismantled, and the whole country’s structure changed overnight. It was drastic even for the Romans**.

Now, many people in urban Pontos would have seemed pretty Greek to us. Their everyday lives, beliefs and habits would have resembled their cousins’ at the other end of the Black Sea. You could piece together a convincing Greek Pontian city from writing from the West. But I knew for plot purposes that I needed someone who wasn’t just a big deal in one city, but someone with a powerbase elsewhere.

I needed an aristocrat. And in Pontos, that meant something quite specific. Something Persian as well as Greek, rural instead of metropolitan. It meant going after those lost, wealthy and privileged voices.

But, I hear you cry, how are we supposed to know it’s true if it’s not written down?

So long as it’s done carefully and methodically and you know how you’ve reached your conclusions, material culture is just as reliable a source as the written word. If you want to know how people thought, lived and died in the past, artifacts and objects can do a lot for you. I’d even go as far as to say they’re essential: they can tell us things that words cannot.

But I’m biased. I’m an ethnographer, which means I study cultures, and our everyday objects and habits can reveal things about us that we wouldn’t know how to put into words. Or prefer not to. One of the best academic papers I ever read was by someone who went around a trade fair collecting the freebies stalls gave away. Tiny teddy bears, stress balls, keyrings, pens, breath mints… No-one’s going to enshrine these objects in the Louvre. They’re not fine art or expensive things. But they’re part of the warp and weft of everyday life in a way most art is not.

I’m here to urge you to get curious about the stuff around you, to start seeing the world like an anthropologist.

When you go to a museum and look at stuff there, go with this in mind:

  • Objects aren’t self-contained. They’re part of a rich web of meaning that includes language and writing. They refer to things outside of themselves like stories, faith and ideas, and that’s how we form attachments to them, make sense of them. Popping them in a glass case removes them from that web and puts it in another.

  • Objects have intrinsic and inherent value. That means that there’s the objective cost of making the object, like labour and materials, and there’s the emotional or symbolic value it an individual or group has invested in it. Both tell us a lot about the society they’re from.

  • Objects are made to be used. They have a social purpose. Even if that use is locking it in a drawer and never letting anyone see it, that’s a use (think of a relic inside an altar, for e.g.).

When anthropologists and archaeologists start working with an object, they follow a three-step process. The first is that they describe the object very carefully. The next is that they try joining up those observations by a process of deduction, of thinking about what it would be like for a human to actually use the object: how does fact A (the shoes are in mint condition) relate to fact B (they were found in a rubbish dump, they were thrown away unworn). And finally they speculate on what might explain those relationships between objects and people (the shoes were a hideous present from a hated ex-boyfriend/ for a hated ex-girlfriend).

This process of working with objects can seem a bit abstract, and it can get very complex once you start factoring technical stuff about deposits and layers and so on. It’s also useful if you’ve done some reading around what we do know about the time and place your object is from.

But I want you to get stuck in, so here’s a simple exercise to get you started.

The next time you find a really fascinating object from the past, try writing out the answer to these eight questions. It’s a brilliant start to creating a character, a backstory or a whole world.

  1. What is this made from? Is it expensive or inexpensive, exotic or easy to find? How long did it take to make?

  2. Where is it most worn away? Or is it not worn at all, completely unused?

  3. Where was it found? Thrown away on a rubbish tip? Carefully laid out in a grave? Stuffed under a floorboard?

  4. What problem does this object help with?

  5. Does this object tell any stories? Pass on any messages?

  6. What is this object drawing your attention to? What is it trying to distract from?

  7. Does this object remind you of anything else you’ve seen? Was that thing modern, from this time period, or an earlier or a later one?

  8. How does this object make *you* feel?

Answer these questions twice. The first time you answer as yourself, living in your time and place, with your resources and education and culture. The next time, answer as someone living in the time and place this object is being used (not necessarily made).

Question 8 is a really important one if you’re a writer, because the last step in all this rests on having a good handle on your own response to an object. Historical fiction inevitably involves a bit of speculation, more speculation than a historian would be comfortable with, usually. That’s only done well and done ethically if you can park your own biases, beliefs and identities on one side and let other options come through. We can’t eliminate those biases, but we can get to know them and keep a handle on them in our writing.

So… how did all of this help me create my living, breathing ancient Pontian aristocrat?

We’re out of time here for today, folks. Come back to tomorrow and I’ll walk you through how I used an object - a sarcophagus of an Ancient Persian Anatolian aristocrat - to bring my point of view character Datames and his big, happy, rambling family to life.

*Ancient Pontos was probably called something like “Kappadokia Pontika” – Cappadocia by the Sea – because it’s the top half of the old Persian satrapy of Katpatuka (Cappadocia in Greek).

** To be fair, it wasn't any worse than what Mithradates himself had attempted to do to Roman culture and the Latin language at various times.

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