They say such reconstructions bring history to life, much like the reenactments often performed at historic sites in Summer. Some even say the same of historical novels, as they too fill in the parts the textbooks leave out.
What’s not to like about dramatic reconstructions?
The historian and presenter, Mary Beard, among others. She says many are of poor quality. I have seen some that were, but I found others very good. However, that is not her main point. She is concerned that reconstructions fix images in the mind. Therefore, you tend to think that is how things were, not just how they might have been. That is obviously misleading when you think about it, because they show only one version of how things might have been. I fear she may be right, but perhaps it is a price worth paying to make history more interesting and easier to relate to. What do you think?
Are novels as misleading as reconstructions?
I don’t think so. I hope readers know they are reading fiction and that even the historical background in a novel is likely to be only that author’s view of how it was. Most readers probably also realise that we usually adjust the history in places for dramatic effect. Personally, I try to admit to such adjustments in the historical notes I include in my books, but I might not remember to mention them all. A novel is not a textbook.
How can you avoid being misled by reconstructions ?
I think the best solution is to watch plenty of them! If you see several versions of the same story, you will be able to see how historians – and TV producers – differ. Be critical, in a good way. I don’t even mind if you read other historical novels to compare with mine. As I do.
Got a question? Here are some I have received about the Stone Age from readers of the draft of my novel, The Stone Age Detective, along with my answers.
Question 1. Did people hunt in such large groups?
Yes. That was one of the reasons modern humans, homo sapiens, were so successful in hunting such large animals. Neanderthals probably worked in smaller groups and some ask if that was their downfall.
Question 2. Did women go hunting?
We don’t know, but I suggest it was the exception if not that unusual. It helps the story. Humour me.
Question 3. Did people kiss?
We don’t know, but why not? Physical contact, especially touching faces, is an obvious way of expressing affection, encouragement or sympathy. If they didn’t do it by kissing, I’d have to invent something else for the sake of the story.
Question 4. Could they recognise a human footprint as opposed to an animal track?
As they lived by hunting, they must have known all about different prints.
Question 5. How could they speak of points of the compass?
We can’t be certain, but they must have noticed that the Sun rose and set in the same way every day and was always at its height in the middle and in the same place. Relating everything else to that must have seemed a good way of expressing direction.
Is that all the questions?
No! I will discuss more questions in another blog. Please keep sending them. We all learn from thinking about them.
I have had some interesting feedback already from Beta readers and others.
You have responded to my request and here are two of the main comments along with my responses. Keep sending them, so we can make this book as good as it can be.
The main feedback is: there are too many characters in the early chapters.
I agree, and there are 3 things I can and probably will do.
Introduce the characters into the story more gradually.
Produce a list of characters.
Produce family trees for the main families.
The next feedback is that the geography was confusing for some readers.
I had thought of this and will put a map in the final version of the book, showing northern France and southern England at the end of the Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago. It might show the present coastline for comparison. Of course the words England and France would have been meaningless in the Stone Age.
Thirdly, the language seems a bit too sophisticated at times.
Nobody knows what language they spoke, but scientists believe it was something like the Basque language. The main reason is that DNA evidence suggests the earliest post-Ice-Age Britons were closely related to the Basques. That is not as surprising as you may think, since the nearest place where humans survived during worst of the freeze was northern Spain. I once met a few Basques, but we conversed in French, and I never learnt anything of their language.
We don’t know how sophisticated or otherwise the language of our Stone Age ancestors was, but it’s the impression that counts. Therefore I am going through the draft again trying to use the simplest words and expressions possible.
Some feedback consisted of questions.
I will be answering some of those in another blog. I hope you will find the questions, and perhaps the answers, interesting. Keep asking.
Please let me know if you would like a draft of the book for you to comment on, as I could still use some more friendly critics.
Did you think I was joking about a prehistoric detective novel?
I was serious when I answered that question recently. And I have tried to find out enough about prehistoric times to make the story realistic. I hope you will find some humour in it, but it is not a spoof. Forget the Flintstones.
Is it different from other stories set in prehistoric times?
Yes. Some writers and especially Hollywood film-makers have ignored scientific knowledge and gone in for as much drama, excitement and horror as possible. They created or maintained a lot of myths. Fake news. Well, not exactly NEWS, if it’s thousands of years old, but…
I have tried to stick to what most modern archaeologists and palaeontologists believe. What the stones and bones don’t tell them, they sometimes infer from studies of hunter-gatherers in the present. But I have used creativity to fill in the gaps.
What’s different from those other prehistoric tales?
There are no dinosaurs. Mammoths yes. There are other large and fierce creatures too: bison, aurochs*, giant elk, several kinds of bear and big cats.
I avoid the term sabre-tooth tiger because we don’t know what colour or pattern they were.
I avoid the term Irish Elk, because they lived in other parts of Britain and elsewhere. Besides, Ireland was still attached to the rest of Britain at the time. We were all Unionists then.
Britain was attached to the Continent. Brexit had to wait.
People didn’t all live in caves. They built houses too.
It wasn’t cool to go naked. It was only just after the Ice Age!
People didn’t always look scruffy. If they could skin a bear or a mammoth, they could cut that skin to fit themselves properly, and they could choose plenty of smooth-haired animals too.
If they made necklaces of beads, they must have cared about appearance.
A prehistoric novel, yes, but a detective novel?
People have always been capable of murder. At least some people. Remember Cain and Abel? And I believe that there have always been at least some people who cared about truth and justice. You may wonder how anyone could solve a murder mystery without forensics. Read it and find out!