Confessions of a detail nerd…
It occurred to me the other day that I am a detail nerd. I should have figured this out years ago...they say admitting a thing is the first step toward overcoming a problem... But when it comes to writing historical fiction, being a detail nerd is a good thing. Accuracy is important in any type of writing, but the challenge becomes more obvious when writing about the past. Suddenly, every word used to describe a thing becomes important. Conscious effort must be taken to not insert modern thinking into the story’s culture and their world. For instance, in a contemporary novel or even a historical that was written after the invention of the clock, one might say, “Minutes ticked by as she waited for his response.” But in King David’s era, clocks did not exist, so to say “A few minutes later” would be inaccurate.
Using verbs like "inched" (she inched forward) or units of measure like "dozen" or "mile" can't be used before they came into common use. The same is true for inventions or household items. Did the people in the era use knives, forks, or plates? What type of clothing did they wear and what was it called? In Bible days, both men and women wore robes and tunics. They wouldn't have worn pants, shirts, blouses, dresses, or suits.
Did they build houses or live in tents? What materials were the tents or houses made from? What did they look like? Did they use cooking utensils? How did they bake and what foods did they eat? What foods might have grown in their region? What materials were their clothes made of and how did they make them? In Israel, they would have grown flax for linen and sheered sheep for wool. Goat's hair was used for tents and goat's skins were used to hold liquids such as water or wine.
What types of flora and fauna could be found growing in the wilds? Did they cultivate their grains and if so, which ones? What animals lived nearby? Did they domesticate any for pleasure (as in a pet) or were they used only for sustenance? What was the topography and geography of the land like? Did they live in lush meadows or dry desserts? Was water plentiful or scarce? How did they travel? I discovered that in Abraham's time, they used donkeys and camels, but when they traveled to Egypt, travel would have been mostly by boat along the Nile.
Each land, be it Mesopotamia, Canaan, or Egypt has its own geographical differences, and each culture of the day, their own set of beliefs and traditions and morals. What things would Bathsheba have seen in King David's palace that were different than she was used to in her own home? What did Sarai experience in the courts of the Pharaoh that were different than what she'd been used to living in tents? How did her life living in a tent in Canaan differ from what she had known back in Ur or Haran - both cities in Mesopotamia?
Details matter. Not only to describe a setting, but in understanding the characters. We cannot begin to think the way the people of history might have thought if we don't first dive into their cultures, their time period, their geographical location, their religious beliefs and traditions, even down to what their sandals were made of. Were they richly jeweled leather because our character came from a home of wealth? Or was our character barefoot, their feet calloused and bruised by years of slavery, because they worked over unforgiving terrain?
Writers of historical fiction must study the details if they are write a story that rings true of the time in which their characters live. Whether those characters are real people (as in biblical fiction) or make believe, it pays for the author to embrace the life of a detail nerd. It means a lot of research. But if you love the era and the details, you will love the story better too.