history, writing

Lighting Up the Dark Ages

Good morning! Please bear with me as I try something a little different this morning. Wednesdays are the days that I participate in a challenge hosted by K.L. Schwengel that has me providing a snippet of my work in progress (a WIPpet). This snippet is supposed to be related in some way to the date, whether it be some sort of convoluted math equation (26th line of the 3rd chapter or 18 words arrived at by adding 3+2+6+2+0+1+4) or something which happened on this day in history (my personal favorite).

Last week I was visiting my chiropractor getting my back cracked back into alignment while he regaled me with writing ideas and suggestions. These usually involve something I am not in the least interested in, i.e. “You should write a 23 volume encyclopedia on the history of library cats in Idaho.” However, this day he began quizzing me about the setting of my new novel series, which occurs in the Dark Ages. It soon became apparent that he knew close to nothing about the age. He prides himself on a passing familiarity with history, so he suggested that I come up with an explanatory note at the beginning of my book orienting the reader in time and place. Have you seen other historical novelists include notes on the time period? What do you think of this idea? My main concern is that it would throw people out of the story. I worked up the following summary, which I can always use in my communications with agents and editors if nothing else. Your comments and impressions are greatly appreciated!

700 ad. It falls squarely in the middle the Dark Ages, an early medieval period whose lack of source material – letters, histories, accounts, and more – have conspired to veil the time in an obscurity lacking in other eras. Little is known about the inner workings of the surviving peoples of Western Europe.

The prevailing power in the Mediterranean, the Roman Empire, had crumbled away into dust, trampled beneath the feet of crude and desperate barbarian peoples from northern wastelands. The Christian church stepped into the void left by Rome, taking on the role of arbiter and agent for society, leading the flock by providing a bastion of law, charity, and education against the rough-hewn forces of chaos.

And while times were grim in Western Europe, the other frogs about the pond of the Mediterranean thrived. Islam united diverse desert tribesmen with Muhammad’s revolutionary teachings. Together, they exploded out of the Middle East in a conquering fury. The Roman Empire, while fallen and dissolute in the West, thrived in the East, around the bulwark of civilization that we know as the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines, despite the fact that they spoke Greek, called themselves Romans, for they were the rightful heirs of the Roman Empire. For a thousand years beyond the accepted date of Rome’s fall – 476 ad — Constantinople glittered on, a jewel of wealth, culture, debauchery and intrigue. So also did other, lesser known forces carry on with daily life – pirate fleets, tribesmen from the steppe, gangs of bandits, and more. The collision of cultures is evident everywhere the young knight Justus and his companions travel, for just because the age was dark does not mean it lacked spirit and vitality. Instead, it served as rich peat for the blossoming of power, passion, and adventure that begins in City of Ages.

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25 thoughts on “Lighting Up the Dark Ages”

  1. I think it’s a great idea, especially if none of this is clear in the story. I’m not familiar with medieval history, so if all of this is important to know going into the story, I’d appreciate the note!

    Two things made me stumble: “have conspired to veil the time in an obscurity lacking in other eras” – lacking in obscurity sounds a bit like a double negative, and I had to read over it twice to figure out that you meant that we don’t know a lot about this time period. The other was “the other frogs about the pond of the Mediterranean,” which is nice, but seemed a little out of place when most of the note is so factual.

    Love the tone of it. Something like this could be so dry, but you make it interesting, and it makes me even more eager to read the story. If it’s something like a preface, readers can read or skip as they please.

    1. Thank you so much for your reaction to the summary! Yes, I see your points about those two sentences – I’ll make changes, definitely.

      I was thinking of making it a preface (Maybe “Historical Note”) or putting it at the end where it might be a little more unobstrusive.

      Thanks for your feedback!

  2. I agree. I think that it does a good job of explaining a bit about the time period without being dry (as pieces like that sometimes tend to be), and could certainly help readers enjoy the story more fully.

  3. How’s this for decisive: I could go either way. I’m not well-versed in history, so having a little information is good. On the other hand, I don’ t know if it matters as long as the story is captivating. In either case, that’s a good summary. What interested me is that we do tend to think of it as kind of a not-so-great time because we’re so familiar with western history. It’s easy to forget that other places were thriving.

    1. Haha, I know what you mean. I’m of two minds myself. I agree with what you say about the story being most important. It’s hard to know what other people read for, though. Sometimes seeing both sides of the coin can make one indecisive – a problem I suffer from frequently!

  4. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t read it. Maybe when I was finished with the book, and if it was in a glossary. Either that, or I would just skim over it. I tend to dive into books wanting to be immersed in that world. I go in not expecting to know anything, and expecting the author to give me all the important stuff I need. Maybe that’s a silly way to do it, but that’s my two cent’s worth. 🙂

    1. Yeah, I hear you. I sort of tend that way myself. On the other hand, I’ve spent so much time researching it that I tend to take for granted all that I know about the period and I didn’t want to confuse the reader. I think I’ll probably include it as a historical note at the end of the book where it may be a little less jarring.

  5. Hmm… It’s interesting, but I probably wouldn’t read it, either. One too many introductions has ruined a good story for me. I think, if I were writing the story, I’d try to work in the information gradually, almost like scenery.

    1. Thanks for your input, ReGi. I agree that the ideal state of affairs is to work the info in gradually. I guess I’m worried about people coming in with false impressions since the period of time is not well known. So much to think about as a writer! No wonder my head is in danger of exploding. 🙂

      1. I wonder. The time period itself is not well known, but there’s a strong foundation of images associated with it. Long before I ever learned any actual medieval history, I could use context clues to fill in details I hadn’t known. 🙂

  6. I often add an Author’s Note at the END of my books that have something to do with the period and the research I did. When reading historical novels, I get very curious about the events and the author’s interpretation, and I love to read historical notes in the back matter.

    That said, if you go that route, this would be much too short and more like a blurb than information for me personally as a reader. I would be curious about which events are based on real history and which are fictional, as well as what sources I could read if I’m curious to learn more.

    Besides the ones already mentioned, the phrase “collision of cultures” tripped me up. I think the standard “clash of cultures” works better.

    1. I was hoping you’d weigh in, Ruth! Great input! I see your point, about the blurb being too short. It also doesn’t really go into detail about Jerusalem, which is the party’s destination and the “City of Ages” in the title. I also wouldn’t have thought about adding sources to learn more – great idea!

      I like the idea of adding info at the end of the book, too. It’s there if someone wants to read it and is curious, but it’s not “in your face” at the beginning and therefore an expected read, if that makes sense.

  7. At the end of the novel WHAT DARKNESS BRINGS, the author, C. S. Harris, wrote about the true history she manipulated (basically about the history surrounding the Hope Diamond, before it was the “Hope Diamond” and other details). It wasn’t long or too in depth, but enough that it added tot he story. I also saw this done by another author, Virginia Henley, in Notorious (about the Queen and her lover). They were never start notes, but end notes.

    1. Good to know, Gloria! It really helps to hear what other authors are doing – how they’ve handled things. I do like the idea of having the info at the end where it’s somewhat unobtrusive. Thanks for your response!

  8. I would read something like this as back matter (and like Ruth, I would prefer to have it be a larger piece). Thing is, as archaeologists keep working we’re finding more and more that the so-called Dark Ages were not as primitive as many had supposed. (Early medieval history is a passion of mine too.) Science was not as restricted as one might believe despite the church renewing it’ hold on Europe at the time. In some places it flourished. Did you read about the preserved cadavers they found that showed how medical science and anatomy had been studied?

    On the blurb itself though… a good story is a good story, Xina. Strong characters resonate over the ages. I personally wouldn’t need or care about the specifics of the time a story is written in save for an insight into the author”s interests

    1. Thanks for your input – very valuable! Yes, exactly – the Dark Ages were not so grim perhaps. Oooh, I didn’t know about the acceptance of science or the preserved cadavers! Interesting! If you happen to have a link feel free to shoot it over. But don’t worry if you don’t have it. I don’t want to cause extra work for you.

      Yes, very good point about the story vs the history. As novelists the story must be paramount. Much to the dismay of historians everywhere! 🙂

        1. Oh, wow – thank you so much! Wow, what a gruesome find but fascinating as well. It turns out that the Middle Ages are so much more rich and multi-dimensional than we had previously thought.

          Haha, yes, very true. I have dabbled in history writing but I suppose it’s not my number one passion.

          1. Given that, and the records we do have in the Doomsday Book, it’s pretty clear that there was a well developed society in place in a lot of the “uncivilized” region of the world. Human’s settle into societies and patterns pretty fast, actually. So it makes sense.

            I totally understand that. I want my stories (even though they are fantasy) to be as real as possible too. But I know I can’t truly write a story that is “real”. I don’t know enough about the times I’m trying to emulate. So I just try to make the people… people.

  9. A great introduction Xina. Though actually as historians and archaeologists gradually discover more about the people from the so called ‘Dark Ages’, they’re realising that they weren’t actually that primitive or backward. I guess as more is discovered about that period in history, we’ll learn more about how the societies of the people who lived back then functioned.

    1. Exactly! I’m mainly using the term “Dark Ages” as theatrical flourish, I suppose – something to catch the eye. The darkness lies mainly in lack of written sources but that does not mean that everyday life was particularly wretched, as you mention.

  10. so I like the first two paragraphs, but I don’t like the third paragraph. I’m with Amy in that I can go either way in whether it’d be nice to include. I know quite a bit about history, so yeah…but like Regi, I probably wouldn’t actually read it. =P tough decision!

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