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Modern sensibilities versus historical ones

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I'm just starting a new book and discovered, to my surprise, that my main character suffered either an illness or an accident as a child and now walks with a pronounced limp and sometimes even resorts to a cane.  Words that might be used to describe her condition in 2008 (handicapped, disabled, etc.) certainly didn't exist in 1814 or were not used in the same way, and words used in 1814 are now considered "politically incorrect" or potentially offensive.  Am I opening myself up to accusations of insensitivity if I portray her and her condition in a historically accurate manner--because between 1814 and 2008, views on this have certainly changed?

I should probably add that both my editor and agent know about my heroine and completely approve of her having this condition.

Any thoughts?  Am I worrying about something that I don't need to?
#1 - June 28, 2008, 10:11 AM
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I attended a seminar about writing historical fiction for kids. The author said that, while accuracy was important, authors have a responsibility not to exhume dead derogatory words and reintroduce them into kids' vocabulary.

An author's note about the historical period can help to clarify outdated attitudes.
#2 - June 28, 2008, 06:52 PM
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ecb

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Is it really necessary to even use those labels in the narrative?  I mean, you just described her quite effectively without resorting to saying either "disabled" or "crippled:"
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my main character suffered either an illness or an accident as a child and now walks with a pronounced limp and sometimes even resorts to a cane.

I think you can skirt the issue by just writing around it, like you did here.  We don't need the shorthand, because we see the cane and we'll feel the limp.  And your supporting cast and dialogue can provide the period-accurate terminology, if necessary.

(One of the major characters in Ken Follett's WORLD WITHOUT END has a leg injury that is mentioned a couple of times in just the way you've done it in your post.  The story takes place in the 1340s, with all the accompanying "oogy naturalism," but he still manages to get by without either modern or period labels).

We trust ya. :D
#3 - June 29, 2008, 08:49 AM

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Thank you for trusting me, Elizabeth :) and thank you for telling me to be brave and not worry, Courtney.  I think I'm just starting to second-guess myself, which is a dumb thing to do...

It's not necessarily the terminology I was concerned about as the differing attitudes.  To be blunt, a young woman entering London society with a limp was going to be at a huge disadvantage, even if she were well-connected and wealthy...the perceptions were different.  I guess I just need to tell my story and stop worrying.

Thanks, guys.  You rule.  :grouphug2
#4 - June 29, 2008, 11:50 AM
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I read IGGIE'S HOUSE by Judy Blume to my third graders every year and it contains outdated language referring to Blacks (Negro mostly, but I think "colored" also pops up). I read the words and we have a discussion how terms like that are no longer used and are now considered offensive but at one time they were conventional. It actually leads to a decent lesson on how language changes and it's never really posed a problem.
#5 - June 29, 2008, 01:28 PM

ecb

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To be blunt, a young woman entering London society with a limp was going to be at a huge disadvantage, even if she were well-connected and wealthy...

Ok, yeah, that's different.  I don't think you can *not* address that without being disengenuous.  And then the issue becomes not so much whether to include it, but how much focus to put on it.  Does it become the primary conflict in the story (and I don't think that's what you have planned), or does it become a part of the background, something for the MC to have, say, a brief impatient discussion with a snooty aunt about?  At any rate, I think that will evolve naturally--you'll know how important the issue is to the MC and the main story as you get farther along.
#6 - June 29, 2008, 03:08 PM

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Marissa, I'd go for historical accuracy.  It also helps to show how your MC walks, using a friend or stick for support and what the others think of her.
Donna Jo Napoli wrote a wonderful retelling of The Pied Piper ... and the MC probably had cystic fibrosis.  Study it to see how she accomplishes this.  Title is ... BREATH.  And there's another title that I'm blanking on (both author and title) that is set in old Cairo, where the MC -- name is Marjan -- is lame.  Lenzi has read it too ... maybe she'll remember.
Good luck,
Vijaya
#7 - June 29, 2008, 07:55 PM
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I attended a seminar about writing historical fiction for kids. The author said that, while accuracy was important, authors have a responsibility not to exhume dead derogatory words and reintroduce them into kids' vocabulary.

I see the point and understand the good intentions behind the sentiment, but I disagree. Of course hurtful slurs shouldn't be tossed around gratuitously in children's literature, but neither should we sanitize history. IMO, sweeping un-PC yet historically accurate terminology under the rug is akin to pretending racism and other forms of prejudice didn't exist, and that will never help eradicate the problem. (Basically, what courtney said!)

In my book, I chose to use the word "negro" rather than something more PC because I had documentary evidence showing it was a term my character used. (She also said "darky" occasionally, but I decided not to use that term since a more palatable alternative was equally accurate.) She was not by any means racist, yet that was the vernacular of 1887. Only one reviewer commented on my use of "negro," and her opinion was not negative -- she recognized its use in the context of the setting.

 If you're uncomfortable using the terms of the time, I'd advocate skirting the issue entirely as Elizabeth suggested rather than inserting a more modern, "correct" word.
#8 - June 29, 2008, 08:09 PM
« Last Edit: June 29, 2008, 08:10 PM by Sarah Miller »

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THE LAST GIRLS OF POMPEII by Kathryn Lasky is a really well done book about a girl in the year 79 who was born with a withered arm and she is shunned and not marriagable and considered cursed because of it.  I certainly would not object to any of the negative portrayals in the book bc I know it is being realistic to the time period. I say be true to the times!
#9 - June 29, 2008, 08:10 PM
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I think if you chose to use a certain label, it makes a big difference whose mouth it comes out of. If the neighborhood busy body gossip says it, for example, then your audience knows it's not a nice term. I think it's important to include it so show what your character is up against.
#10 - June 30, 2008, 12:00 PM

One of the things I really loved about Bewitching Season is that Persy and Pen aren't modern girls playing Victorian dress-up. You were true to the era, and though your characters might be in many ways progressive for their time, they were still utterly Victorian (I know, it isn't technically Victorian til the end of the book, but still...)  Please don't compromise on the accuracy and authenticity in your work in progress! You can keep the modern sensibilities at bay without being cruel, and like the previous poster said, a lot depends on who is using the derogatory (to our ears) words.
#11 - July 06, 2008, 09:12 AM
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Lauraleeeee,  you don't know how much your post means to me--thank you! I think I've managed to talk myself into not worrying and moving full speed ahead.
#12 - July 07, 2008, 02:45 PM
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Interesting that this subject was raised while I was reading LIZZIE BRIGHT AND THE BUCKMINSTER BOY. Racism is central to the book, whereas in your story the MC's physical limitation may not be. Nevertheless, LIZZIE BRIGHT uses several techniques that may be useful models.

(1) Characters exhibit a range of attitudes towards race. Some take their opinion as "received truth," some doubt but conform, some change their opinion (one for a good reason--another for a bad reason), and the MC has never had to consider the issue before. So the outdated attitude is not monolithic, but shaded in many ways. 

(2) The characters who exhibit outdated attitudes are already established as characters the MC finds dubious for other reasons. (It's not as simplistic as I'm making it sound--some of these people are the ones who change their minds during the course of the story.)

(3) Selected historically accurate words are used.

The only thing LIZZIE BRIGHT doesn't do is convince me that there is a real basis for the racist behavior (as opposed to racist attitudes). (The economic plight of the town is discussed, and the town elders are fearful, but nobody in town seems imminently threatened by poverty.) But maybe that would be too much moral ambiguity for MG?

As for your story, I can think of many convincing reasons why a "less than healthy" girl would be kept out of the marriage market in certain times and places. (Ideas that good, thoughtful people of that era would accept without question.) The assumption that she'd pass the problem on to her children, or be unable to bear children. The suspicion that the physical feebleness is a sign of mental--or spiritual--feebleness. The belief that she did--or was fated to do--something that deserved "punishment." Her need for extra servants, or her inability to do whatever work her station in life requires. The expectation that her condition would get worse, and she'd soon become a burden.
#13 - July 13, 2008, 06:38 AM

Marissa, I'd go for historical accuracy.  It also helps to show how your MC walks, using a friend or stick for support and what the others think of her.
Donna Jo Napoli wrote a wonderful retelling of The Pied Piper ... and the MC probably had cystic fibrosis.  Study it to see how she accomplishes this.  Title is ... BREATH.  And there's another title that I'm blanking on (both author and title) that is set in old Cairo, where the MC -- name is Marjan -- is lame.  Lenzi has read it too ... maybe she'll remember.
Good luck,
Vijaya

Susan Fletcher's SHADOW SPINNER. And yes, BREATH handled this nicely as well.
#14 - July 20, 2008, 07:23 PM

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I agree with what's been said. I'm also dealing with having to use the word "negro" in my current w.i.p., but it's 1853 and my protag is clearly not going to say "African American." However, she does question the slavery she sees and doesn't agree with it morally. (She's from a small, poor town in England where she'd never seen slaves before.) So while I do think you should be historically accurate, I have no problem with applying some modern morality to my protagonist's thinking.
 :yup
e
#15 - July 21, 2008, 03:29 PM

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My first book, Liberty Girl, is set in Baltimore during World War I.  I used "negro" and "colored" to describe African-Americans, but I drew the line at the other word starting with N, even though using it would have been historically accurate.  There was one scene where I used it in the first draft, but then I took it out because I thought it would unfairly prejudice the reader against the character who said it.

The book has been out there for 3+ years now, and I've never had anyone object to it.
#16 - July 30, 2008, 12:55 PM

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Really interesting thread.  Interesting mostly because of the different thought processes of writers.  It would never occur to me to care if anybody would be offended by something I wrote.  I have to watch what I say, but when I write--the world is mine.  If it feels true, then it stays; if it feels dishonest, it goes.  Maybe the difference is the audience--I could never write MG.  The pussyfooting around and fear of warping some young mind would be too...what's a nongender word for emasculating?
#17 - August 01, 2008, 11:11 AM

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I think choosing historically accurate terminology is important to authenticity. I tend to write in first person which requires that the character speak in a way that is compatible with the time period. 3rd person or omniscient viewpoints might provide some opportunities for omitting offensive descriptions, however.

In my sequel to Blue, my character refers to herself as crippled.  That's her view of herself.  And another character calls himself a lamestepper (this term comes from an actual account written by this actual historical character.)  Part of the story takes place at Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute where the residents proudly call themselves polios. 

In Healing Water I chose not to use the word leper even though it was used freely during that era (1869) and indeed is still used all too freely (I heard it on Prairie Home Companion just this evening!)  It's just too stigmatizing and painful.  So the only time I used it was in the author endnote when I explained how hurtful it is.  Writing the story without it helped me to think about how often we define people by their illness or disability instead of thinking of them as a person first! It was an excellent exercise for me to choose words such as neighbor, person, patient, etc.

#18 - August 16, 2008, 07:50 PM

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I attended a seminar about writing historical fiction for kids. The author said that, while accuracy was important, authors have a responsibility not to exhume dead derogatory words and reintroduce them into kids' vocabulary.


I have to say I disagree with this attitude too -- you're writing YA, not MG. We need to respect our audience enough to trust that

a) they will not mindlessly ape a new slur . . . seriously -- I don't remember ever learning to use a new swear word or slur through a novel, and I read adult books when I was a teen.
b) they understand that the characters say things that you as the author wouldn't.

Trust yourself, Marissa, and don't hold back. You can always edit later if it makes you feel squicky!

#19 - August 17, 2008, 06:31 AM

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(One of the major characters in Ken Follett's WORLD WITHOUT END has a leg injury that is mentioned a couple of times in just the way you've done it in your post.  The story takes place in the 1340s, with all the accompanying "oogy naturalism," but he still manages to get by without either modern or period labels).

Um. "Oogy naturalism?" What is that?

What a fascinating thread about a complicated topic. There are plenty of things I think we have to be very careful about, and one of those is making historical characters sound just like modern kids. Chaucer and Shakespeare and Dickens exhibit some absolutely abhorrent anti-Semitism, yet how many historical novels have I read where a little Christian kid makes friends with a little Jewish kid in a very unrealistic way for the time period? Drives me nuts! In fact, I've only encountered one YA novel about the Middle Ages (an old one about Joan of Arc that I'm blanking on the title of) where a character we like is also anti-Semitic.

For Marissa, having a character be convinced that she is unmarriagable because of a limp (and to have other characters agree with her) seems to be a perfectly appropriate way to deal with things.

rab
#20 - August 17, 2008, 11:04 AM

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Just wondering what the mc's attitude is?  Is it, Alas, I limp, therefore I'm not marriage material.  Or, Damn, this limp is keeping me from a good marriage.  Or, Hmmph, this is so unfair. Or, I'll show that I can have a limp and make a good marriage!
#21 - August 17, 2008, 02:24 PM

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This IS a fascinating thread. I'd just go with it and be accurate. I mean, we still teach classic literature with 'those words' in them, right? I think it DOES open up discussion, or at least might make a reader wonder about the differences between their time and 'back in the day'. :) We don't shelter children from attitudes in older literature, why should we now?

Bewitching Season is in my TBR pile - I can't wait to get to it!
#22 - August 21, 2008, 07:02 AM
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