1453, carey mysteries, Diana Gabaldon, Historical fiction, historical serendipity, p. f. chisholm, Siege of Constantinople
Says Diana Gabaldon, in her introduction to P.F. Chisholm’s brilliant A Plague of Angels*:
One historical author of my acquaintance describes something she calls “historical serendipity.” This is the condition of knowing one’s period so well and so intimately that when one reaches a point in the story where it’s necessary to… (gasp) make something up, one’s fictional choices are not only historically plausible – but very often turn out to be the ex post facto honest-to-goodness truth, as well.
Did it ever happen to you? To me – yes. A small handful of times in all my scribbling years, and especially twice about the same story. There is this thing I’ve been writing, rewriting and tweaking for years, about the Siege of Constantinople. And I say thing, because it was born as a project for a screenwriting course, and then became a novella in Italian, and then a novel in English, and then an idea for a trilogy – and it’s still there, unfinished, in a box together with a few notebooks’ worth of notes.
Ah well, you know how it is. I’m going to do something with it, some day, because I love the period, the characters, and the general story – but that’s hardly the point. The point is that, across the various drafts and redrafts, not once but twice I stumbled on bits of historical serendipity.
There was this Genoese merchant from Pera, you see – a very minor spy, almost a throwaway character. Why I’d made him an oil merchant in the first place, I can’t remember. Then one day I read that Mehmed’s artillery needed huge amounts of oil, and bought it from the Genoese of Pera – much to the besieged’s angry dismay… So, of a sudden, my oil merchant-cum-spy made perfect sense, and had the best of reasons to come and go between Pera and the Ottoman camp. Honestly, it would have worked just as well if he’d been, say, a cheese merchant, supplying the Ottomans in the face of his besieged fellow-Christians – but that small detail made it all the smoother and more satisfying.
Likewise, since the very first draft, I’d given Sultan Mehmed a Greek secretary, a slave named Demetrios. Well, some time and a few drafts later, I found a mention of a minor secretary of Mehmed’s, called Dimitrios Apocaucos Kiritzis. I found it in an article that hadn’t been published by the time I’d written the first draft, so I couldn’t have read and then forgotten it… Serendipity.
Small things – yes, and yet… every time it happens, I get goose-bumps. I get the impression of having opened a small window on another century. And of someone reaching through to me. And of history giving me a tiny wink.
It’s a wonderful, dizzying, deeply satisfying feeling, one of the joys of writing historical fiction – and I’m very glad that I found a name for it.
So, again: how about you, o Readers? Did you ever experience Historical Serendipity?
* Fourth in the highly recommended Carey Mysteries…
Davide Mana said:
Often in the research phase, when small bits of history fall nicely into the larger mosaic of the story – and if the research is done properly, then also later, during the writing itself.
Given the sort of stories I write, people usually talk of unlikely events, impossible coincidences and over the top characters – only to find out that there really was a fake Russian aristocrat with blue hair managing a cat house and pretending to cure people by dipping their feet in Perrier water and then electrocuting them, in Shanghai, in 1936. The serendipity comes when you learn you invented her street address, and got it right.
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la Clarina said:
Yes – exactly! You think that oh, it would make sense for her to live in that particular neighbourhood, and pore over old maps, and like the sound of one particular street… and in time, you find out that indeed, that’s where she lived. And you feel like Mnemosyne just patted you on the head… 🙂
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