Ordsall Hall in Salford is a 13th century Mansion estate that has been on the site continuously for seven centuries in one form or another. It’s a strange ambience as you drive up to the estate; surrounded by modern hotels, flat complexes and a newly completed mega supermarket to the left of the dual carriageway and Salford quays to the right, Ordsall Hall is tucked away in a side street off this main modern complex. In a moment you are away from the frenetic pace of modern urbanity and thrown 700 years back in history, with a very direct link to the past that goes back past the Tudors, past the War of the Roses to a medieval time of our ancestral past. Of Course once upon a time the house would have been embraced by forest and the estate surrounded by a moat, much has changed in seven hundred years both socially, politically and economically so how do we write with authenticity about the past or for that matter the future? So much changes within a generation, let alone in a decade, so how do we write about centuries gone by or centuries to come without our modernity breaking the suspension of disbelief?
A simple approach is that any time that a reader’s experience is broken and the hand of the writer interferes in the world that has been created it signals the need for an overhaul by the writer. Good writers should submerge and loose the reader in the narrative experience. If a medieval peasant is drinking wine and dining on Roast Pheasant – unless it is a parallel universe – it signals a carelessness on the part of the writer in creating a world that is inconsistent with itself and the readers expectations after all how many peasants can afford to eat and drink so well. Now, before you all jump up and down in a frantic attempt to sway me that writers can successfully challenge readers expectations let me say that I agree with that statement. However I do so on the proviso that such circumstances are still consistent within the world that has been created. By that I mean that it is fine to cross the expectation of the reader but it must be explained and slid into the narrative, dialogue and plot as consistent. Readers will accept that you have screwed with their expectations, sometimes that you have flown in the face of historical evidence as long as the world that you have built makes sense within the context of the social, political, economic and religious elements of the world you have built.
There is much that can create a break in the audiences suspense of belief and these will ring true whether you are writing about 8th Century England, Modern day India or a futuristic world.
1. Are there technological inconsistencies? Is your 16th Century Bavarian serving wench talking to her friend on her mobile phone? Or is your 20th Century heroine flying around on her solar-powered jet pack? It could be as simple as a misplaced technology like a zip being undone as your Tudor Lady gets undressed. The technology has to be consistent with the time unless you have carefully created an alternative universe where your world building allows these things to be consistent with the time period.
2. Make the speech and language in tune with the world you have built. It’s unlikely a 25th century space adventurer would still be calling people dude and saying things are ‘cool’ unless you are referring to an object or person’s heat. Even then language changes over time and usage and meaning changes. Gay use to mean an event or scene that is pretty or joyful, but now of course it has taken on a different connotation to the audience.
3. Attitudes should be in keeping with the world you have created. Social, religious and political views from back in the day may seem alien to us now – we wouldn’t dream of thinking of women and slaves as property or the monarch being so all – powerful that it can execute dissenters or deprive people of their land – but if you are writing about Tudor England those attitudes were common and modern sensibilities have no place in the attitudes of characters within that setting. In a similar ilk even if you are writing with a modern-day world setting attitudes between and within countries and continents will differ with cultural and national expectations that are normalised within that area. In short don’t appropriate Western values and expectations to all societies not every one shares our ideology and morals.
4. Be careful how you explain your social structure. One of the great tightropes that fantasy writers have to walk when their world involves a magical class is explaining how that use is restricted and controlled so that it can not be used to ‘rule the world’. Does your social structure make sense within the world you have built and does it explain the rights and restrictions placed on your protagonists, antagonists and secondary characters?
5. Don’t cop-out when you are world building by reducing your characters to stereotypes and your writing to genre tropes.
6. If your writing science fiction make the world you build scientifically accurate. If the world has two suns or three moons, or it has been ravaged by a nuclear holocaust ensure that the consequences of the world you have built are accurate. If a reader smells a scientific rat they’ll be turned off by your writing. You have to keep the reader believing that the world makes sense within itself.
In many ways the above are all variations of a theme, that consistency in the world, the logic, morals, attitudes, power structure and reality of your novel are of paramount importance to ensure that your reader can suspend their disbelief.