December 25, 2011

The Nativity and Period Detail

Merry Christmas!

As a writer of historical fiction, period detail is the muscle in the body of my writing. The principles of craft and the story itself are the skeleton, and the finished manuscript and reader experience are the skin. What others will see and know when the work is complete. The period detail is integral to the function of the work and like muscles on the body, control the strength of the writing, particularly in the historical genre.

There is such a thing as period detail overload. Picture a misshapen bodybuilder whose taken things too far. Of course, there's also period detail deficiency. Recall an image of a visibly starving person who you can count the ribs on and whose knees are wider than their legs from starvation. (By the way, this process known as autophagy, while tragic to see in reality, is pretty amazing, and another example of how science supports intelligent design.) A reader knows when period detail is there in a sufficient quantity to meet their tastes, and because I enjoy historical fiction rich in period detail, I write that. Occasionally I'll let the work "flex" for the reader, ;-) where a particular point of period detail, usually a historical fact or figure highlighted in the plot comes to the forefront. This must be done very sparingly, in my opinion, for greatest effect, and done well so as not to become author intrusion..

The nativity best illustrates the thorn in my writer side regarding period detail. Almost every nativity scene I have ever seen includes the three wise men. A closer study of the book of Matthew chapter two tells us the wise men from the East weren't there to worship Jesus and present Him with their gifts until he was a young child. King Herod ordered the killing of the children in Bethlehem two years and younger (Matthew 2:16) supports this, and there is no possible way the wise men were there with the shepherds at the inn keeper's stable. Another problem with the period detail here is there were three gifts, but the scripture is silent as to the number of wise men. Over time, culture has extrapolated the three gifts to be three wise men. I have this idea that I'll make my own nativity scene for my lawn one day with no wise men, or make a second scene on the other side of the driveway with a toddler Jesus in His house when the wise men, ten seems a good number, bringing their gold, myrrh and frankincense. 

And there's the rub, to quote Hamlet's famous to be or not to be soliloquy.

Sometimes when you're right, you look wrong. If I take the three wise men out of my Nativity, it looks incomplete. And if I put seven wise men in my nativity, the scene also will appear wrong. The author must be mindful of this as well when layering period detail into a manuscript, and carefully choose when to be true to period detail and when to exercise artistic license so as not to thwart your reader. A critique partner called me on this brilliantly in a romantic scene in a manuscript where a slave entered to refill the lamps and empty the chamber pot. While that is indeed what would have transpired, I chose to leave out the chamber pot bit because it killed the overall mood of the scene. I allowed the interruption to remain with only the refill of the oil in the lamps to highlight the tension for the hero and heroine in the scene, because in a battle between period detail accuracy and reader experience, reader experience always wins. The story must and should always rule.

A final note on this topic:

I love Christmas. I put up a tree, exchange gifts, and use this season to engage others regarding the amazing gift of Christ and the miracle of His coming to earth to take the form of man and through His death and resurrection atone for the sin of the world for all who believe. I also know that the Christmas celebration as we know it, the gift exchanges, the feasting, and the particular date on the calendar, December 25th, come from the merging of the celebration of the ancient birthday of the pagan god Mithra by the Romans. The Romans absorbed this pagan festival into their culture as was their habit historically, and it became a celebration of the Roman equivalent of the sun god Saturn. Part of the celebration of the week long Saturnalia festival (which always ended on December 25th) included the priests of Saturn carrying boughs of evergreens through the temples of Saturn. All this is sounding eerily familiar, is it not? Emperor Constantine, who converted the state religion of Rome to Christianity in AD 336 converted the pagan festival of Saturnalia into the Christmas tradition we know and celebrate today.  

As a believer and follower of Christ, I'm at peace with this and know I do no wrong in celebrating Christmas traditionally. I do enjoy knowing the facts surrounding the roots of these traditions, and thought I would share them today as this is one of those bits of period detail that will likely never make it into my manuscripts. In the guest blog I did on research HERE for Jackie Layton at Back Porch Reflections, I shared about ten percent of what I gather in my research will ever translate into plot, character and setting elements. These are the moments I allow the period detail to flex, and the rest works quietly below the surface of the reader experience. And it's cool to know. Not because I plan on joining a pagan cult like Mithras or the daughters of Isis, but because understanding the challenges of the early church and the mindset of the culture at that time not only enriched my writing, but my understanding of how radical the coming of Christ to earth as a man truly was. He changed EVERYTHING. =)

Merry Christmas all and I'll see you in 2012!

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