Beth Camp Historical Fiction

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

There will be blood . . . but how much?

Yesterday I was reading about convict life in Van Diemen's Land and was reminded again of the use of floggings in prisons and aboard ship for what may well seem to modern readers as mild infractions. 

So in my stories, how much blood? One account had a poor fellow sentenced to 300 lashes (a fairly common sentence). After 100 lashes, the authorities decided his back couldn't take any more punishment, so they switched to his buttocks. After another 100 lashes, they finished the sentence on the backs of his legs. The writer said more than likely the prisoner was sentenced to further flogging when he couldn't work to quota in the following days. One beta reader told me she knew these things happened, but she couldn't bring herself to read about them. 

So in historical fiction, while action drives the story, how much 'true to life' does the writer include? Does violence advance the story?

Writers are advised to write what we know. I'm not a violent person, haven't been in fights, nor do I want to. But I was knocked around as a kid. I remember being 6 or 7, and my mother joking that when she lifted her hand, we kids ducked. That detail could be worked in. 

I was hit once when I was a teenager for mouthing off. One minute I was talking; the next, my head buzzed. I couldn't figure out what had happened. Everything hurt. My lip puffed out, and everyone screamed. I got an ice pack and an apology, but now I realize it was because she didn't want anyone to know.

Years later, on my way home from work, I was attacked. A young man came up behind me just as I was putting my key into the door. I turned to face him, and just as quickly, we scrabbled on the ground. His face inches away from mine, I yelled obscenities at him (at a time I didn't swear at all), and he ran away. Within minutes, I was shaking so hard, I could barely speak. Hours later, I felt every bump and bruise. 

So adrenaline in the moment of a fight could block pain, but the shock of being hit or hitting generates an immediate survival response. And there's always the aftermath where the person takes account of what happened, why, and what possibly could be done -- revenge or flight. In prison, running away would not be possible.

I've also been thinking about simple animosity

Various accounts of male and female prisoners reveal both class awareness, a rough pecking order, and discrimination based on nationality. English prisoners, male and female, were assigned out as servants and workers first. Scottish and Irish prisoners were harder to place. Add to this mix the animosity and distrust between those who came from a convict background, colonists, and those who emigrated or who comprised the upper class.

A TV reality shows shocked me with the depth of such disdain. The storyline was about conflicts between 19th Century English nobility and a slew of servants on an isolated estate. The actors had gathered to 'play their roles', and the nobility treated servants with chilling disregard for any modern sense of justice or fairness. One 'lady' admonished her son not to play with that sort. She was dead serious. 

Prejudice is insidious. Is it any surprise that the Australian 'convict stain' has taken generations to heal? 

Morning thoughts. If you write, what role does class awareness or violence play in your story-telling?