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?


  1. Social class tends to stand out in my stories. I write fantasy and there is tension between elves, fairies and what not.

    Violence not so much.

    As far as the lashes go-if your story needs that kind of violence to get the point across then use it. If it is just gratuitous violence then tone it down.

    My mom tried to slap me once. I ducked. ahahaha
    My dad was the usual inflictor of corporal punishment in our house. I could tell you oh so many stories about that. Funny how times have changed. These days the kids would be removed from the family for what was 'common' back then.

  2. Thank you, Jai, for commenting. I agree that even if we're not aware of it, that social class shapes what we write. Your advice about what level of violence to include is just what I needed to hear. Sometimes I get carried away by history and need reminding that it's the story that drives the writing, not the history. About domestic violence, we can choose to change -- but such change is very slow. Yes, times have changed. Thank goodness!!! Beth

  3. Social awareness, racial prejudice, and violence are very important in my writing. Having read about such goings on in some of the historical writing you mention, having been born during World War II, and descending from southerners who came to the colonies, landed in Virginia, and made their way from there to Georgia, then Louisiana on the backs of slaves, I learned about it early on.
    Growing up in southwest Oklahoma, my personal encounters with it were numerous. From being friends with the only Jewish family in town, to watching the degradation of indigenous people, to seeing three crosses burning on the lawn of my high school, it was an education not to be found in books.
    I almost said, "Thank God we no longer live in such times," but I forgot Uganda, Sudan, and Guantanamo Bay. Yes, here's to better times, and people who are willing to exercise their right to vote!

    1. Thank you for posting, Karen. Your comments remind me we all share a wider connection to violence -- even if we escape the immediate and obvious. Last night PBS profiled Guatemala and the news is full of that horrid story of three women held captive for a decade. At best, our experience tells us to fight bullies when we can.

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  6. I think you have to show the violence that would occur in the situation you're writing about. But your story about the prisoner being whipped might be too much. Perhaps you could condense it. Like: 'After more of the same, ... he slumped, unable to maintain his stance while the guards untied his hands'. That way, we get the picture without being too horrified.

  7. As always, Francene, your comments are quite useful. In fact, although I wrote about this here, on the blog, I haven't brought the research into the story. It just doesn't fit, and I have other ways to let the reader know how these men suffered without drenching the poor reader with blood! Or so I hope. Thank you. Beth

  8. Anonymous1:17 PM

    Class and social structure, hmm... I decided to write my silly steampunk stories with characters who had to, you know, go out to work - because I was fed up reading about aristocrats who could just swan off on adventures at the drop of a hat, with servants to pick up after them and never needing to find the spare pennies for the bus fare.
    Might not be to everyone's taste, though. There's a fine line between realism and the Catherine Cooksons of this world. Now there's a career to emulate!