The topic of virtual vs. real life in historical mysteries is fun. Let’s start with the question often asked: do I change the facts of history? There are many answers, some of which are:
- Adding fictional characters is changing history;
- No matter how I may try to “think” 13th century, I was still born in the mid-20th and cannot successfully escape this fact entirely;
- When it comes to human nature, there is nothing new under the sun;
- The survival of primary sources is accidental.
That may suggest I play fast and loose with history. I do not. Why write historical fiction if the emphasis is on fiction? This is where I get to my definition of real vs. virtual reality.
I don’t want to change dates and events because they must have an impact on my characters to give a sense of the era. That is the real life in my books. That I write about fictional characters is part of the virtual reality of the stories.
As for the way my characters behave or think, Answer # 3 is significant. This is not the 21th century speaking. Ecclesiastes, my favorite grump, said the same thing almost 3000 years ago. And so I let people do things many might think modern because there were medieval people who did or thought some surprising things. What I won’t ignore is that they will express themselves and rationalize their actions within the logic of their time just as people always have and always will. Neither we nor they invented hate, compassion, willful ignorance, analytical curiosity, acceptance of diversity or rejection of same. Each era may mix elements like these differently, but they are all to be found anywhere in human history. To me, this is as real as the date William the Bastard conquered England. How I portray it in books is the virtual part.
Documentation from older eras often lacks variety of opinion which leads reasonable people to say that it is poof certain attitudes could not have existed. In reply, I offer this observation. As a child I was told that “everyone did that (or thought that way) then”, when referring to the opinions like: African-Americans were inferior; it was reasonable to send Americans of Japanese ancestry to internment camps during WW II; a woman must marry because she was incapable of protecting or adequately providing for herself. Even if many did have these points of view, we still live in a time when there is ample proof that many did not. But wars happen, natural catastrophes occur, evidence crumbles into dust. (See Answer #4) In some future time, many will again say: “there is no proof that people thought that way then.” Which point of view survives as the predominant one is up to chance.
So with care and a respectful bow to the preponderance of documentation, I choose to have my fictional characters exhibiting age-old human behavior. This may be virtual reality, but it has elements of the real as well.