Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders

Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer's (& Editor's) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, & Myth, by Suzanne Alleyn

I got a huge kick out of this book, despite the fact that I am not in the intended audience at all.  It's a fun book of hints for people who write (or want to write) historical fiction.  I have no desire to write anything much besides blog posts, especially historical fiction, and I don't even enjoy reading historical fiction all that much, but that's often largely because of the mistakes that Alleyn warns against here.

Alleyn is witty and very funny as she warns against common mistakes like feeding your hero food he could not possibly have eaten, making someone pay three gold louis for a minor purchase, wrong usage of aristocratic titles (a minefield, admittedly), or giving your heroine underpants.   My husband was made happy by the existence of an entire chapter devoted to correctly describing guns ("...the words 'pistol' and 'revolver' are NOT synonymous or interchangeable").  There are wonderful chapters that go into detail about issues like how often people used to take baths (as often as they could afford to, usually), why servants were necessary, and how very slow travel used to be.

My favorite part was the chapter warning against "feisty females."  That is, you cannot pop a woman with 21st-century attitudes into a Worth gown and have her run around unchaperoned all the time/save everyone with her superior morals/otherwise act in a way that would have gotten a real woman in huge trouble, and still have a good book.  This is a personal peeve of mine, so it was great.

There is lots of great detailed historical information in here even if you have no interest in writing historical fiction, and it's a fun vindicating read if you are regularly driven mad by anachronisms in books and movies. 


  1. This one sounds awesome! It's always frustrating to find such things in books... Although I can understand why authors have dilemmas with writing ladies: the norms of behavior and thinking have changed so much, that the modern reader will not find it interesting to read about real life of real women. I'm OK with having male characters do most of the action instead, but I know people who like a kick-ass woman in every book :)

  2. Oh this sounds wonderful! I DO write fiction, but generally shy away from Historical Fiction precisely for the reason that I am afraid of making such blunders... I am going to look into this book in the future!

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  4. The feisty females problem is not restricted by gender or genre. Mom picked me up a mystery set in North Korea at a book sale. I never finished it because the main character was so absurdly out of place in North Korea. He had all these American mannerisms and habits that would've lost him his job in South Korea. In the North he'd have been sent to the mines.

  5. I should think it would be nigh-impossible to write a convincing mystery set in NK. Nobody knows enough about it. Do you think?

  6. You're probably right. I certainly couldn't. (Although I couldn't write a story set in South Korea. There are still cultural issues I get wrong there.) I think it would be possible to write some kinds of stories set in North Korea, a romance perhaps, or a thriller about smuggling. Something where you can restrict the story to topics where information is known.

    A mystery is tricky because it requires a lot of in depth knowledge of specific topics that we really don't know much about in the case of North Korea. How do the police work? Would anyone be interested in actually solving a murder? If so, what is the combination of castes makes the solution both compelling and possible? What is the result of the solution?

  7. Yes, exactly. I don't see how anyone could know enough to be able to do a mystery well. A smuggling thriller is a good idea though.


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