Unexpected Findings

Research is a challenge for me. Not the actual tracking down of weird and obscure information: I enjoy that, and do pretty well at it. No, for me the challenge is avoiding the rabbit hole of related interesting tidbits. Of which there are an abundance.

One of the fun aspects of the current work in progress is that I’m working two distinct strands. There’s the founding Teutonic Knights who were abducted by aliens in 1272, and their many-times-over descendants who have shown up in Earth orbit in our near-future. The 1272 part brings in action much sooner as well as providing a lot of worldbuilding – mostly from the perspective of a fifty-something knight who is well-educated by the standards of his era, but knows absolutely nothing about advanced technology or science.

Which leads to the research fun: concepts that weren’t around in the late 1200s don’t appear (or at least I hope they don’t) in their modern forms. Instead, my knight uses concepts he knows to describe things. Leading to (among other things) some interesting automated translator issues where the translator software lacks the context for something and goes for the closest equivalent. Like “fornicator” for “replicator” (which has the added advantage of dropping some much-needed light relief into a rather tense situation).

As part of writing this strand, I’m constantly searching for the etymology of words. If it doesn’t have a first known use around 1300 or less in Northern Europe, I don’t use it. There’s a lot that’s ruled out by this – words like technology, humanity, logistics… actually, just go with most of the big overarching conceptual things and you’re pretty much there. For a man who’s spent most of his life as a knight and a leader, not having the word ‘logistics’ forces him to think of the concept as the proper ordering of men and supplies – which is more or less the way it was considered in that era.

Then, me being me, I have to fight the urge to follow the rabbit trail of documented logistics of the 1200s (there isn’t much, and what there is largely relates to supplying castles), the makeup of supply trains (it varied. A lot), and how much a militant Order of Knight-Monks, all of them sworn to celibacy (as were their men-at-arms, generally known as Half-Brothers because they weren’t full members of the Order) would vary from the documented examples.

Then there’s the question of whether it’s feasible my knight would arrive at the same or a similar word by virtue of his education. Since he’s a younger son of nobility who’s grown up in the Order (as many of the Teutonic Knights did), he’s fluent in Latin and Old High German, has picked up a smattering of Old Prussian from the native Prussians over the past 30 years or so, and speaks the local Vulgate and Germanic dialects. So if there’s something equivalent to the modern term that he’s likely to come up with on his own, I’ll do that.

The end result is the Prussians in the modern timeline don’t use the same terminology we do. Their scientific language originated with two of their member species and has no human basis, so the translations given are close equivalents to what we’d use without being the same. Instead of scientists, they have technologists.

And the author winds up off on even more odd research tangents looking for different ways to say things that feel like they belong in the piece and the culture without being obnoxiously different. Not that this is anything unusual.

Trust me on this: you haven’t lived until you’ve found black supremacist theology via trying to find out how a northern European culture in the 1100s or thereabouts would view someone with albinism. I think my eyeballs tried to crawl through my optic nerves to get away from it.

Research is dangerous. Choose your search terms carefully and try not to get distracted.


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39 responses to “Unexpected Findings

  1. I know what you mean. For me, nothing puts me off a story faster than the use of modern idioms or colloquialisms in a world or timeline where they shouldn’t exist.

    • It is very hard to eliminate “okay” from language. You have to make an effort. My guess is that “effort” was not the word of the day for those folk.

      • Kate Paulk

        Oh, yes… Very much so. I tend to use older words and words that feel archaic rather than their more modern equivalents. I also do things like instead of “I won’t do that” the character will say, “I’ll not do that”. It still flows, but feels more appropriate to an older era.

  2. Psst? Give it a title? 17142 is not so easy to remember?

  3. It is probably just as well that they are not science guys, because Aristotelean science was so dead wrong in a lot of cases that it would have meant a lot of painful re-learning. OTOH, nobody like a medieval scholar for mental agility in argument! So as in Eifelheim, they might have done okay… But it would be a different book.

    Teutonic Knight canonization causes sure got controversial. Sometimes it is not great to be a powerful order with powerful frenemies.

    Sometimes it is amusing to find out that “modern” terms are older than you think. Of course, then you have to persuade the reader about it, if you want to use it…. But even if the term is the same, the meaning can be subtly different.

    One of the reasons you get anachronistic speech is that writers are commanded by many editors to avoid characters doing anything like “speaking forsoothly,” or even having fun with slang like Heyer does. The other reason is the aforementioned lack of research.

    • IIRC, David Drake caught some flack over having his Roman soldiers swearing like modern GIs. He responded by pointing out that readers wouldn’t understand actual Latin maledictions — and many of them correspond pretty closely to modern cusswords (F-bomb equivalent, scatological words, etc), so it makes sense to translate them to give a present-day reader the equivalent emotional punch the actual ones would have to an audience of the characters’ contemporaries.

      • Carrington Dixon

        Using Latin maledictions would be appropriate if all the dialog was in Latin (or other appropriate languages of similar vintage). This would markedly restrict the books possible audience.

      • Great moment in Doctor Who where one of the companions decides to see what happens if she says some Latin in front of the Roman-speaking folk (which is being translated into English.) It gets a sneer of “what is that, Welsh?”

      • Mary

        Cuss words are a problem. They sound modern, quaint, or made up, in my experience.

    • I had to fight to get an editor to understand that there is no way a king of a vaguely medieval fantasy land would use the phrase “it’s a deal.” Thankfully, my correction was not messed with.

    • Kate Paulk

      Ugh. Speaking forsoothly is ugly unless whoever is writing it actually *knows* English of that era. Or, to quasi-quote Bored of the Rings “Lo!” “If he says that one more time I’ll kill him myself.”

      I personally prefer to use a few archaic words that are still relatively well known, mixed with non-period but older style conversational language. It seems to work relatively well.

      • I’ve seen people try to “forsooth” without having any inclination of the internal grammar involved. If you have no inkling that there is grammatical structure involved, and just start attaching “-eth” to everything, I WILL rain down wrath upon your head.

        … usually by doing it right, and in iambic pentameter. I’m competitive in the oddest circumstances.

  4. I’m going to stop “researching” and start writing, right now. Darn Mad Geniuses, posting stuff for me to read instead of writing like that. ~:)

  5. Christopher M. Chupik

    “you haven’t lived until you’ve found black supremacist theology”

    As if the white supremacist crap wasn’t bad enough.

    • The white sup’ stuff at least has tolerable historical roots, even if they require serious squinting and suspension of dis-belief (um, guys, speaking a language descended from what steppe herders spoke 5500 years ago doesn’t really give you a genetic or cultural advantage.) The Black sup’ theology? Oh my stars and garters, I couldn’t come up with that level of YGTBSM if I tried.

      • Kate Paulk

        The one that made my rapidly dying brain cells leap for the abyss was the claim that because all non-blacks have something akin to mutated albinism (true), that makes blackness superior (dafuq? That pale skin mutation survived and spread because it conferred advantages in cold climates. Doesn’t make it better, worse, or anything else. It just *is*.).

        People using science to justify their need to lord it over other people make me want to projectile-vomit all over them.

      • Terry Sanders

        Actually, it’s *being descended from* guys speaking a language descended from what steppe herders spoke 5500 years ago that makes you superior.

  6. I have that problem with Youtube and Wikipedia. I go looking for a very specific thing. Four hours later I’m learning how to make Lithuanian food, and I don’t even like to cook.

  7. TRX

    Egyptian and Roman soldiers traveled with supply trains. Greeks and Europeans generally foraged.

    Having your monarch’s army pass through was often little different than the enemy’s army when they stripped your holding down to bare dirt.

    That sort of thing is why the Third Amendment says “No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.” It has been a non-issue for generations, but back then it was important enough to incorporate into the Constitution. (“quartered” also covered supplies in that usage)

    Modern canned goods came about because Napoleon offered a hefty prize to anyone who could come up with a better method of preserving food for his troops.

    • Kate Paulk

      Indeed so. The militarized monastic orders tended to include some supply trains, especially when the terrain was unfriendly (desert, Russia in winter…)

      There’s an entire history just in how armies fed themselves.

      • Mary

        But then you hit the problem that you have to carry the fodder to feed the animals you are using to lug your supplies, so there are strict limits.

        • TRX

          Some years ago an SF writer was kicking around the idea of cheap, practical matter transmitters about the size of a phone booth. Except he was trying to limit them somehow so they would have no military value.

          I pointed out that even if they had some kind of smart controls that could recognize guns and bombs, any given combat soldier stands at the apex of a huge supply chain. Even if all you could send through the box were Purina Soldier Chow and clean underwear, it would be a load off the supply chain. And the box would be even more valuable below the apex, sending clerks, armorers, requisition forms, food, laundry, spare parts, medical supplies, and all the other things that prop up the supply chain.

          • Chrismouse

            This is one of the things that irks me as a plot point on TV shows/movies, the type where some inventor or other has created Awesome Technology A, but now feels the urge to run from the government or otherwise conceal his technology “so it won’t be used for war”. First of all, basically everything everywhere can be used for war. Secondly, you can’t prevent what people do with your tech once it’s out of your hands. Thirdly, there is NO NEED for a government to kidnap you or steal your invention when they could just buy it. Granted, other countries’ governments may well wish to use your tech as well, but it is highly unlikely they’re going to kidnap you and force you to build things for them, either. And if they try, well, that’s why you sell the tech to YOUR government for lots of money and some bodyguards.

            • Draven

              because The Government using your Awesome Technology for war is horrible, but…

              nevermind i know where i was going but it was going to get dark quickly.

          • Kate Paulk

            Given sufficient imagination and incentive *anything* can be used for war. Even peace protesters (aka ablative meat shields).