Dealing with the mucky bits

picture of a kitchen scene I recently wrote a post on my other blog concerning the bits authors leave out of time travel. With my tongue firmly in my cheek, I called it ‘the sexy side of time travel’. Imagine yourself going back from the 21st century to (say) Elizabethan London. What would your impressions be? A lot of it would be to do with stinks, smells, filth, disease, rotten teeth, body odour, rats, mice, lice, death etc. All these things would assault the eye (and nose) of a person coming front our times. But for the people living in that time, it was how they lived.

So how does one write about things like this, conveying what it was really like? The issue is that people wouldn’t have noticed the smells and the vermin. If you go out camping with friends and there is no chance to wash, you’ll no doubt end up smelling bad. But your friends won’t notice because they smell bad, too. How can you convey some of the concepts to the reader? Using the good old, ‘show, don’t tell’ concept. Let them work it out for themselves. For instance, lice and ticks were common in hair and on the body, and then, as now, they caused people to scratch. Rats and mice might have been so commonplace as to be largely ignored, but they can be mentioned, foraging through refuse in a drain, for instance. Even stinks can be hinted at. I frankly hated the movie Shakespeare in Love but I applaud the director in capturing so much of the essence of living in a late 16th century city. The rather ghoulish boy with his pet mice, which he would feed to a cat in an instant, Geoffrey Rush avoiding a chamber pot full of waste flung from an upper window as he dodged down a horrible street. He even managed to convey the absence of toothbrushes as the leading lady probed around her teeth with a frayed piece of wood. Then there are people’s faces ravaged by disease or rat bites, corpses on the street or in the river, maybe people collecting eels from such corpses. But nobody is likely to say, ‘poo, that smells’ – unless it’s something extraordinarily offensive.

I think I’ll have to stop, now. It’s all rather revolting, isn’t it? But that’s the way it was. Conveying the impression is a difficult balancing act. Any ideas for other authors that you may wish to share?