The knight rode through the village of thatch-covered huts, ignoring the clusters of urchins gaping at his horse and waving to the milkmaid who paused to sigh at his shining armor. He made for the castle on the hill, flags flying from every turret.
“Who goes there!” cried the watchman from the tower.
“Open the gates! I have an urgent message for the king!”
Immediately the guard turned the great iron wheel to lower the drawbridge, barely in time for the knight to thunder across it, ride under the teeth of the portcullis, and into the castle keep.
“Egads,” muttered the prince who paced along the walls, his hand upon his sword. “It is that foul knight Beauregarde. Methinks he will pay for his dastardly deeds.”
… etc., etc.
Apart from the fact that you don’t want to read it, though, you know one thing—this story is set in the Middle Ages.
It has the castle and the knight and the damsel and the foul heart and the dastardly deeds. It has a drawbridge and a portcullis and flags on turrets. Also “egads” and “methinks.” It has the poor village and urchins and the milkmaid with whom, no doubt, the knight has on occasion dallied. I didn’t manage to get dirt or plague or rape or a dragon in that bit but there is at least the threat of violent revenge.
We all know the aesthetic. It can be sunny and colorful—banners flying, scarves flowing from pointed headresses—or it can be dark and foreboding like the moody tavern above—but we all know what it is and we recognize it instantly.
But the story I want to tell takes place in the 12th century, so what do I do?
Trying to understand the 12th century from the vantage point of the 21st is like trying to imagine the life of one of those organisms in the depth of the ocean. We can’t do it. Too much has been lost. All that is left are fragments, pieces of a lost whole. We have thirty-two pieces of a 500-piece puzzle, but we keep making a picture anyway, the picture we want to be there, both much better and much worse than our life now.
My challenge as a writer is to tell an interesting story, so what do I do? If I put in all the clichés in I am feeding the stereotypes. If I leave them out I risk losing my audience. If I ignore cultural differences the story might just as well be set in the present. If I put too many in it is like mimicking dialect.
I have devised a solution in the story I am calling Holy Water, but I am interested in the ideas of readers. What would you do?