May 17th, 2010

Herbalist's Apprentice

It started with pointy hats

It is no secret that when I started out writing "The Herbalist's Apprentice," it was a novelette for the Jim Hines/Cats Curious Press fairy tale retelling project.

A novelette is an easier project to start than a novel. It can handle more whimsy in its start-up choices. To whit, the setting of my book--1489 pseudo-Romania--was largely predicated on the fact that my cousin had married a Romanian woman and I wanted to know more about her heritage, and.... in that time period, my princesses could wear pointy hats.

Because, of course, the fairy tale I'd chosen to rewrite was "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," something I'd meant to rewrite all my life. Or maybe just a huge chunk of it. Seriously, after reading Robin McKinley's Beauty, I went through my Reader's Digest The World's Best Fairy Tales

and put check marks and dots in the table of contents to indicate to myself which one of the stories I wanted to rewrite as fairy tales, some day. I was probably 12. Ish.

Anyway, it so happened that there is a robust Romanian version of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," so that sealed it. Romania. Dancing princesses. And when? Well, when princesses had pointy hats, because the illustration inside of the Reader's Digest The World's Best Fairy Tales showed princesses in pointy hats and I'd freaking imprinted on them.

The only problem with Romania during the pointy hat era is that it's full of Dracula and his drama. That dude was not amenable to my light-hearted romp through pointy-princess-hatland. So I ended up setting the book about ten years after he died--the very edge of the pointy-princess-hat era. I figured: well, Romania was the edge of the Christian world at that point, so maybe fashions don't quite trickle over so quickly to even the nobility. It's not like the courts of the time were glittering palaces of delicate court intrigue. No, the courts of the time were defensive fortresses of brutal political intrigue. Totally different atmospheres. Not so fashion-forward.

The latter stage of pointy hatness involves the butterfly hennin. I really didn't want to go pre-Dracula (for whatever misty reason that escapes me at the time--maybe because I liked the political situation of post-Dracula too much; maybe for a GIANT SPOILER FOR BOOKS NOT YET WRITTEN. *shrug* I mean, I know why it's gotta be then NOW, but did I know why then?), when pointy hats were SO pointy they were called steeple hennins. (Hennin being the name for this hat-veil combo that pointy hats are really all about.) There are steeple hennins, heart hennins, flowerpot hennins, and butterfly hennins. And probably some other ones I never figured out.

Anyway, here's the butterfly hennin, complete with relatively pointy hat:

So, my go-to book of that time, The Evolution of Fashion, placed butterfly hennins with the sort of sleek, low-slung, belt over the hips, off-the shoulder, medieval dress that you see in about half the movies about the Middle Ages. So I wrote those into my story. One of my early critiquers is in SCA, and she pointed out that the dresses that accompany butterfly hennins are different--there's an overdress/underdress situation, and they're cinched tight, high on the waist. The opposite of the low-slung belt over the hips.

I put that out of my mind for a long time, because well, hey, The Evolution of Fashion said otherwise, I had bigger problems to fix in my book, and I figured, even if the book was wrong, you could argue that the butterfly hennin was still popular but the new mode of dress had made it to Romania. Or something. It's not like there was no trade and no fashion amongst the nobility. Also, the edges of fashion trends are mutable; and the dress and the hat do not always progress forward in lockstep in all locations.

But you know what? That's too hard to justify. It's impossible to justify within the text, because none of my characters have any idea what's fashion forward in Burgundy at the time, so wouldn't even know how to explain why they're wearing a dress out of step with their hat.

So I went and did the research, compiling photo references of butterfly hennins on the web. And wouldn't you know, every single contemporaneous image is of the kind of dress my critiquer in the SCA drew me a picture of in the margin of my manuscript. Of course. Because all the images are compiled by SCA women.

But that's the point. Even if I could justify the mixing of styles a little--the edge of an era, and all that--I'd be throwing every one of my SCA butterfly hennin-knowledgeable readers out of the story as they argued to themselves about the thing. And that's not worth it. Not when I can't explain it in the text, not when I can't find a single photo reference for justifying The Evolution of Fashion's line drawing of their approximation of the style.

So, all that, and now I have to go change every single princess dress in the story.