There’s a restaurant in Toronto called Medieval Times.
When I was a kid, I would see commercials for it on TV. The gimmick of this restaurant is that it’s set up like a large medieval hall in which patrons are entertained by knights sword fighting and jousting on real horses, all while eating medieval-esque fare without cutlery and drinking out of giant goblets.
To my child self, it looked like the most awesome thing ever. Whenever the commercial (which was more like a movie trailer) came on, I’d stop whatever I was doing and imagine myself going to the restaurant.
Unfortunately, because I was living in Nova Scotia, I never got to go. I still haven’t been to this day.
Now, I’m writing a novel set in medieval England.
My infatuation with Medieval Times restaurant isn’t the reason I’m doing this. The fact that this was just one of a whole series of similarly-themed childhood influences is.
Thinking like a child
I’ve always been interested in ancient history, and medieval European history as it was romanticized in my childhood media sources was particularly appealing.
It was portrayed as a simple time – one where woman wore gorgeous flowing dresses, men carried swords to dispatch justice, people lived in or around castles, evil was localized, nature was undamaged, and a person could become a hero by doing the right thing.
Did I mention the dresses? And the swords?
One of my favourite books as a child was called Tatterhood, by Robin Muller.
This book was a work of fantasy, about a queen with two daughters: one was your typical sweet, obedient princess, while the other – the eponymous Tatterhood – was an eccentric, image-unconscious hellion who goes on a quest to battle evil witches (riding a goat and wielding a giant wooden spoon) after the witches place an terrible spell upon her sister.
Tatterhood triumphs, and in the end finds love from a prince who is able to accept her as she is and recognize her inner strength and beauty.
This sort of thing was typical of my reading tastes as a child. It was also typical of most of what was on offer for children my age growing up in a small city in the pre-Amazon, pre-Internet days of yore: fantastical, a medieval-esque setting, and related to the goings-on of royalty.
A lot of the cartoons I used to like were set in medieval settings as well: the Smurfs, the Gummi Bears, Babar, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and She-Ra: Princess of Power to name a few.
What I enjoyed most about Tatterhood was Tatterhood herself. She was a female character who did interesting things.
Since the book was fantasy, she could do anything the author wanted her to do without concern for historical accuracy, which female fantasy protagonists to this day still often do.
But eventually, I grew curious at the setting’s source material – about what real women in the Middle Ages did, and what their lives were like.
I always believed they did much more than what they were show to do in non-fantasy historical books and movies of the day – more than just pray, sew, poultice the wounded, lie around on their backs either awaiting the birth of a (hopefully male) child or for another less salubrious purpose, or generally serving as a prize for the heroics of a dashing knight.
Not everyone shared my belief. I’ll never forget the response when I told my Grade 12 honours history teacher I wanted to perform independent study and write my final term paper on the rights and tasks of medieval women:
“Good luck with that one.”
Maybe he just doubted my research skills.
Moving backward and forward
I got an A on that paper.
The things I learned were incredible: medieval women did do interesting things.
Not just things more commonly done by men, but their own unique, important work that was crucial to daily life in the Middle Ages, such as the active management of the castle, with all its myriad associated tasks.
They did things that made it into the historical books and movies of my youth about as often as contemporary movies represents the full range of what modern women do.
I also learned, unsurprisingly, that life in the Middle Ages, while simple, was also hard, particularly for women, as has been the case for much of history. And that castles were drafty as hell.
The novel I’m writing is now a combination of both my early childhood influences and my adult understanding of the world, both past and present. It’s wholly a story of my history, even though, in my clearly not being of European ancestry, it’s technically not my history at all.
And as I continue to move through my life – continuing to grow and change and have new experiences – perhaps a different time period, a different place in the world, and an entirely different focus will see me leaving a different trail of history behind.
Now it’s your turn: What influences from your childhood help inform your writing today? Tell me about it in the comments.