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Follow the Farm Boy (Historical realism and storytelling)

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Miskatonic, Jul 8, 2016.

  1. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

    As I've been fleshing out the story I’ve been working on I constantly run into new questions I have to ask myself in order to keep things fairly logical and believable. The latest question that has arisen, which has become a lot more important than I initially assumed, is the following: How does a kid that lives and works on a family farm all of a sudden decide one day to leave home and go on an adventure without everyone who cares about him not suddenly dropping everything they are doing to go and look for him and bring him back home?

    A child running away from home is not uncommon. Whether it's them trying to make their parents feel sorry for telling them they had to eat all their vegetables or because they are living in an unsafe situation that they are trying to get away from, when children go missing the reaction of family and friends is somewhat predictable.

    That being said, one would assume that if a young farm boy all of a sudden up and ran away for whatever reason to go on an adventure, his friends and family would at some point start to worry and start looking for him. In some stories just accepting that family life goes on as always and the friends and family are just oblivious to the boy being gone might work, but for what I've been writing that just doesn't sit well. So now I'm stuck trying to figure out a chain of events that lets this kid, who is say 9-10 years old, leave the family farm and go far away from home based solely on some bad dreams he has been having.

    Because I’ve been researching about peasant life in medieval Europe as I write, I have to this point tried to be conscious about the accuracy of the details as much as possible. In spite of this, my fleshing out of the farm boy scenario has made me realize that I am able to not only come up with a believable chain of events, but also change the aspects of everyday life in my world to my own specifications without ever really finding the details lacking and in need of some historical reference point. In fact I think my world building is better because of this.

    These are some of the questions I’ve had to work through to get the protagonist out the door and onto the path of adventure.

    If a child has dreams and fever like symptoms what kind of medical treatment would be available to someone that is poor or located in a rural area?

    If a child is having prophetic dreams would there be any religious superstitions or beliefs that would lead someone to think of something like possession? If so what is it about the religious/folk beliefs that may play a part in this scenario?

    If there is a healer or priest in the village, what methods would they use? What god(s) would they pray to?

    If the child could convince someone that the dreams are true, say an authority figure like a priest, this still leaves the notion of supplies, money, and other travel logistics. Given it’s a child of 9-10 years old would they require an escort? Does the escort become part of the story or does the child manage to sneak away at some point?

    This is what I decided in a nutshell.

    The child starts having bad dreams and seems to have fallen ill. His mother, a widow, who was taken in by her elder brother, waits and hopes that the episode will pass. After the boy, albeit having fever like symptoms, tries to run off several times, is finally taken, by his mother, to a midwife that also serves as a type of healer/doctor who practices a more homegrown version of one of the more popular polytheistic religions. The boy spends time there and though the midwife doesn’t believe his dream revelations at first, she eventually comes to realize he isn’t making things up. She cooks up a cover story for the boy to use so that he can leave home on some errand for her, with religious implications. So now not only is his mother relieved that her boy is getting better, but being a pious woman she thinks that her son, someone lowborn, might have a chance to serve the gods in some official capacity. Who wouldn’t want their child sent on some kind of pilgrimage with the blessing of the local clergy? The uncle on the other hand is very skeptical and complains that they’ll be missing an able-bodied worker. Of course this opposition will just make her that much more adamant about her boy leaving on his journey.

    Now the boy has an alibi, supplies and money, contacts for places to stay on his way, etc. He’s also got the midwife covering for him in case mother comes asking how things are. Not only that, but everything looks like smooth sailing so he is perfectly positioned for something to go wrong.

    So what is my point exactly? For those going for realism in regards to world details, don’t let the story itself be held hostage by the urge to stick what might be nitpicked by the history snobs.

    During all of this, every time I stopped and thought “well what would it be like during the middle ages?” I always came to the same conclusion. Who the hell cares? It makes sense and it works, and the mundane details are not that far removed from the real thing. In this situation all of the world-building elements came directly from their necessity where moving the plot forward was concerned, with little to no concern as to the “historicalaccuracy” of the details.
  2. I believe 100% that you should do a crapload of research for a fantasy novel. However, the purpose is not to make it realistic, but to make it real to the reader.

    If you get too perfectionistic (me) about details, you risk falling into what I call a Research Hole. There is SO MUCH material you can research that your miniscule nitpicks can go on into infinity. You have to accept the fact that you can only be historically accurate to a certain degree.

    Another kind of research hole you can fall into is the one where you're researching, then you get distracted by all the other interesting stuff you find that might help you with your story, then you find even more stuff you think is interesting and useful and veer even farther away from your original question, and next thing you know you're wondering, "Why did I print off so many pictures of Africa?!" (That happened to me the other day...)
  3. troynos

    troynos Minstrel

    The answer to your question on why the farm boy runs off and no one follows has been answered in books before and is incredibly easy to answer: They can't.

    Farms back then were a "all hands on deck" kind of thing with people that were more practical. If the boy runs off, the father and the mother can't afford to take the time to go looking for him because the rest of the farm still needs to operate and the rest of the family still needs to function and now they have to pull double duty to make up for the loss that the farm boy's leaving represents.

    Harsh? Yes. Real. Yes.

    It's not that the parents didn't love the boy, it's more that the boy chose to leave them and the farm behind and now life gets harder for those that are still there. They just can't go chasing after the dreamer.

    Research is great but at some point you have to set it aside. One of the benefits of writing fantasy is that you can make things up and as long as you make the particular "rules" of your world believable, then it doesn't matter if it was based in reality or not.
    Demesnedenoir likes this.
  4. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    Dang, that's some post. I bet that's a good 900 words right there.
    Shoot. If I could sit down in one sitting and type like that, my book would be finished by now.

    Anyways, it seems to me that when you have a character starting off in a position of responsibility (like they have a job to do), the first thing a writer would do is detach them. Hence why orphans are common protagonists. Or social outcasts. Or you make their home unpleasant.
    They can leave their old life behind more easily. And from a practicality prospective, they have less to loose and more to gain.

    "Look, Mr. Herald, you barge into my mansion and expect me to leave me loving parents and girlfriend when I'm on the cusp of finishing my higher education and entering the lucrative line of work my parents are in just so I can go get killed by the evil wizard Lord Doomdevil the Terrible? Are you crazy?"


    "Look, Mr. Herald, I know all I got is my mildly neglectful foster parents and my one or two close friends and for the rest of my life, I'll be working on this dirt farm in the middle of nowhere but if you expect me to give-up everything to go save the world, reclaim my kingdom, learn about and maybe even meet my real parents, marry a princess and gather fabulous treasure...oh wait, actually, nevermind. I'm in!"

    It isn't terribly interesting to read a character managing their affairs before going off on their adventure. So, most writers make the separation stage simple so they can get on with the story. I think most (good?) writers know when to not get bogged-down in realistic details or follow-up questions like...

    "If a child has dreams and fever like symptoms what kind of medical treatment would be available to someone that is poor or located in a rural area? If a child is having prophetic dreams would there be any religious superstitions or beliefs that would lead someone to think of something like possession? If so what is it about the religious/folk beliefs that may play a part in this scenario? If there is a healer or priest in the village, what methods would they use? What god(s) would they pray to? Given it’s a child of 9-10 years old would they require an escort? Does the escort become part of the story or does the child manage to sneak away at some point?"

    Because from there, the writing process becomes a series of questions and answers which, in my experience, tends not to be very productive.
    Last edited: Jul 9, 2016
  5. valiant12

    valiant12 Sage

    I'm sure you know how much of a cliche is a story about medieval european farmboy.

    Somebody should write a story about the lives of of the parents of some farm boy adventurer. Or his aunt and uncle , since most farm boys are also orphans. :)
  6. Holoman

    Holoman Troubadour

    Easiest way is to get rid of the family and friends, or incorporate them.

    Star Wars: Luke's parents are "dead", aunt and uncle killed in the beginning.
    LOTR: Frodo has no family apart from Bilbo, and his friend Sam follows him on the adventure.

    That's why the MC being an orphan is a trope, it solves some of these problems and also adds sympathy.
  7. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

    He's not going to save the world or end up being related to royalty and next in line to be king, etc. In the grand scheme of things he's a bit player. No special powers or anything like that. I just want to use the POV of a young boy growing up to show the ugliness of the brutal times he lives in. At the halfway point of the series he's a young adult, so over that time span we get to see how his experiences change him and his views of the world and mankind.
  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Miskatonic raises several points. I'll address them randomly. :)

    One benefit of sticking close to historical reality is consonance. There are a zillion details, from how people behave (like runaways) to how they find food, to how the authorities deal with them, and so on. By sailing closer to the historical wind, you don't have to exert so much of your own efforts to keep things believable. Of course, there are aspects of medieval life that modern readers would find unbelievable, so there's that. Anyway, the approach is not without benefits.

    As for runaways, the first thing that came to mind are the popular movements of the later Middle Ages, most notably the Children's Crusade and the Shepherd's Crusade. We don't actually have a whole lot of material on either, so it wouldn't take too long to research both, and you might pick up some tidbits. At the very least you would discover that young people could and did leave home. You will want to decide soon whether your kid is running away or running to.

    Nine or ten is pretty young. They just aren't strong enough for the serious work. Also, puberty is a great trigger for visions (Joan of Arc) as well as for wanting to leave home. Indeed, Joan is a good model for how far a headstrong kid can get.

    Honestly, if you have a fifteen-year-old kid, s/he could leave home very simply. They just walk away. The adults are at planting or harvest, the kid is well away tending a flock, and off you go. Not a problem.

    Nearby villages will ask questions, but towns won't. Show up before they close the gates at sundown and now you are among the street poor. All kinds of things could happen at that point. Visions aren't much help in a practical way, but if the kid can shoot fireballs or something, then that kid could survive even in the countryside. Again, a lot depends on whether s/he is running from or running to. Visions are quite handy, though, for collecting followers.

    I'm happy to answer medieval historical questions, if I can. PM me, if you wish. My research specialty was in the towns, but I've done a fair amount of reading on peasant life as well.
    Miskatonic likes this.
  9. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

    He's definitely running "to" something, not away from family life.

    Glad you mentioned Joan of Arc, it's a great example to keep in mind.
  10. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

    You don't have to actually flesh out everything that goes into the protagonist leaving the farm, it's just a mental checklist to follow so you can keep things somewhat logical. Continuity errors and plot-holes can ruin an otherwise great story, so I just like to stay in the habit of keeping track of these things so I don't have extra re-writing to do later that could have easily been avoided. This isn't to say that how believable the events are leading up to the farm boy protagonist leaving home to go on an adventure are going to be what makes or breaks the overall story; however I like to be thorough, regardless of where I'm at in the story.
  11. La Volpe

    La Volpe Sage

    I agree with Troynos here.

    And in addition, I can't think that, even if they do chase after him, that they'd have any luck in finding him if he makes good time and has a head start. If they have no idea where he might be going, how could they possibly hope to locate him? Blind luck might lead them to his location, but unless they're on a horse and he's on foot, he'll probably be able to keep ahead.

    And even if he doesn't, just going in the right direction will be a miracle, unless they have hundreds of idle hands ready to go look. And they'll need to do a thorough search -- slowing them drastically -- to make sure they don't accidentally pass by him.

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