Dealing with life expectancy in historical fiction

Just like the oft-perpetuated misinformation/misunderstanding about girls routinely marrying underage for most of human history, the belief that our ancestors were doomed to die at all of 35 is also a myth. It’s not that there’s no truth to it, but that it’s grounded in a lack of understanding of context.

Average lifespans have historically skewed so low because of high childhood mortality and childbirth death rates, and men dying in wars. If someone could get past all that, s/he stood as good of a chance as a modern person of making it into old age. People didn’t just drop dead as soon as they turned 35!

Let’s say there are two siblings. One, God forbid, dies of SIDS at three months, while the other lives to 95. Their average age is 47.

People with physically demanding jobs (e.g., coal miners, outdoor slaves, chimney sweeps) and from the lower socioeconomic classes, then as now, had much harder lives, and less access to the best doctors and medicine. They also didn’t have the option of taking off work to recover. However, even royalty and nobility fell victim to diseases and injuries in an era before modern medicine.

So what were the real averages and expectations?

Prehistoric era:

If one survived to 15 in the Paleolithic Age, life expectancy was 34–54. In the Neolithic Age, it was 28–33. Our prehistoric ancestors lived short, hard, brutal lives, long before modern medicine. They were at the mercy of the elements, enemy tribes, wild beasts, diseases, and injuries.

However, we’ve found bones of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons who survived into old age. Some survived multiple traumatic injuries, missing teeth, and arthritis. Their clanspeople continued to take care of them, chewing or grinding their food for them and carrying them from place to place.

Bronze and Iron Ages:

If one survived to 15, one could expect to live to 28–33. While our ancestors no longer lived in caves by this point, and had the advantage of cities and farms, life was still harsh. However, as with all other historic lifespan averages, it’s consistently 70–80 once childhood mortality is removed. The longer one survived, the more likely old age was.

Ancient Greece:

At 15, one could expect to survive to 37–41, though there were many elders. Socrates, for example, died at 70, from poisoning. Had he not angered the authorities, he may have lived at least another decade.

Ancient Rome:

If one lived to 20, life expectancy was 50–60. Many Romans lived into old age, and enjoyed a great quality of life. Cato the Elder lived to 85.

Golden Age of Islam:

Scholars lived from 59–84.

Medieval Europe:

The Bubonic Plague skewed life expectancy to 45, but if a man survived till 21, he could expect to live into at least his sixties. Given the dangers of childbirth, it was somewhat lower for women, but there were more than a few female elders. It’s a total myth that no one bathed in the Middle Ages, everyone lived in filth, and peasants lived lives full of nonstop exploitation.

It’s much the same through the Renaissance and 17th, 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. There were many people in their eighties and nineties; e.g., Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Jefferson, King Eric of Scandinavia, Michelangelo.

Handling longevity in your writing:

Having historical characters dying in their thirties, absent any diseases or injuries, does a great disservice to true statistics. On the flip side, it’s equally unrealistic to have all your characters living past 100.

I like to save extreme longevity for a family matriarch or patriarch, someone really special, or a storyline about how old age can be very lonely and depressing, more curse than blessing. My character Cinnimin lives to 120, to show her going through twelve decades of history and spawning all these succeeding generations.

The oldest person whose age has been verified was Jeanne Calment, age 122.

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WeWriWa—Tamara’s Christmas surprise

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This year’s Orthodox Christmas-themed snippet comes from the last chapter of Part I of my WIP, A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University. Much of this chapter is set over Russian Orthodox Christmas 1950.

Lyuba, Ivan, and their three youngest daughters recently left the fictional town of Melville, Minnesota, after a brutal attack on their youngest child Tamara by her second grade teacher and classmates. The school nurse refused to help, and Tamara had a stroke. Now she’s finally home with her family, in their new house in St. Paul.

Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, is the granddaughter of Dyed Moroz, the Russian Santa. She helps him distribute presents, and is the only female assistant of any Santa character. While the U.S. version of Santa has Mrs. Claus, she’s not depicted as helping him in that way.

“Toma, come take a look at who came to see you,” Ivan calls.

Tamara throws her hand over her face when she sees Dyed Moroz in a long blue coat with white fur trim and embroidered silver swirls, a round fur cap, and leather boots.  He carries a staff in his right hand, a velvet blue bag in his left.  When Tamara uncovers her face and looks again, she sees Snegurochka, dressed in a matching dress, with long blonde braids and white boots.  Snegurochka is wheeling in a turquoise Huffy Convertible bicycle, with new-fangled training wheels and foot steps.

S Rozhdestvom, Tamara,” Dyed Moroz says as he walks up to her. “The American Santa Claus at the children’s hospital told me how much you wanted me to visit you and give you a present.  He also told me the presents you wanted.  After the horrible thing that happened to you, you more than deserve a home visit.”

“Am I still asleep?” Tamara asks.

IWSG—2019 goals

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Today is the first Insecure Writer’s Support Group meeting of 2019. The IWSG virtually meets the first Wednesday of each month, and gives participants a chance to share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears.

For 2019, my writing goals include:

Finishing A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University, my fourth book with my Russian characters. So far, Part II is coming along much faster than Part I did (not least because I haven’t taken any long hiatuses!). It’s set from September 1948–November 1952 in the Minnesota Twin Cities and Duluth areas, NYC, San Francisco/Berkeley, Toronto/Guelph, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Tokyo.

Do final polishings of and finally release the books formerly known as The Very First and The Very Next, the chronological first of my Atlantic City books, set in 1938 and 1939. Part II of the second book also includes chapters in Poland, Paris, and Portugal.

Possibly get back to work on my radical rewrite and restructuring of the book formerly known as The Very Last, set in 1940.

Make preliminary chapter-by-chapter notes for and begin writing my fifth Russian historical, From a Nightmare to a Dream: Out of Stalin’s Shadow, set from March 1953–sometime in 1956. I just came up with a great third major storyline, with the four characters serving with the Navy in the Korean War.

Blogging goals include:

Getting back to doing more writing guides, with topics including:

Writing about Birkat HaChamah (the blessing of the Sun which takes place every 28 years, and which served as the title of a short sci-fi story I wrote)

How much of your real life to incorporate into fiction

When and how to use wraparound narrative segments

When you should split a deliberately saga-length book into multiple volumes (not to be confused with turning it into entirely separate books)

Breeching for boys and long pants for young men in hist-fic

Dealing with accurate lifespans in hist-fic

Writing about the Vietnam draft lottery

I’ll also be doing more book reviews, and continuing to feature films and albums celebrating a landmark anniversary. I haven’t put this year’s list together yet, but I know it’ll include Tommy (1969), Gone with the Wind (1939), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Abbey Road (1969), The Cocoanuts (1929), A Hard Day’s Night (1964), and White Heat (1949).

Another blogging focus for this year will be resuming my long-running “A Primer on __________________ Names” series, with languages including Armenian, Italian, Greek, Aragonese, Basque, and Anglicization of immigrants’ names. When I’m positive I’m finally finished with this series, I’ll publish it in book form, with expanded commentary and lists.

On a non-writing note, I’d like to be down to 150 pounds by the end of this year. At the start of June 2017, I was close to 220 pounds on a frame just under five feet two inches in bare feet, and within spitting distance of being classified morbidly obese. As of December 2018, I’d gotten down to 164, only a few pounds away from merely being considered overweight.

With my body type, it’s laughable to think I could shrink down to 137, what the BMI claims is the highest “healthy” weight for my height, but I’ll settle for 150. I feel so much healthier after losing over 50 pounds!

P.S.: All my e-books are on sale for 99 cents at Amazon and Nook through 5 January! You can find the buy links here.

2018 in review

From 31 December–5 January, all my e-books are on sale for 99 cents at Amazon and B&N! You can find the links here.

Though I always feel I could’ve done better, I’m quite happy to have finally had a six-figure NaNo. I’ve hit over 100K in so many non-NaNo months, but that wordcount always eluded me when it most counted. I’m a realistic overachiever, not a humble-bragger trying to win on Day One or aiming for a million words.

I finally finished Part I of A Dream Deferred, at 484K. So far, Part II is up to 172K, and I’m on Chapter 75, up to late August 1950. So far, I’m hopeful the first draft of Part II will be shorter than Part I.

Part II contains five chapters set in Japan (in full or part), as radical Katrin investigates the true aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and overall life under American occupation. As emotionally difficult as it is to research this aspect of Japanese history (possibly the most difficult subject I’ve ever researched, of all the macabre, depressing things I’ve chosen to write about), I loved the chance to finally use a Japanese setting.

Someday, I plan to write a few Japanese historicals, at least one set in the Heian era (794–1185, the last era of classical Japanese history). I’ve been a Nipponophile since age 14, the more traditional type (i.e., interested in history, language, culture, and religion instead of modern pop culture).

At the end of January, I finished the final draft of the book formerly known as The Very First (after believing for years it already ended where it needed to). I’m glad I added in two more chapters and an Epilogue. In 2019, after final polishing, I plan to release both it and the book formerly known as The Very Next.

I can’t wait to finally reveal their new and improved titles! I also came up with a better title for the book formerly known as The Very Last, inspired by a line in a Charlie Chaplin talkie.

I released my alternative history 17 July, on my protagonist’s real-life 100th death anniversary. I knew I should’ve gone back to it at least several months earlier, to avoid that mad race to the finish line by the deadline, which included final edits. I was embarrassed to catch a number of little errors post-publication (obviously corrected immediately). Never again!

From formatting four books for physical copies, I also learnt a very important lesson about inside margins based on page count and trim size. I only saw them onscreen, not in print, and so didn’t realise 0.7″ is on the tight side for 6×9, esp. with a high page count. I’ll be redoing Little Ragdoll with one-inch inside margins.

I also learnt about the importance of double-checking the left and right headers are correct! Odd pages (including the first page of any book) are always on the right, and evens are always on the left.

I released my second Russian historical on 6 September, after having it finished for years. It just needed one final polishing. I also released Journey Through a Dark Forest, the third book with my Russian characters, on 11 December, in four volumes.

Additionally, I designed a new and improved cover for my first Russian historical. It was a big mistake to use my own artwork for the original 2014 cover, though those were probably the best human figures I ever drew! I also made some changes to the text, for a fourth edition.

In 2018, my Top 10 most-viewed posts were:

“A primer on Russian names” (2,901 views)
“No, I will not get sucked into the cult of Arbonne!” (1,899 views)
“Favorite Decameron stories, Part I” (1,438 views)
“Writing an arm amputee character” (1,226 views)
“The importance of stylistic consistency” (769 views)
“Why I HATED The Book Thief (644 views)
“A primer on Tatar names” (596 views)
“A primer on Yiddish names” (590 views)
“A primer on Albanian names” (496 views)
“A primer on Occitan names” (422 views)

The first four posts are also my most-viewed posts of all time, to date. It’s not even close between the first two, 41,553 to 7,415. I still want nothing to do with Arbonne or any other MLMs!

WeWriWa—1841 begins

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This year’s New Year-themed snippet comes from probably the only book I’ll ever write in first-person, Anne Terrick: A Bildungsroman. I created Anne’s original incarnation when I was 5-6 years old, eventually made her into a 19th century diarist, and then shelved her in 1992. In 2017, I finally resurrected her.

For different reasons, Anne and her sister Abigail really stand out in 1840s Congregationalist Boston, and in a home ruled over by their petty tyrant of a father. After a series of extremely dramatic events, the sisters find their freedom in Oregon Country, along with a bunch of other black sheep in their family and circle of friends.

Dave is an orphan whom Mr. Terrick took on as an apprentice to his general store when Dave was twelve years old. Anne has had a crush on him for a long time, but since she’s six years younger than Dave, he doesn’t notice her in that way yet.

This has been slightly tweaked to fit ten lines.

January 1, 1841, Friday,

Last night’s Watch Night service left everyone quite tired, but we weren’t allowed to sleep past 8:00. Except Father, that is. His store isn’t open on New Year’s Day, but he briefly woke up to bang on everyone’s door before going back to sleep himself. He’d know if anyone else went back to sleep too, so we had no choice but to dress and go down to breakfast.

Alice and the other servants had a festive meal waiting for us—apple pie; spiced apple cider; balls of sweetened dough stuffed with currants and fried in hog’s fat; toasted bread covered with melted butter, cinnamon, and sugar; applesauce; fried eggs in tomato sauce; and Herb’s very favorite, mincemeat pie. Much of our food comes from our modest garden and farm, and is stored in our smokehouse, larder, and pie safe during the months when the land is dead; other food is acquired through store customers trading in exchange for goods.

After breakfast, Dave’s current young lady came to the house. I was afraid Father might awake and punish him for daring to admit one of his lovers in broad daylight instead of keeping her in the barn for the usual few hours under cover of darkness, but Father remained asleep.

“I really wanted to walk to the pond together,” the young lady announced. “Meeting there isn’t as romantic.”