Six impossible things

What Everybody Knows

On the very first day at Fourth Street Fantasy convention (which as of this posting, is still in session for another half-day or so), Elizabeth Bear mentioned running into a writing myth I’d never heard myself before: Women can’t ride stallions, because stallions get aggressive around women. Geldings or mares only for female riders, please.

Say, what?   

This particular bit of misinformation is officially categorized as an urban legend. I call it a writing myth as well, because, while it is not a myth about writing, it is typical of a particular class of background misinformation that gets some writers (and occasionally editors) in trouble.

Specifically, the class of things that one is so sure of that one is positive one doesn’t need to check them out. Things “everybody knows,” or things that one learned from some supposed expert or authority figure. So the writer doesn’t check, and the misinformation gets propagated further. If the writer is lucky, the copyeditor will fact-check the assertion and point out the problem. If the writer is unlucky, then either a) the copyeditor will not check, and the writer won’t find out about the mistake until the story is in print, at which point the writer will learn about it from the most obnoxious fan at the convention, at the worst possible time, or b) the writer will have based a key scene or plot point on the misinformation, necessitating rewriting large chunks of the story when the copyeditor catches the mistake.

And then there are the things you find out that are verifiably true, but you can’t use because “everybody knows” something different. When I was writing Mairelon the Magician, I discovered that the use of “pig” as a vulgar slang term for the cops dates back to the 17th century. I thought that was really interesting, but there was no possible way I could use it in a novel set in an alternate 1814 England. After all, “everybody knows” that calling cops “pigs” dates from the 1960s. Similarly, there’s no way I would use the term “gay” to describe something bright and cheerful in a book set in the 1890s, even though that was what the word meant then. The word has been very thoroughly repurposed since then, and it’s too difficult for most modern readers to make the mental shift.

Once in a while, it’s worth the effort to fight to correct a particularly egregious and common “everybody knows,” but most of the time, trying to make it clear within the story that this is neither an accidental mistake nor an ill-informed invention on the writer’s part just throws the whole story out of balance and puts far too much emphasis on a minor bit of information. What this means is that sooner or later, someone is going to come up to you after the story is published and explain that you have gotten things wrong – that the word “telegraph” was not in use until after Samuel Morse invented the electric telegraph in the mid-1840s; that women can’t ride stallions; and so on. Almost invariably, these people inspire a deep desire in the writer to commit violence; equally invariably, there is no point in arguing with them. Experience shows that even if one says “The Oxford English Dictionary has four citations of the use of telegraph in the 1790s,” (sorry; mine’s a paper copy, so I can’t post a link) the person will simply blink and reiterate, “Yes, but there were no telegraphs until the mid-1800s.”

In other words, getting the facts right will not protect you from the terminally misinformed. Every writer I know who’s been around for more than a book or two has run into someone like this, and none of us enjoy the experience. (Even worse are the people who have confused their personal convictions and opinions about the past with historical fact, and who are perfectly ready to go on for hours or pages about their pet topic, whether that is a JFK-assassination-conspiracy theory, what the primary cause of the American Civil War was, or whether Ares and Aphrodite were considered lovers by the Ancient Greeks.

This nearly always prompts someone to say, “Well, if people are going to think it’s wrong anyway, why bother with all that research?” And some writers do adopt this attitude. Me, I’d rather be criticized by people who are provably wrong in their claims (go look at the OED; there really are four cites for “telegraph”, from 1794 to 1798, and a bunch more in the early 1800s) than by the people who actually know what they are talking about. Especially if a plot-point depends on it.

  1. You can’t use “broadcast” in medieval eras, even though it means to cast out your seeds broadly over the earth, rather than plant them one by one, or neatly in furrows.

    What gets doubly annoying is when they get the facts wrong while complaining about your wholly imaginary setting. “That’s not the law” — well, it’s my kingdom, it’s the law, I say so.

  2. It’;s like the quote that one finds in all Windsor biographies allegedly from George V “My grandfather was afraid of his mother, I was afraid of my father, and my sons will be afraid of me.” It’s beloved, but evidence shows that it was an undocumented quote found in Randolph Churchill’s notes and probably quite untrue…but it keeps getting quoted as fact…

  3. The idea that women should not handle stallions because stallions will misbehave when said women have their period is something many old-school horsemen believed, along with ‘stallions are too strong/badass for women to handle’. So that’s your core belief, and it will probably be prevalent in your fantasy world if your fantasy world has horses and macho men and attempts to keep women subordinate, so your female protag might well encounter it.

    So you’re having real-world prejudice getting accepted as truth. When I started to ride in the 1980s most people DID ‘know’ that women and stallions were a bad mix. (I was there when the director of a very large state stallion depot admitted, somewhat shamefacedly, that he used to think that women were useless as stallion handlers. Then he was forced to employ them, and found that, akshually, they were pretty good at it.)

    For a writer to accept the myth as truth is lazyness; but to throw it aside and not question where the myth came from, how prevalent it was, whether there might be a grain of truth in it, is equally lazy.

    As for authenticity, that’s a difficult line to thread. From a reader perspective, details that I need to look up because they stand out so much are equally bad whether they’re wrong or correct-but-obscure – it’s the being torn out of the story and feeling disbelief and needing to consult secondary literature that counts; not whether a fact is authentic or not.

    • green_knight – Oh, I should have thought of asking you when the stallion thing came up! Yes, that’s a whole ‘nother tricky line I didn’t have room for in the post: the tricky line between showing people who have the same widespread beliefs and prejudices that abound in real life, to the same degree, and undercutting those false beliefs and prejudices. And of course the whole decision about whether you choose to contradict them outright or undercut them more subtlely. People on either side of the issue will get cranky no matter which you choose, of course.

      You are absolutely right about some sorts of facts, but it’s not a general principle. That is, if a detail sticks out and throws the reader out of the story, it doesn’t matter if the detail is wrong or correct-but-obscure; but it also doesn’t matter if the detail is a widely held misconception or actually a true thing that for once everybody is right about. The problem is that it’s throwing people out of the story. Where you run into problems is with the sort of thing where a sizeable number of readers “know” something wrong, and will therefore find the truth jarring or think it’s a mistake, while another sizeable chunk are aware of the correct situation, and will be jarred and annoyed if you use the misconception. At that point, you have to decide which set of readers you’re going to get upset with you. I generally come down on the side of the facts.

  4. Does it help at all in this situation to do an end note with a reference to the facts? For most people, I mean. There will always be some that insist that there were no telegraphs before the mid 1800s.

  5. I’d never heard that particular myth before. I grew up on a farm and we raised Arabian horses. I trained our stallion for riding when he was a three year old. I was about fifteen at the time. I also worked with a bunch of stallions on a big breeding farm right out of high school, they had stallions they warned us about but their problem was they were spoiled not that they had a thing for women, menstruating or not. Being firm with them cleared up all their bad behavior when I was working with them anyway.

    The owner got a charge though out of one of his stallions that was generally just a bit out of control when he handled him. I just refused to put up with it from him so he behaved for me. Having years of experience working with the foals and green breaking three year olds certainly helped as I was completely confident with him, certainly not scared at all.

  6. Not for purposes of not being thrown out of the story. Knowing it then is too late not to be thrown.

  7. This is the part of writing that I hate. I’m not a researcher at all (my essays in university all said: “well written, could have used more research”).

    • nct2 – Not really. As Mary said, the people who think it’s wrong will be thrown out of the story long before they get to the end notes (and if they’re opinionated enough and cranky enough, they’ll never get to the end notes). Also, a lot of readers don’t read the “boring bits,” i.e., endnotes and appendices. And publisher sometimes resist adding them if they feel that they’re not adding value to the book.

      zafinah – I’d never heard the thing about stallions before, either, but since Elizabeth mentioned it, I’ve had a couple of different people nod and say yeah, they’d heard it. At least one was embarassed to admit she’d believed it. So it’s around.

      Alex – Well, when you get rich from your day job, you can hire a research assistant and continuity checker for your writing, and that will solve the problem. Right? ;P

      Logan – Internal consistency is a different topic for a different blog post, someday.

  8. And then, there are the oopsies.

    But before I give it to you, please understand that I really love your books well enough to re-read them many times.

    In the book, “Talking to Dragons,” the fourth book of your Enchanted Forest series, in the paperback version on page 100, I read the following: “The King of the Dragons is whichever dragon can move Colin’s Stone from the Vanishing Mountain to the Ford of the Whispering Snakes.” But we see in the first book of the series that it should be “…from the Ford of the Whispering Snakes to the Vanishing Mountain.” and not vice versa.

    Please continue to write well,

  9. Huh. I think I’d heard that myth before, but forgotten about it. I assumed, when I saw men preventing women from riding stallions in novels, that the reasoning went: 1) Stallions are more difficult to handle in general than mares or geldings, and 2) Women are to be protected from difficult things (or they’re flat out assumed to not be able to manage demanding tasks, at least physically demanding).


    I remember the part in Duma’s The Count of Monte Cristo in which the protagonist bribes a telegraph operator. The operation of Napoleonic Telegraph is described in the book.

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