A Critical Look at Nora Roberts and Medieval Costuming

I picked up a Nora Roberts book at the Goodwill the other night. I just had to read something by this woman who has produced 200 novels and sold millions of books.

What’s more, the book I found features vampires in medieval Ireland. It’s like all my favorite things thrown together in one novel. It has to be a winner!

But I’m a few pages in and I’m coming up disappointed. She used the word “slicked” three times in three pages. Flaw number two: using “slicked” in incorrect/inappropriate ways. (Ex: “She slicked her hand over the bloody wound.” How do you slick your hand?) After three pages, I’ve come to the conclusion that “slicked” is one of those words that should be on my list of words you should never use in a romance novel.

My next grievance: This is set in Ireland in 1128. She refers to thunder as the sound of a thousand cannons. Cannon didn’t exist at that time. I consulted my husband–the medieval arms, armor, and warfare expert–and he said bombard cannon were in limited use by the late 1200’s and were used exclusively as siege equipment. (Like trebuchets and catapults, they were used to break holes into castle walls.) The first recorded use of a cannon on a battlefield (meaning used against people, not walls) was the battle of Crecy in 1346. Needless to say, no one in 1128 Ireland knew what a cannon sounded like.

And here’s yet another anachronism: Lilith is wearing a bodice with her breasts rounding over the top.

Being a medieval reenactor, with a specialty in costume research, bad costuming in movies (and books) enrages me. I mean, we’re talking postal-level rage. Walmart-on-Christmas-Eve-level rage.

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Here’s the look of a renaissance corset.

images“Bodices”–those things you see at renaissance fairs that are just a corset worn on the outside of the clothes–DID NOT EXIST AT ANY TIME IN THE MIDDLE AGES. Corsets weren’t invented until some point during the Tudor or early Elizabethan era. And even then, they were only worn on the inside (they were underwear!), and they didn’t work like the Victorian corset. There were no wasp-waisted women in the renaissance. It actually gave you a tubular shape.

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Here’s a risque show of breasts for you in the late 1300’s/early 1400’s.

Prior to that, breasts were not on display until the late 1300’s, when the gothic fitted dress (a cotehardie variant) lifted the breasts and cut the neckline low. Earlier cotehardies actually flattened the breasts (like a sports bra), and while they sometimes had wide necklines (some Bohemian examples were off the shoulder), they were not low-cut. No breasts were ever on display prior to the late 1300’s.

Here is what Lilith should have been wearing in 1128:homepage

This is from the Bayeux Tapestry. The Tapestry was commissioned after the battle of Hastings (in 1066), but because clothing styles were so slow to change, we can be reasonably confident that it accurately depicts the clothing of the late 11th century and into the early 12th century.

This particular woman is dressed as a Saxon. As we can see, there is no sign of a bodice, and we’re about as far away from revealing breasts as a nun’s habit.

259238522271309873_pr0T805Q_bI would have also accepted as accurate a description of Norman clothing, which was seen in England after 1066 (although it took some time for it to catch on among the conquered Saxons).

Again, we see the woman covered up to the neck, and then some. Only unmarried girls, queens, and loose women wore their hair uncovered. If you wanted a wild-looking Lilith, she should have had her hair blowing free in the wind. And maybe the wind makes her dress cling to her body, showing the outline of her legs underneath it. Now that‘s some 12th century porn.

Irish clothing sometimes followed its own design, sometimes followed European design (the Moy gown doesn’t look like any known English cotehardies, but does look like the dresses seen in Flemish paintings), and sometimes followed English fashion, albeit 50-100 years late. In many cases, we really don’t know what the Irish were wearing because the Irish didn’t draw or paint very much. And, unfortunately, our other great source of costuming information, tomb effigies, were largely destroyed by Cromwell.

When in doubt, though, it’s generally safe to go with English clothing when depicting early medieval Irish people (by the 1400’s, we start to have an idea of what they were wearing, based on English descriptions and the occasional sketch).

And I haven’t even mentioned another flaw I’m finding in Ms. Robert’s writing: incomplete sentences. Sure, everyone uses them from time to time for emphasis. But as Dena has pointed out repeatedly on Reasoning with Vampires, “from time to time” is the key phrase. Using an incomplete sentence every other paragraph doesn’t have any punch; it just looks like you have bad grammar.

Also, she has unnecessary commas. Now, look, I love me some commas–more than the average person–and there are plenty of times where commas are optional, but I’ve found many commas in Ms. Robert’s novel that just shouldn’t be there.

I don’t expect literary excellence from someone who churns out more than 5 books a year, but that’s no excuse for poor word choice and bad grammar. At the very least, that’s what editors are for. But maybe when you get famous enough, they don’t bother to correct anything but obvious typos.

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8 comments on “A Critical Look at Nora Roberts and Medieval Costuming

  1. SK Figler says:

    I have my own pick with Ms. Roberts. After reading the last chapter of my w-i-p to a critique group, one of the members said, “Don’t know if I should tell you this, Steve, but Nora Roberts has just come out with a book that uses your major plot point “(“Montana Skies”: 3 women who hate each other having to live together to share an inheritance). I bought it and read a few chapters, took it out to my pasture, put it against a hay bale, and shot it with my 30-30. I still have it; beautiful hole right through. Not saying she “stole” it or that she even knew about it, but two publishers rejected mine because it was too similar to hers. Ah, well.

    • Keri Peardon says:

      Owowowowow! I feel your pain, Steve!

      I’m guessing when you’ve written 200 novels, you’ve used up a fair number of the world’s possible plot lines/characters.

      I’m sure your version was better written, though.

  2. wordsurfer says:

    Wow, thanks for those insights, very interesting!
    I’ve found her books to vary a lot – some are really good, others are so very, very bad that you ask yourself why they ever got published in the first place, which leads me to two possibilities – one, that the bad ones were written after she’d become famous and publishers didn’t care anymore if the books were any good, or second… well, I’m not going to spell it out, but writing 200 books by yourself…? That’d be quite a feat… Just a thought.

    • Keri Peardon says:

      I used to like Laurell K. Hamilton’s stuff. It was vampires and other supernatural beasties mixed with a detective mystery. The last book of hers that I read (she’s done something like 15 in the Anita Blake series) was beyond god-awful. They’ve been going downhill anyways, but the mystery part was pretty much non-existent. It wasn’t even half-assed. More like one-tenth-assed. It would have been less embarrassing if it hadn’t been attempted at all. Which made me wonder if she’s run out of storylines and is running the series on nothing but vapors, or if she had someone ghostwrite it. Because it was so far beyond what she first started writing, it was really like someone else entirely had done it.

      Can you recommend a Nora Roberts book that is good? I’m not sure if I’m going to make it through “Morrigan’s Cross.” I had less trouble digesting “Twilight,” if that gives you a point of reference.

      • wordsurfer says:

        It’s such a disappointment when something like that happens, isn’t it? As if the author betrayed one personally. And wow – if it’s worse than Twilight, it must be really bad… I have to say sorry to SK, because I really like Montana Skies. I like the characters and even though you know they’re going to end up liking each other, it’s still nice to see how they develop. There’s nothing supernatural about it though, just romance with crime/mystery. And then the one about the police negotiator (High Noon?), I liked that. My sisters, who have read far more of her books, tell me that the books she writes as J.D. Robb are far superior – the focus there is much more on crime than on romance.

      • Keri Peardon says:

        It’s like the line from the movie She-Devil: “Fans are fickle. Disappoint them once and they’ll feel betrayed.” Although the movie is about a jilted wife’s revenge on her husband and his lover, it is pretty accurate about writing romances as well–especially back in the 80’s. I’ve heard romances aren’t so formulaic now, but I think the cheap Harlequins probably still are. You just can’t produce that many books that quickly without having some sort of basic selection of plot lines that you follow.

  3. I’ve never read a Nora Roberts book, but I appreciate your critique, and I found the costuming lesson very interesting. You are always a good teacher. I wonder what dinner table conversation is like between you and your husband. ;-)

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