One of the challenges in writing historical fiction is preserving accuracy while at the same time making context and meaning clear to 21st century readers. This is especially tricky when using a first-person narrator, who would take her world for granted. A 17th-century New England Puritan, for instance, wouldn’t go around explaining that no one she knows ever celebrates Christmas because December 25th is just like any other winter day. She would just take it for granted that everyone already knew. There are often ways a writer can subtly insert this information but it can be difficult to pull off without sounding like a history textbook.
In writing Flight of the Sparrow, I came face to face with a context problem I’d never dealt with before – the calendar. If we were to count backwards from today, the historical date of Mary Rowlandson’s capture was February 20, 1676, but in her narrative Rowlandson lists it as February 10, 1675. That appears to be more than a full year’s difference! The discrepancy is because in Rowlandson’s time England was still using the ancient Julian calendar, dating all the way back to Julius Caesar. In the 9th century New Year’s Day was set as March 25th to coincide with Assumption Day.
In 1582, a new calendar, the Gregorian, was instituted by Pope Gregory XIII. However, under Queen Elizabeth I, England refused for religious reasons to adopt it along with the rest of Europe. Instead they stuck with the old Julian calendar.
It wasn’t until almost 200 years later, in the 1750s, that the Gregorian calendar was adopted by England and her colonies. In 1752, 11 days were dropped and January 1st officially became the first day of the new year. Some historical records began to identify dates between January 1st and March 25th with a slash mark between the years that overlapped. For example, the date of Rowlandson’s captivity is sometimes written as February 10, 1675/76.
As I wrote Flight of the Sparrow I kept the calendar change in mind. Not because I incorporated the dates in my narrative, but because those eleven days can make quite a difference in February weather temperatures. Especially in southern New England.
With January 1st behind us, we’re turning our attention to what lies ahead. Here in Vermont that means several more months of snow and ice and bitter cold. It’s not likely I’ll be seeing much evidence of spring before the end of March. So while I’ve been wishing everybody a Happy New Year, I’ve also been quietly keeping a Julian calendar in the back of my mind. Because March 25th strikes me as a particularly appropriate time to welcome a new year.