Inspired by too much reading of grand court scenes, and mutters to myself of, “How would that work?”

1) Note your titles.

“My lord” and “my lady” may be generic, but in some cases, they might also be wrong, or construed as familiarity. Will a servant get away with addressing a Prince as “my lord” instead of “Your Highness?” Maybe if the servant is an old friend or a foreigner. In some courts where the Prince is proud and touchy, maybe not. Keep the titles in mind and don’t get them mixed up. If you assign them a meaning in one specific scene, they shouldn’t change their meaning in the next.

There is some variation that I’ve seen, but often the following list is correct:

  • “Your Majesty”- to Kings, Emperors, Queens, or Empresses.
  • “Your Highness”- sometimes used to Kings and Queens, but mostly Princes and Princesses.
  • “Your Grace”- to dukes.
  • “Sir”- to knights.
  • “Sirrah”- not a variation of “Sir.” It was usually addressed to servants and other social inferiors, and often had an insulting tone.

Obviously there are other variations, like “Your Imperial Highness,” “Your Ladyship,” and so on. The point is to keep the hierarchy in mind when you’re writing a court scene, and the relative position of the two people to each other. That trusted servant might get away with a pet name in private, but not in public. And the foreign ambassador who keeps leering at the duke and calling him “Your Majesty” is definitely up to something.

2) Dresses are awkward.

Heavy, and especially multi-layered, gowns make the women wearing them move in a graceful, stately manner for a good reason: they really can’t move any faster or lift their legs much higher. Vigorous dancing or running is out of the question. If a fire breaks out at one end of a great hall, they won’t be able to flee it as easily. And there is no question of your heroine charging across a table and intercepting a sword strike at the King while she’s wearing one.

Again, I suspect that many people are nodding their heads at the obviousness. The only reason I mention it is because gowns are one of those details, like weather and wounds, that authors love to give to their characters- and then forget about. That paragraph ten pages back spent on the lavish description of the heroine’s gown is forgotten about when she really needs to save the day. But it shouldn’t be. This is lazy writing.

Rather than trying to have both, the author should choose. If she writes the lavish description of the dress, she should also include a scene where the heroine tries to spring up, trips, and falls, or struggles to get her weapon out and can’t do it. Or she could just go without the heavy dress and wear an outfit more suited to ducking and dodging and quick movement. I’ve often wondered, in fantasy books where the heroines are acknowledged as deadly fighters and bodyguards, the kings insist on making them wear heavy gowns anyway. There are better ways of showing your heroine off if you want to.

3) Long sleeves and soft shoes will be awkward for many things.

I don’t understand the heroines who try to charge across the room while wearing a heavy gown, no, but at least there’s an excuse: they might ordinarily wear less restrictive clothes and just have forgotten that they’re in this gown now. (Doesn’t excuse the characters apparently forgetting the bodyguarding task she’s been brought in for, but I’ve already said my piece on that). I don’t understand the characters who plan an evening when they’ll have to perform some intriguing sleights of hand, such as slipping poison into someone’s drink, and then come in wearing long lace cuffs that dangle over their hands.

Think, won’t you?

The same thing happens when characters wear soft slippers fit only for dancing, and at the same time plan to slip away from the party in just a little while and ride wildly through the night. Why, for the love of Buddha? Either make them take the time to change into more suitable boots, give them the boots in the first place, or give them the slippers and then punish them suitably for their stupidity. Silk slippers will tear on the first rocks they encounter. Wet, they’ll cling coldly (and wetly) to the feet that hold them. Sometimes the characters take them along under the delusion that they’ll sell the jewels from them, but heavy and valuable jewels are unlikely to be placed on dancing shoes. Seed pearls would be a great deal likelier than priceless diamonds or rubies.

Characters who have been both on adventures and to courts before should know how to plan, and how to improvise if they’re caught out in court garb after all. They shouldn’t deliberately make things difficult for themselves.

4) Consider all the things swirling in the air of your court.

There seems to be a fondness for mentioning that a court is smoky, whether from candles or fires, or has incense in the air, and so on. Then the characters see perfectly across the court, so that they can make out the expression on someone’s face from two hundred yards away.

Six hundred feet. In a room filled with smoke.

Consider the visibility problem you’re creating for your characters. Think about the smoky bars you’ve visited, or even what close rooms are like with a large fire blazing and a malfunctioning chimney. Think about how hundreds of candles, such as nobles might haul out if they’re entertaining to impress people, would fill the room with smoke and heat shimmers. And then ask yourself why that smoke vanishes the moment someone needs to see.

Just as with clothes and royal titles, it’s a matter of keeping track of details that you’ve already established.

5) Coordinate the luxuries available with the trading position of your city or country.

If you’re writing about a tiny kingdom cut off from the rest of the world by high mountains, and then you write that they have lots of glass windows and glass mirrors, I’m going to stare hard at your book. I’m going to picture high mountain roads filled with stones and jolts that could easily break the glass to pieces. I’m going to envision the royals receiving load after load of broken glass, giving up, and making mirrors out of polished silver or brass like sensible mountain kingdoms.

And then I’m going to look at those glass windows and mirrors again, and snort.

Glass remained rare in most places for a long time, because it was so damn hard to transport. Most medieval worlds won’t have the equivalent of bubble-wrap or styrofoam pellets. If your world has come up with a way to wrap it so that it doesn’t shatter on level roads, they’ll still need to come up with something for roads like the ones that most probably surround your mountain kingdom. It might be best to bring it in by air- always assuming that the dragons or wyverns or flying horses or whatever else brings it in have a safe place to land in and aren’t battered by updrafts.

Similarly, exotic fruit will need to be transported with fair swiftness from its place of origin, or it will start going bad. If the country you’re writing about is on the other side of the world from the place where the fruit grows, the wealth of the king is only half the problem solved; he’ll still need people willing to ride or sail their hearts out for that money, and do it incredibly fast if he’s to have his fresh fruit every day in the middle of winter. Living things, such as great cats for menageries, will have to be kept alive on the journey, and may become so nervous or mangy even if they live that they wouldn’t be seen as good enough. Growing plants can easily die if they’re exposed to too much heat or cold.

And thus ends my very long-winded way of saying that you should think before you spend too many descriptive paragraphs on the court’s luxuries. It will save you having to delete things if you work out the trade routes and distances first, and not later.

6) Not only politeness hierarchies but impoliteness hierarchies should be remembered.

Who goes armed before the king? If it’s only his own guards, then your character should not be allowed to swagger in wearing his sword just Because. If your character threatens to kill the guards if they won’t let him go in armed, have the guards pile on him or send him away. Rules shouldn’t be bent just because he’s the viewpoint character.

Of course, perhaps the king has a good reason for letting his visitors appear armed. If they’re a diplomatic delegation, he might not want to insult them. On the other hand, if they’re a diplomatic delegation and are expecting a welcome and not an attack, why do they need to enter armed?

Many fantasy heroes spend a lot of time laughing about the ineffective or gaudy weapons of court functionaries, without considering that these weapons are probably only tolerated for that reason. A knight who wears an ugly and serviceable sword into a court should be shadowed everywhere and watched suspiciously, assuming he’s allowed to enter at all.

Might do something on hunting tomorrow. Too many fantasy heroes are perfect masters of the hunt the first time around.