L. P. Hartley wrote: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” This, as every historical novelist will tell you, is true. But perhaps it is an oversimplification. Perhaps the past is not just one foreign country, but several.
Is the process for writing historical fiction the same regardless of the era in which you are writing?
My first two novels were both historical fiction set during the Middle Ages. For my WIP, I’m currently two-thirds of the way through writing another medieval novel, but I’ve also branched out a little bit and am two-thirds of the way through writing a Regency romance. As I’ve been writing both of these books concurrently, I’ve had ample time to ponder the process that has gone into each of them.
Should I be approaching these books differently? And if so, in what way? Should I be researching differently? Writing differently? Thinking differently?
Acceptable Sources. One thing that became obvious right away is what kind of sources are acceptable for research. In my eleventh century Chronicles of Tancred books, I am happy to find primary resources on food and clothing that are dated within a century of my WIP. This is because sources, for this era, are scarce, and—since the time period is so distant—one is forced to generalize about many decades. But with my Regency work, I would never dress my ladies in gowns from the 1750s or 1850s. The sheer wealth of source material on Regency period dress would make that kind of generalization inexcusable.
The same goes for geographical descriptions. I would be happy to incorporate physical descriptions of Jerusalem, give or take a hundred years, into the scene where the Crusader army sets up its siege lines (although I do need to be careful with the later sources about what architectural changes might have been made after the Crusaders took the city). I would be aghast to hear that any Regency author relied on descriptions of London that were written a century later during World War I.
Verisimilitude in Dialogue. Another area where differences emerge between my two novels-in-progress is in the creation of dialogue. The everyday conversation of people in the eleventh century is not particularly well-documented. Added to that is the fact that even if they were speaking “English”, it would be completely unlike the English of today. In some ways, this gives me more freedom in choosing what words to use in dialogue. Naturally, I need to stay away from modern idioms and words with overly-modern connotations, but there is no need to confine myself to “only the words that were actually used at the time.” I can decide to create dialogue with an “older” feel to it, or I can write dialogue more akin to contemporary speech patterns. I have no fear of readers running to the OED to say, “This word didn’t come into use until after 1550!” Yes, that could be said of a large chunk of the words I am using in this book. What about it?
The “rules” for writing dialogue in the Regency period, however, seem far more constrictive. (And here, some writers may differ with me—I would love to hear your opinion in the comments.) We are aware what words Jane Austen did and did not use. There are letters and diaries and dictionaries from the period giving a full picture of Regency speech. Authors should have the freedom to decide whether they will confine themselves to “period” words in their narrative sections…but in dialogue? I believe Regency romance authors should make the utmost attempt to craft their characters’ speech along the lines of what early nineteenth century Englanders would actually say. This adds an extra element of research to Regency dialogue that, for me, is not there when writing medieval historical fiction.
Getting Inside the Characters’ Heads. One area where the Regency period does make an easier study than the Middle Ages is when I try to get inside of the characters’ heads. Part of this might be because I write about battle, and famine, and political intrigue in my medieval books, and about balls, and carriage rides, and country houses in my Regency one. But, the fact remains that I find it much easier to size up my Regency characters than my medieval ones.
It’s always awkward trying to get your head around the glee of the Frankish bishop—who is clearly a pious and selfless leader—at accepting fifty Saracen heads as “tithe” after a battle. And then what about the whole reason for the Crusaders leaving Europe in the first place? Some of them—I would hazard, the majority of them—genuinely believed in the cause, and I need to be able to figure out WHY in order to bring authenticity to their beliefs on the written page.
The challenges presented by Regency era characters are different. It would be naïve to assume that the people of the early nineteenth century are just like us today, but I will assert that they are far closer. They are living after Martin Luther, after Copernicus, after Isaac Newton, after Voltaire, in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, and only two centuries away from our understanding. It cannot be coincidence that I find it much simpler to slip inside the skin of my Regency characters. I can imagine the annoyance of having to “retrench” and sell the family carriage. I can feel the pang of getting “cut” by acquaintances at an assembly. Perhaps this is a reflection on my own shallowness, but it is far easier to get inside a character’s head when she has a hairstyle that you actually consider attractive (no offense to the medieval hennin, but I’d rather look like Lizzie Bennet).
So, is the process for writing historical fiction always the same? Not in my experience. Each era has its own challenges to offer, with proximity in time making some things easier, some things harder. I imagine authors of Ancient Egyptian and WWII novels feel the nearness and distance of time even more acutely. What are your experiences with stepping backward into the past? Is it all one foreign country, or is it several? And in which one do you feel the most at home?
Rosanne E. Lortz “Rose” is a historical novelist, a copy editor, a former high school teacher, a mom to three boys, and a native of Portland, Oregon. She has two published novels, I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince and Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred and loves working with young authors to help develop their writing skills.