"Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel–writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding.... There seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel–reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss — ?”

“Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language." --Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Chapter 5

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Reflections on Writing Historical Fiction

I have been thinking a lot lately about why I, along with thousands of other writers, feel so driven to write stories set in another time. Historical fiction, particularly historical romance, gets a lot of flak, and is often derided by other writers as being at the bottom of the fiction barrel. While a measure of that derision is deserved—I cringe as much as anyone at poorly written "bodice-rippers" that are all heaving bosoms and rakes who reform at the end but in the meantime behave very rakishly—but many historical novelists deserve a lot more credit than they get. In fact, I think that as a group, historical fiction authors are probably some of the hardest working writers out there.

This is because writing decent historical fiction poses some unique challenges. First, there is the enormous amount of historical research that can go into writing about the most mundane aspects of life. It is not uncommon for authors to spend hours or even days researching something that ultimately earns no more than a passing mention in the text. So many things we that we naturally understand and take for granted in our own time are simply not true for another—everything from hygiene, meals and family relationships to inheritance laws, medicine, etiquette—the list goes on and on.
We also have to research the very language that we use—as a writer of historical fiction, I am always on a quest to further refine and purify my language, to cut out not only words that didn't exist, but multitudes of everyday idioms and expressions which aren't authentic to the era I'm writing about. The Online Etymology Dictionary is a beloved resource. Since I'm American, I sometimes will unintentionally insert Americanisms into my writing too (I'm very grateful to have a beta reader who's not American and always points these out for me).
It's not just a matter of what words not to use, but which words to use, and in which way, to closely replicate and recall that era. We seek to write in a manner that is intelligible for modern audiences, while connecting them to the past through the art of language.
So why do we do this? Why do we make already difficult process of writing a story even harder by adding a (literally) whole world of constraints and demands?
The answer, I think, is not in a false romanticized ideal of the past. Many people hold such ideas, of course, but they're much more likely to be readers than writers. Really, no one (especially no woman) who really knows very much about the nineteenth century could seriously wish to live in it. And while I don't deny that most of us admire the clothing of that day and age, it's certainly not all about the clothes (I don't even write about clothes if I can help it). Or the carriages.
Part of it, I'm sure, does have to do with an interest in the "other"—in a setting and reality different from our own. Some writers go around the world to find this, and write tales of foreign lands. We go backwards in time. Speaking for myself, I don't do this because I'm unhappy in my life. I love my husband and my children, I love indoor plumbing and blue jeans and skilled anesthesiologists. I really love my washing machine. However, like all people with active imaginations, I have the strongest desire to look beyond.

Another Way of Living
The first reason that I see writers writing about the past has to do with the aforementioned historical research. This is not seen as a burden, but is one of the chief delights of our lives. People who write historical fiction write it because they love history. They are intensely interested in the past, in how we used to live and who we used to be. Those minute details of life are points of absolute fascination, and I've found that longer I spend writing, the more obsessed I become with accuracy. Our interest is not merely academic or idle, it is real and immediate—for this is the world that we inhabit in our imaginations and in our stories, and we long to understand it better.
And yet those historical details are not in themselves the point; the point is always people. Perhaps what separates the writer of historical fiction from the writer of histories is our desire to not only observe, but to explore for ourselves how the constraints and pressures and realities of this time period must affect the people in it. This helps us understand how our current world came to be as it is, to question our currently commonly-received wisdom, and to appreciate just what struggles and feelings unite people across different cultures and times. In other words, we are fascinated with the both the spectacle of another era, and that of people just like ourselves within it.

The Forgotten Art of Conversation
For me personally, when I ask myself why I seem to feel so much more comfortable writing about people living two hundred years ago than today, the answer that comes immediately to my mind is language. I love the language of that time. As a writer, how can I not prefer characters who speak in long, complex, elegant sentences? If I tried to write such dialogue in a modern story people would justly say, "No one talks like that anymore!" I want to reply, "No, but they should." I am among those who lament the ways that our wonderful, complex language is being cut-up and truncated through visual media, twitter, text messages and (shudder) "text speak." I am a part-time writing tutor, and often encounter teenagers who seem unable to write a complex sentence, or express a complex thought. They've learned to do all their communication through a series of abbreviations designed to do more than convey simple ideas and essential information.
I believe that language and thought are irretrievably connected to each other. When you dumb-down and simplify language, you dumb-down and simplify thought. Our very ability to reason clearly, think precisely, and understand deeply is put at stake by the reduction of our language. I do not mean to suggest by this that contemporary fiction is all simplistic, but it is different, less formal, often abrupt or pared down, with the same sleek, economical lines as modern furniture. The rhythms and patterns of nineteenth century prose appeal to me much more, and that I find it so fulfilling to write about a time period where conversation was a highly cultivated skill, an art form, and a major past time.

A World of Constraints
I'm what you might call a "small history" writer. People I think of as writing "large history" write about the great, dramatic events of the past, of world leaders and wars and uprisings. They are undoubtedly the greatest writers of historical fiction. Myself, though, I must admit that my interest is not in those sorts of events so much as it is in everyday life. Small history. I like to write about people in settled situations within an established society. (As a side note, I think this is why I would rather write about early nineteenth century England than America. America was a new country, in a state of perpetual turmoil and change. England was the established nation, and while it was changing too, it was a different sort of upheaval.)
When we look around ourselves now, we live in a society where there are very few constraints of any sort left. When we look in the past, we see highly structured societies that had constraints of all kinds, social, legal, and economic, controlling how people could act and what they could do with their lives. Women were especially constrained, but even men did not have the freedoms they do in this day and age, not unless you were extremely wealthy and important indeed. To me, these constraints create interesting challenges for my characters that simply would not exist in this day and age. Nowhere is this more true than in the areas of love and courtship.
For instance, in today's world, Mr. Darcy has no reason to abruptly propose marriage to Elizabeth Bennet. In fact, he would be considered rather scarily weird if he did. Today, if he finds he's attracted to her, he just asks her out on a date. In our egalitarian society no one much cares about class any more (at least not in America), and a good education is not limited to the wealthy, so he doesn't have many reasons to keep him from pursuing her. Plus, there are so many levels of romantic relationship between "acquaintance" and "engaged couple." Modern adaptations often struggle reproduce a "Hunsford" encounter with the same impact as the original, for these reasons.
In the world the nineteenth century, the need to marry was much stronger, especially for women, and because divorce was nearly impossible, the stakes were higher. A woman without a fortune really had no other way she could ensure her future and her children's and family's future, no other way to establish herself with respectability and a measure of independence in life, than to marry, and marry well. It was never more necessary to find a husband who could both provide for you and would treat you well.
At the same time, there was every kind of restriction in place to make it difficult to advance a courtship successfully. Men and women had to struggle to find opportunities to be alone, they could not correspond with each other, they could not talk of so many subjects of importance. Women could not initiate relationships, and they were often limited geographically, unable to travel, forced to wait for men to come to them. For a men, he had to decide whether he wanted to marry a woman quickly, because if he paid her too much attention, he could "raise her expectations," which might make him feel honor bound to offer, no matter what his latter feelings. Engagements, once entered into, were nearly as binding as marriage. These restrictions, none of which exist in modern times, create challenges and dilemmas which it is interesting to write about. Nowadays, the only challenges are really internal to the characters, to their personalities. For me, I get irritated with characters who keep behaving stupidly after a point, so as far as I'm concerned the story's going to be over really soon.
This theme of constraint carries over into every aspect of life. Travel was slow, communication limited, access to money was very limited. Commodities like education and jobs were parceled out according to social class. Someone trying to move down the social ladder might have almost as much trouble as someone trying to move up it, and nearly every decision affected their family and connections in some way. How do our characters deal with this? What decisions do they make, and how do they learn to live to find happiness within the lot they've been given? Does a poor gentlewoman choose marriage with a man she doesn't love, or an unknown future of potential poverty and hardship? Which really offers the greater security, and which represents the greater danger to the woman she is? (In Unequal Affections, Elizabeth spends much of the book struggling with these same questions.) What does a man do, who wants to work for a living, but who must disown his family to do so? How do you decide between society's expectations, financial needs, and the demands of your own conscience? I want to know, I want to know—and so I write.
All this might sound very high-flutin' for a woman who has only one novel, about three novellas and a number of comedic short stories under her belt (and most of those based on someone else's work), but as I ask myself why it is that I can't seem to write a simple modern-day story, these are the answers I find.

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