Friday, January 8, 2016

Top Five Ways Historical Writers Go Wrong

Writing any book is tough enough, but stepping back in time to create characters from previous centuries presents a yawning trap for today's writers. As an author myself, I struggle with anachronisms -- for instance, I only recently learned that the term "grandfather clock" wasn't in common use until the late 1800s -- after an 1876 song called "My Grandfather's Clock" became popular. Before that, they were called "longcase clocks.")

But it isn't just material goods that create problems for historical writers. Here are the top five ways we all tend to get it wrong:

Using modern speech. We’re so used to our ordinary way of talking that modern expressions often slip into our characters’ dialogue and thoughts. While expressions like “Get a grip” and “I haven’t got a clue” are pretty obvious, others aren’t quite so easy to weed out. Like the nineteenth-century character who tells his grandson, “I don’t like the people you’re hanging around with.” Or the narrator of a novel set in 1066 who says, “They took off into the woods.” Or the Regency heroine who says the hero has derailed her train of thought – before trains and rails were commonplace. Or a hero from the 1820s who says, “I didn’t come here to be analyzed like some patient in a mental asylum” – 70 years before Sigmund Freud developed psychoanalysis. A more subtle (but still disconcerting) example is the heroine who says to the hero, “You think everything is all about you, Your Grace.” 

Including modern attitudes. Far too often in romance fiction, people who were supposedly born and reared in the 1300s or the 1500s or the 1800s think and talk and behave as though they just stepped out of Starbucks holding a latte. It’s true that in order to appeal to today’s reader, main characters tend to be more modern in outlook than their real life peers would have been. But when characters don’t even stop and think about it before they spout today’s perspectives on things like religion, lifestyles and women’s rights, or when they display today’s understanding of psychology, hygiene, nutrition, and medicine, it’s tough to make the reader believe they’re real.

Messing up titles. The most common error when it comes to using aristocratic titles is using the wrong form of address, or using multiple forms of address for the same person. Lady Sarah Winchester isn’t the same person as Lady Winchester is. (Lady Sarah is the daughter of a peer, Lady Winchester is Lord Winchester’s wife.) Lord Winchester isn’t the same person as Lord Randolph Winchester. (Lord Randolph Winchester is the younger son of a duke or a marquess, Lord Winchester is the big cheese himself.) Sir James Smythe is always Sir James, not Sir Smythe. When the author doesn’t realize there’s a big difference between variations which seem so small, it’s easy to dismiss the story entirely.

 Not understanding the rules of inheritance. In the eras most commonly used in historical fiction, illegitimate sons could not inherit titles – period. Oldest sons could not be bypassed in favor of younger ones. Daughters could not pass along titles, except for a very few cases by royal decree. Most often, all the land and money was left to the eldest son. I remember an author who made her heroine a duchess… but not by having her marry a duke, which would be the only way for her to achieve that rank. Instead, this heroine got her title because her grandmother, who was the previous duchess, abdicated and bypassed her daughter in favor of her granddaughter. That’s at least three kinds of impossible.

Just plain getting it wrong. Why bother to look it up when we can make it up? It’s tempting to assume that our vague recollection of the timeline is accurate, or figure that if some other historical author used it, we don’t need to check for ourselves.

A few prize-winning examples: The Regency hero and heroine who honeymooned on an ocean liner – decades before ocean travel started to be comfortable. The maid who says to her mistress, “It’s chilly; you should wear your wool kid gloves” – they can’t be both wool and leather. The hero and heroine who run away from a London ball to Gretna Green, arriving there early the next morning – but traveling 320 miles took at least 36 hours in those days. A Regency hero and heroine who get married at St. George’s Cathedral – St. George’s Hanover Square is a simple parish church, not a cathedral.

This trap yawns equally wide for authors writing in other historical periods. Take a Viking romance which refers to potatoes – five centuries before they were introduced to Europe. Or a story set in 1949 where the narrator says, “He passed out after we hit the interstate” – years before the interstate highway system was even proposed.

Some of these things sound pretty obvious when we look at them in a list. But beware – they can sneak up and attack us when we’re not paying attention.

This blog was first posted on Sitting on the Porch with Kelly, hosted by author Kelly Abell. 


Thursday, July 9, 2015

Creating Extraordinary Characters

For an interview today I was jotting some notes and talking points about characters -- a subject which can and does fill entire books. But here are the three traits which came to me as most important about characters in fiction:

HEROIC. Characters in fiction – and especially in romance – need to be heroic. I don't mean heroic in the sense of wearing a cape and tights; I'm talking about heroic in the sense the word was used in classical literature. People in fiction are in some way larger than life. They're more than real people. Their problems are bigger or more intense. Their flaws are more problematic, more likely to lead to huge trouble. Their personalities are brighter, or darker, or richer, or more twisted, than those of ordinary people. In this view, even a villain is a heroic character -- because he's not simply a guy who commits random, casual crimes. He has a plan and a purpose and a motive.

EXTRAORDINARY.  Think extraordinary, not perfect. In the work of new writers, I see a lot of characters who have it all. They’re gorgeous. They have great jobs. They love what they do. They have wonderful friends. They live in a great house or condo. They drive the car they've always dreamed of. They have designer clothes and shoes and hair. But the thing is, people in books are much more intriguing when things aren’t going right for them – when they’ve lost the job or the condo or the friend.

BALANCED. Characters work best when there's a basic balance between the protagonist and the antagonist (or, in romance, between the hero and the heroine). If you build a big blustery hero who always says what he thinks, and you pair him with a heroine who’s got low self-esteem – the hero comes off as a bully and the heroine as a weakling. If you pair a soft-spoken laid back hero with a hard-driving, bossy heroine, then he’s apt to look weak and she may come across as being bitchy. But if you put the blustery hero who always says what he thinks with the heroine who’s just as outspoken and bossy, you’ve got sparks. (It might not be a household you want to live in – but then that’s one of the ways fiction is different from real life.) 

In the same way, the hero/protagonist and the villain need to be balanced. If the villain is so super-powerful and clued in and knowledgeable that it seems the hero can't possibly win, then it's not convincing when the hero keeps stumbling into answers and being saved by coincidence. If the villain is so inept that it's hard to see how he can keep functioning at all, then the hero's victory isn't satisfying and savory. Only when the two sides each have strengths and resources and talents is the battle exciting.

What traits do you find necessary to consider when you're developing characters?


Friday, May 29, 2015

Speed Dating for Authors


Author Tierney James has this cool feature on her blog called "Speed Dating for Authors" where she shares intriguing bits and pieces about books and authors -- including trivia or personal details or stuff you wouldn't otherwise know.  It's a good place to find new authors or find out more about your favorites.

This week I'm featured -- along with some photos of my dollhouse. 

Come on over to Journeys, Treks and Daylilies and join us! Here's a sneak peek: 



Yep, that's really a dollhouse!


Saturday, May 23, 2015

Top Five Ways Historical Authors Go Wrong

A couple of weeks ago I met fellow author and blogger Kelly Abell when we were both guests on Marsha Casper Cook's radio show. We talked there about the errors that historical authors most commonly make, and that led to Kelly inviting me to guest blog for her. You can read my post on the Top Five Ways Historical Authors Go Wrong here. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Splitting Heirs

Under the aristocratic system of primogeniture, followed almost religiously during the Regency period, the eldest son is the heir. He gets the title, the fortune, and the land. 

But what if there isn’t an eldest son?

If a title-holder has no legitimate children, or has only daughters, then the lot goes to the nearest male relative of the title-holder. The next in line would be the title-holder’s next-younger brother, and then his sons (if he has any). If the younger brother has no children or only daughters, the title descends to the next brother in the original family, and then to his sons.

An eldest son is known as the heir apparent, because no matter what happens, if he outlives his father he will inherit. Because no one can come between him and the title, he is the apparent – obvious – heir.

If there is no oldest son, then whoever stands next in line is known as the heir presumptive. Since the title-holder could still sire a son (no matter how unlikely that might be), the heir presumptive could still be pushed out of the line of succession. So he’s presumed – but not guaranteed – to be the heir.

If the title-holder dies without a surviving son, but his widow is pregnant, then everything comes to a halt until the baby is born. If it’s a boy, he will hold the title from the moment of his birth. But if it’s a girl, then the next heir in the male line wins the jackpot.

I used this scenario in my Regency novel, Gentleman in Waiting – where the entire family is gathered, waiting to see whether Lady Abingdon’s child will be a boy or a girl...


* * * * *



Everything depends on the baby…

Lady Mariah Gerrard anxiously awaits the birth of her stepmother’s child, desperately hoping for a boy who will inherit their father’s title so Mariah can gain access to her dowry and her freedom. Her father’s cousin John, the next heir in line, has other plans – so if the baby is a girl, disaster looms for Mariah.

When Myles Moreton comes to Edgeworth to manage the family estate, Mariah’s no longer certain that even the birth of a boy will solve her problems. Why is money missing? Why is Mariah’s dowry in doubt?  Despite his genial fa├žade, is Cousin John planning mischief – or worse? Why is Myles Moreton, rather than the late earl’s trustees, suddenly in control? And how can Myles -- a man who’s entirely ineligible -- be not only completely maddening but utterly charming and very, very tempting?

As the family gathers to await the birth, Mariah and Myles search for answers – and they find that playing the waiting game can have its own rewards.



Thursday, May 14, 2015

Authors Chat About Writing Historical Fiction

Recently, I was a guest on Marsha Casper Cook's blogtalk radio show to chat about the challenges of writing historical fiction. Another of the guests, Kelly Abell, has posted her comments and a link to the show here. I hope you'll enjoy listening! 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Axminstering and Other Temptations

Whenever I finish writing a book, there are a couple of items which automatically go on my to-do list. 

The first is to clean up my office, because by the time the project is done, my desk looks like a tornado hit it. (And no, I’m not posting a photo of the mess. Things last forever on the Internet.)

The other is to look back at the job and assess what went well and what could have been improved. In this case, a novella which should have taken maybe three weeks to finish – especially because I’d written a good chunk of it months ago – took twice as long. One of those weeks was lost to a nasty case of flu, but another week or so disappeared because I was Axminstering instead of writing.

What’s “Axminstering”? I’m glad you asked.

In my novella, which is set in an English manor house in 1816, I wrote that my hero felt like the Axminster carpet in the drawing room had turned into quicksand and was pulling him down. Then I paused to wonder – were there Axminster carpets in 1816, or were they more of a Victorian than a Regency phenomenon? 

It’s a question historical authors have to ask themselves with practically every sentence. (Did French doors exist in the Regency – and were they called that, or something else? Did people say “bamboozle” or was that later? What really is the difference between a morning dress and a walking dress? Would the hero be wearing top boots or Hessians?)

But though we really do have to ask the questions and look up the answers, it’s not often that we need that bit of information right at that very moment. My hero could still have been thinking about quicksand if he was standing on a Persian carpet or a marble floor or just a plain old rug – and I could have looked up Axminster carpets at another time.

Instead, I went zooming over to Google where I discovered that the first Axminster carpet was made in 1755, in plenty of time for my drawing room to be decorated with one.

That much research wasn’t a problem. But then I followed the trail. What exactly would that carpet have looked like? What was the most likely combination of colors? What would it have been made of? How big might it have been? And since Wikipedia kindly offered a list of heritage properties where Axminster carpets can be seen, I wandered through those pages searching for pictures. And when I didn't see carpets there, I kept looking till I found images. (Here’s a new carpet, to give you the idea: AXMINSTER)

How much of that knowledge made it into the story? Zero. Zip. Nada. The line’s exactly as I first wrote it.

When I shared this story with my students at Gotham Writers’ Workshop, one of them said in glee, “From now on, I’m not going to call it procrastinating – I’m Axminstering!” (Thanks, Michelle!)

Do you Axminster? What are the temptations you face as you write?