The title of today’s musings is an example of how NOT to write historical fiction. Like sci-fi and fantasy, historical fiction puts the author in the difficult position of having to explain to the reader stuff the characters take for granted.
For example, in A Merry Requiem, all the characters know that the French Revolution of 1789-93 was only a generation ago, that all their fathers were probably on one side or the other, and that the social divisions exposed in it still remain. To them, explaining it to one another would have been equivalent to you or me sitting down with a friend at Starbucks and giving a long speech on the Miners’ Strike, the role of punk music in creating an anti-Tory subculture in the 80’s, and the antagonistic role Maggie Thatcher took in the divisive politics of the day. Does that sound realistic? No. When you and your left-wing friends sit down at Starbucks (or, more likely, a cooperative coffeehouse in Dalston with some hipster band playing in the corner), you don’t speechify. You just say, “fucking Tory wankers screwed me over with uni fees.” And your friend says, “seriously, that’s shit.” And you both know the context, because you live it every day.
Now magnify that across EVERY aspect of society – the technology people use and how it changes their lives, the way they dress and how those clothes signal their identity, the unspoken social mores, the subtle ways of insulting people, the assumptions people make about class and gender and religion and ethnic background … ALL of that needs to be transmitted to the reader in a way that sounds natural and not clunky, and that doesn’t sound like the author is taking a break to give the reader a history lesson.
There are several ways of doing this:
1. The naive/foreign character. This person is basically a foil for the reader, inserted into the book to ask the questions the reader would ask if they were there. They tend to be a visitor from a foreign country, asking why things are done a certain way, or a young, naive, socially inexperienced character who has to have the subtleties of society or the political situation explained to them.
However, the scenes in which the explanations occur still need to sound NATURAL. The characters in the know should not lecture the naive/foreign character, they should speak in the way they normally do, and they should feel free to add all kinds of snarky opinions of their own, in an attempt to get the naive/foreign character onside, as you do in real life with someone whom you suspect you could convert to your cause or way of thinking.
2. The political argument. This is done by pitting two characters against each other, and forcing them to reveal information about the politics or social mores of the day by having them furiously disagree. An amazing example of this is the conversations between Charles Darwin and Captain Robert FitzRoy in Harry Thompson’s This Thing of Darkness – an incredible amount of information about science, religion, geology in the 1830’s, attitudes towards “primitive” peoples, and so on, in a way that sounds natural. Each man reaches for facts to back up their argument, thus easily making that argument clear to the reader.
3. The subtle insertion of social/historical/political information into a description of a setting or a character. You can reveal a lot about a time simply by describing a scene. Your character is going for a walk in the park. You can indicate that there are high levels of poverty and social unrest simply by adding a few beggars sleeping under trees and a group of students handing them socialist pamphlets. If you mention that those students are dressed flamboyantly, with brightly coloured waistcoats and elaborately curled hair, and then add a group of older men in plain, simple suits staring at them disapprovingly, you’ve now given your reader the useful information that brightly coloured waistcoats and curled hair = radical politics. You’ve let the reader into the cultural shorthand of the day, and from now on, all you have to do is mention that a character is wearing a bright green waistcoat, and your reader will understand how they fit in to the social politics of the day, much like all you have to do in a modern novel is mention that a character is wearing black torn jeans and a mohawk and hanging out at Camden Town Market, and your reader will understand their social position.
If your goal is to alert your reader to the sheltered and stifled position of women in society, all you have to do is describe a street scene in which every woman is in a carriage, with a chaperone, except for the beggars and the prostitutes. If you want them to understand how racially homogenous your small-town 19th-century English novel is, describe the reaction when Lady So-and-So brings back a Black servant from the West Indies. An d so on.
4. Consider what the characters take for granted and what shocks them. This is somewhat related to the above, but more about dialogue and thoughts than about descriptions. Do you remember that scene in Casablanca when the Nazis are singing their hearty Nazi songs, with their Nazi uniforms and their Nazi drinks and their Nazi arrogance, and the plucky French exiles get up and drown them out with La Marseillaise? One of the reasons that scene is so effective is the reactions of the bystanders. They are shocked, and frightened. And we take our cue from them – it’s because of their fear that the audience goes, “oh wait, people could actually get shot here.” In A Merry Requiem, many of the conventions of the theatre which we now take for granted were new, and radical, and actually IMPORTANT ENOUGH TO CAUSE PEOPLE TO RIOT IN THE STREETS. (I know – there was no X-Factor for people to get worked up about.) But if you simply set something in a theatre, with sets that change and language that can get a bit emotional sometimes, and then have people rioting, your reader will go “wtf just happened here?” You have to show them, through the actions and reactions of the actors and audience, that this is something pretty radical and daring.
Similarly, there is a scene in A Merry Requiem in which Philippe is desperate for his fiancee Helene to appear pure and virtuous and unsullied, and so he’s watching her through the window at a ball and hoping she isn’t … WALTZING!! Because that would be scandalous, to be held in a stranger’s embrace as you dance!! (I know, Philippe is a bit of a stalker twat, but he has redeemable features which come out later. Also, is it just me, or does a society in which waltzing was enough to cause a scandal, and you could riot over set changes at the theatre, sound like a lot more fun than what we have now?)
Things like chickens running through the streets of London would have been taken for granted up through the 19th century – show your characters nimbly sidestepping flocks of market-going chickens, geese and sheep as they stride through Tudor London, without batting an eyelid, and you will have transmitted a huge amount of information in that single paragraph – that England was still largely agricultural, that the cities were dirty and crowded and noisy, that the connection between city and country was closer than it is now, and that food was purchased either alive or barely dead, from markets within the city.
5. Avoid anachronisms unless you have a REALLY GOOD REASON. At the heart of this is the universal truth that you need to do your freaking research. If your novel is written in Reformation England, your characters should take for granted that RELIGION IS IMPORTANT. I know we have this twenty-first-century desire for everyone to be liberal and tolerant in order to be a good guy, but that simply wasn’t true. Your characters are products of their time, and place, and in order to successfully translate that time and place to your reader, you can’t just throw in anachronisms in order to make yourself feel better.
Similarly, if your novel is set any time before the mid 1960’s, you really cannot have young women jumping into bed with your hero unless there’s a damn good understanding that he will marry her if a child results. Good girls didn’t DO THAT. Yes, there were many places where premarital sex was common – agricultural societies, predominantly, in which gauging your prospective partner’s fertility before marriage was pretty close to an economic necessity, but the couple would be “courting” and there would be the understanding that a marriage would result before the birth, if pregnancy did occur. I’ve read a book in which a good Catholic girl jumps into bed with a Protestant spy for Elizabeth I, who she barely knows, and proceeds to have multiple orgasms before dawn. That would. not. have. happened.
Also, know the differences in lifestyle between classes – before the late 1700’s in Britain, arranged marriages were common among the upper classes, when property, money and titles would have changed hands, but not among the lower classes, who were more free to marry for love. Your characters would have taken this for granted (see No. 4) and if you upend it in some way, you had better make it clear that these characters are breaking a social norm.
Finally, do NOT assume that history has been one long continuous march towards enlightenment, and that therefore if people are 10% racist now they would have been 80% racist in 1870. Social attitudes towards women, towards homosexuality, towards premarital sex, towards class differences, towards race, towards public displays of sexuality, towards hygiene and safety, and much more, have varied widely over time. Romans were cleaner than Elizabethans. Early Christians were more accepting of homosexuality than they were in the 19th century. History is a series of waves – there may be an overall arc to it, but it is not linear and clear. Do your freaking research and know what your characters would have THOUGHT, as well as what they would have worn, how they would have travelled, and what they would have eaten.
Of course you will probably have anachronisms in your work without realising it – it’s difficult to figure out every detail. I’m sure I have characters wearing wedding rings on their right hands when the left hand was actually used, or wearing the wrong colour clothing to an event, or that I’ve inaccurately priced something or have misjudged the internal workings of this or that industry or institution, or used a street name in 1832 that wasn’t actually changed from its old name until 1840, or, God forbid, something much more serious. When you get an irate letter from a reader, claiming that you are a worthless hack because you have someone paying a servant four francs a month when average wages would have been twenty, you will know that, hey, at least someone cares deeply about what you write. Take it as a compliment.
Oh, and also? Do your freaking research.