Writing: historical fiction

I asked my friend/critique partner/and awesome writer, Mary Lou Rigdon, to share her VAST knowledge of writing historical fiction with us, since I know diddly about it. She doesn’t just write historical. She’s one of those naughty writers who indulge their love of different genres. She writes fantasy, contemporary action/romance, and YA (which you can find on Wattpad). I love everything she writes, but I especially love her Regency novels, which she writes under the pen name Julia Donner. My husband knows that I have a huge crush on Lord Asterly from her novel The Heiress and the Spy, but since Asterly only makes me hot and bothered on paper, my John chooses not to worry:) Anyway, for anyone who’s interested in writing historical or adding research into stories (like I do with myths in my Empty Altars series), here’s some solid advice from Mary Lou.

09/21/14

Critique partner, Judy Post, suggested we swap blogs as a change-up, saying that her readership would be interested in how to write in the historical genre. My thing is regency and western, but the American West will have to wait for another posting. Both time periods have masses of information and juicy historical tidbits.
Research isn’t always first but is mandatory. The internet is a wonderful thing, but one has to be careful when applying the information floating around out there. This shouldn’t have to be mentioned, but anything and everything written by Austen is a must read. Not only is she as sly as all get-out, she presents on a palette the everyday life and mores of her time period.
The most important rule is to understand the nature and mindset of the time period. Your reader wants to “live” there. To be safe, I stick to reliable books specific for the era. Because of the internet, in minutes, we can find out exactly what was occurring, and where, on any particular day. This means you can take your reader there with a trivial piece of information, and that’s not to say you’re going to smack them in the face with it. Have it lazily dropped into a conversation. Men were horse mad and something can be said about a recent race. Women were interested in these events, because many spouses and other family members won and lost fortunes.
If your story is about the aristocracy, gossip was the mother’s milk of society. Make it something interesting, like the Green Man, no not the mythical forest creature, but Henry Cope of Brighton. Everything he wore and ate had to be green. This included his furnishings and the servants’ liveries. The antics of someone like that makes for interesting dialogue. The regency period was loaded with famous personalities, like Lady Laetitia Lade, the Holland House set, Poodle Byng, the fabulous Beau, an endless list of colorful sorts. Reams were written about them, their habits, movements, clothes and politics. The trick is to not overdo with an info dump. As they sang in The Producers “keep it light, keep it happy, keep it gay.”
Remember the constraints of the era. There were no light switches. What is the time of day or was the room so enclosed it required lighting at all times? At night, a light had to be carried to their room, or servants carried it for them, or the rooms were lit before, a fire laid, and in winter, the sheets warmed. Wealthy households had a servant just for all the lights.
Servants had a strict hierarchy that didn’t disappear until the end of the last century and is still practiced at Buckingham. Know the size of the house, which servants stay in place or move with the household. How much money are we talking here? To maintain a house in town and in the country, we’re talking a £10,000 yearly income, a lot of money back then.
So where do you start? Do some research, but don’t make yourself nuts, and write the story. It’s your characters that count, their problems, how they solve them, and grow. Once the rough draft is done, I go back and verify. Plots can be tweaked—your characters and situations can’t be fake or contrived.
There were many rules, written, spoken, and unspoken. Discretion and following the code was the imperative. Some of the people who populated that era broke all the rules to become beloved and accepted. Before he was Wellington, Arthur Wesley (later Wellesley) was Irish born and thought to not go far. Admiral Nelson, the impoverished son of a preacher, was so admired that he survived a scandalous affair.
Having gotten that said, now comes a scary caveat:
Readers of regency know the time period, and that means they really know the time period. They’re fussy about the details, just as I am. If you’re going to break the rules of regency, be careful how you tread. The rules did get broken, but they were done with a certain style. Some things were never forgiven, never forgotten. Even though popular in certain circles, Lady Holland was not accepted by the high sticklers because of her divorce. She didn’t care and led a bustling social life. Even if your story is about servants, remember that the working class in the finer houses was as snobbish, if not more so, than their employers, for whom morals ran fast and loose, as long as one was married and played by the rules, especially discretion. It’s been written that on her deathbed, Lady Cowper’s mother, Lady Melbourne, told her daughter to always be faithful to her lover, not her husband, and that’s the regency mindset.

Suggested reading for a start:
The Regency Companion by Laudermilk and Hamlin
Wellington by Elizabeth Longford (family approved biography)
The Age of Elegance by Arthur Bryant (if you can find it)
Any writings by Captain Rees Howell Gronow (observer and prolific writer of the era)

Thanks for sharing, Mary Lou! And if you want to read more from her, here’s where to find her:

M.L.Rigdon
webpage: http://mlrigdon.com
blog: http://historyfanforever.wordpress.com/

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4 thoughts on “Writing: historical fiction

  1. I do NOT get to be the first person to like this!
    What a great thing – switching posts! I so appreciate Mary Lou’s take on writing historicals. The readers come into those stories with a lot of baggage. She’s so right on that! Even speech patterns have to be correct.
    Thanks for sharing. I loved this post. And now I’m going to check out Julia Donner.
    cheers!
    Sue

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  2. Mary Lou knows her stuff…and I don’t:) When she reads at Scribes, people will challenge her once in a while on a word choice..”did they use that term in that time period?” or on how many buttons go where…and she’s always right. Thought I’d get an expert to share with us.

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  3. “Readers of regency know the time period”– this goes for most historical periods to which people are devoted. It’s why I have only hesitantly dipped my toes into writing about the Civil War. This goes double for another era, Vietnam, as it has been written on by participants yet living– I could never, for example, match the detailed knowledge Karl Marlantes demonstrated in Matterhorn.

    Writing fantasy, of which I have written a great deal more, is easier, nearly to the point of constituting a cop-out– you are free to mine historical material to your heart’s content, and to mold it into a form of your liking without having to worry about fact-checkers.

    Good post.

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