Sense and Sensibilities of the 21st Century
As a writer of Young Adult Regency Romance, I would like to share some of my observations about writing relevant books for the tech-savvy teens of today when the story takes place long before electronics entered our world.
It is entirely true that themes are timeless, that love, acting out, worrying about the opinion of peers, fretting about the future etc. provides a commonality between different eras. These tropes provide a means to reach modern readers; they facilitate an understanding of days gone by.
However, there are pitfalls when you add a historical background to your novel. Yes, there are pretty dresses, lovely manors and… lovely manners, but unless the readers feels an emotional bond to the characters, they will pitch that book across the room before you can say ‘but that’s how they acted’. The motivations and, more importantly, the characters’ reactions can’t feel contrived. Your characters might behave according to their time period but if it feels jarring to the 21st century reader, it will pull them out of the story. And you don’t want that to happen!
I would advocate that all historical novels be accurate in facts, cultural norms and social expectations. Or… as accurate as possible. It is important to get the details right and while I don’t always succeed it isn’t for lack of trying. Every new project I take on involves extensive research. (Assumption is my worst enemy. I have learned to check and double check everything!) I even verify the common usage of words, never allowing future words into my dialogue.
Then after having established what would have… should have been — I consciously step off the path. Yes, in order for my readers to relate to my characters I have to change fundamental aspects of their natures and those of the people around them… while still remaining true to the time period.
Huh? Yes, slightly confusing; I will explain using my chosen time period.
In Regency England, girls of ‘good’ society were very much under the thumb of their parents or guardians. They were expected to be submissive and obedient to all strictures. If they had opinions, they were to keep them to themselves. Girls were duty bound to marry and provide an heir and a spare. To our modern eyes, this is appalling. (Makes you want to stand on your chair and scream at the world.) However, it is what it is and while we are thankful to have moved beyond such archaic ideals, I have to keep them in mind when developing my story.
As such, none my female main characters come from a typical Regency family. In Love, Lies and Spies, Juliana is motherless and her father is an absentminded professor type — not overly conscious of his daughter’s social education. This gives Juliana the leeway to find her own direction, her own scientific research. However, I do address this — making it clear to the reader that Juliana is considered strange. To contrast the difference, I imbue her cousin with the more typical traits of a young girl of the Regency. Still, Carrie does have her own opinions… she just doesn’t express them within any adult’s hearing. (I couldn’t help myself.)
In Duels & Deception, Lydia’s father has passed away and she is part of an all female family. As she is the only one with any wit or sense, Lydia is de facto the head of the household in all respects except name. Again, not typical but it helps give my main character the ability to control her own destiny.
At times, changes are needed to deal with situations that the 21st century reader would find awkward or confusing — something as simple as last names. The Regency period was a very formal society (outwardly — lots of shenanigans were going on behind closed doors). Even husbands and wives addressed one another formally… when in company.
I would like to introduce Mr. and Mrs. B, their eldest daughter is Miss B, subsequent daughters are Miss Gloria B and Miss Penelope B and the son is Master B. If everyone is talking at once, the reader will be flipping back through the pages to understand who is who. It feels awkward and it brings the parade to a halt while the reader tries to figure out who said what.
I have had to create situations where my characters give one another permission to use their first names. Had I simply had them do so as a matter of course, it would have been completely out of context with the time period.
Another twist in regard to accuracy, involves a girl’s first Season. At seventeen or eighteen, she dreamed about finding a husband. The marriage mart of the beau monde in the early 19th century was the driving force of many a ball or soiree. It allows my characters to fall in love and become engaged with full parental approval by the end of the book. This time, historical accuracy works in my favor. I can almost see the frowning looks of disapproval from 21st century moms but they need not worry. Engagements were much longer in the Regency period with the average age of matrimony being in the mid-twenties.
I would not like to have a main character faint when stressed or surprised. It smacks of weakness and unless that is part of the character’s journey, it is not impressive to a 21st century girl. However, fainting in the 19th century (particularly the Victorian period) was so common that ladies carried smelling salts. Were women/girls that easily overwhelmed? No. They were trussed up in corsets that made breathing difficult at the best of times and gasping in anxiety would often leave them light headed. It wasn’t weakness; it was fashion.
So as you can see, it is possible and actually preferable to pick your battles. Accuracy and understandability can go hand in hand in a historical novel. You might have to explain some social norms — but even after doing so you can have your characters behave differently — as long as you help the reader understand the behavior/reaction before you break the mold.