It always starts in a bar. The barmaid (always buxom) has been serving beer since the church bells rang, precisely at five. Inside, the minstrel has been playing his lute, and the blacksmith drinking one stein after another.
Shiny Boots and Corinthians: Writing Historical Fiction without Cliches4 min read
I can’t be the only Apex reader who loves Regency romances—but in case I am, Regency romances are to Jane Austen what steampunk is to Jules Verne. There are some very good Regency writers, like Mary Balogh and Amanda Quick, who understand both history and human nature—but there are also some very bad ones, whose heroes are wealthy, priapic meatloaves. Spotting the bad ones is easy enough, because the dialogue goes like this:
Hero’s Buddy: “You are the veriest Corinthian! Your valet must have wept over your elaborate neckerchief!”
Hero: “And my boots are like mirrors! Even though we have just come to the ball from Tattersall’s, where they sell horses! But wait, who is that chit in the muslin?”
Hero’s Buddy: “Does it matter? All women find you masterfully attractive!”
Hero: “Then Tally HO!”
And this is the point at which I suspect that the writer has researched their Regency novel by reading other Regencies and not looking beyond that. The resulting creation is a pile of clichés: Corinthians, Tattersall’s, Johnson’s boxing academy, shiny boots, and so on. It has no depth and no flare that brings the history to life.
Regency romance authors aren’t the only ones to fall in this trap. Some science fiction and fantasy authors do it too when writing historically-inspired fiction. By relying solely on novels written by your contemporaries for research, the past can be reduced to a list of quirky objects, slang words, and locations, without any sense of the meaning behind them. Good steampunk has things to say about empire, or extreme gender distinctions, or industrialization. Bad steampunk has a leather corset with a gear glued to it.
But there’s an easy way to break free from this trap—when researching your novel, read things beside similar novels. It really is that simple.
You might start by reading fiction written at the same time period that inspired you. And I don’t mean just genre fiction. For example, if you’re writing Regency-inspired fiction, you’ve probably read Jane Austen—but why not read Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1821), which is about a debauched young man’s tour of the city? Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula and Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are exceptional partly because they are steeped in the beloved fiction of the Victorian era. I would also add that often the pulpiest literature has the best physical detail, making up for its lack of character development.
But don’t stop there. Read non-fiction from the time: essays, how-to guides, travelogues. The novel is a fairly recent development, and the first novel written in English that’s enjoyable to read is Moll Flanders (1722). (You guys can argue that one in the comments.) On the other hand, medieval cookbooks are always a good time– and a close attention to which kinds of foods are there and which are missing tells a lot about the trade and cultural connections of the medieval world. This website—Medieval Cookery—has more information. Travel narratives are also useful for seeing the world through contemporary eyes. Here’s a nice global bibliography.
Finally, as a historian myself, I also have to suggest that you read books written by recent historians. This is especially important because the other genres I’ve suggested tend to focus on the concerns of a small group of people, and historians since the Seventies have been interested in animating the formerly forgotten. In other words, if your hero is neither elite nor young, you’ll get a better sense of what his life was like from a recent history book than an old novel.
At this point you may be wondering why you are reading all these books? First of all, you’re looking for language and voice. Which words had different meanings in the time period you’re writing about? What was contemporary slang, and how was it used? (Would a gentleman have called a young lady a “chit” to her face?)
Second, you’re looking for the physical details of your hero’s daily life. Would he have shared a room, or a bed? And with whom? What did he eat, and where did his food come from? What happened if he got sick? You’re looking for the telling little details that will bring your world to life—as when Charles Dickens toured America in the 1840s and deplored the amount of tobacco use and spitting, saying that “in every bar room and hotel passage the stone floor looks as if it were paved with open oysters.”
Third, if you’re writing historically-inspired fiction, you should pay attention to the social issues of the era that inspired you. The rumbling background of the Regency novel—the reason that there were all those dashing soldiers for Jane Austen’s heroines to flirt with—was the Napoleonic War. Mary Balogh’s books are so successful because she considers the effects of the war on her heroes and heroines; in Slightly Married, when the heroine’s brother dies in battle, she risks losing her home because their awful cousin is the heir. Similarly, Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker works partly because it echoes the violent class struggles of the railroad-era West.
Ultimately, the reason to go back to the sources and do your research is because it will enable you to create something new, not a pale photocopy of someone else’s ideas. Writing good historically based fiction is no easy feat. It requires dedication and a good deal of research. But it is worth it. Good luck, and tally ho!