Historical Context

So, as I’m outlining my NaNo, my characters do things that normal New Yorkers do: go to Starbucks, take the subway, complain about the subway, do a side-eye when a celebrity walks by but go on about your business, get stuck in crowds, bitch about how slow some people walk. I’m deliberately leaving the year that this story takes place vague, but it’s definitely New York as I experience it now, you know?

It’s different in my historical fiction, which starts in 1799 and kind of ends in mid-1801. There were several large-scale things happening at the time, like the continuous warfare between Britain and France that would last until Waterloo, the growing British abolition movement (though, in 1800, because of sedition laws passed as Britain entered war against France, abolition groups weren’t meeting), King George III’s intermittent madness.

Then there are the general things about the time period that apply when one is writing about a segment of the British aristocracy.

Estates, because the British upper classes owned them, sometimes several of them. Estates included not only a large house, parkland, and farms, but entire villages, too.

Primogeniture. The oldest son inherits the bulk of everything–title, money, land, house. This is especially true if there is an entail, an archaic piece of law that you may heard about four dozen times in the first season of Downton Abbey. An entail made it impossible for one lord, let’s say, to sell his house or to sell too much land to cover his gambling debts so that the heir would inherit a house and land to earn his income.ย The daughters had dowries once they married. The younger sons? Bah. Here’s your allowance and maybe a piece of unentailed land or a house, now go work. But not, like, work. Go into the army as an officer, which won’t pay you enough to live on. Go into the navy, go become a lawyer or a politician.

How do you think a historical fiction author makes stuff like this clear? How does one get the time period and the intricacies of the time period across without veering into, “Well, you know, Lord Bob, when you die, your heir inherits…”

I’m thinking back on when I read The Greatest Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick. It’s about William Marshal, who rose to become England’s regent after King John’s death. So it takes place in the 1180s and the sequel covers the latter part of Marshal’s life. Not a time period I really know anything about, but I soon got the hang of the period while reading.

I’ll have to figure out what made it easy to slip into medieval England.

8 thoughts on “Historical Context

  1. The things my favorite writers have done, irregardless of the time period, is fling the reader into the story and briefly explain stuff as it becomes necessary to the plot. Anything else is not really important. It's like, they make that one part of the story so real that you feel like you're experiencing the whole world. ^_^


  2. But then, on the other hand, there are a lot of things that the characters wouldn't feel the need to explain, you know? I have to sort of remind myself that not everyone knows about British lords after an adolescence reading Regency romance ๐Ÿ˜‰


  3. Regency ๐Ÿ™‚ Hmm, I know what you mean. I guess this is why we have to be so hyperaware of everything when we edit — or get a second pair of eyes. But for things characters don't think about, I have this crazy stuff in a sci-fi project. My MC doesn't explain anything. She just calls a spade a spade, you know. I was worried about it at first, but it's actually working out really well. Like, she'll call her cell phone a v-bridge, so I have her describe it and show her using it so people know what it is. And something else, her mom dies, but mom was married to this guy and the law of the land is that the husband gets to stay in the house for a year. For legal reasons they have to go over it, so that's another way you can sneak explanations of stuff in the story.I think about all those Disney movies, too, where the father just comes out and reminds his son, the Prince, that he has 3 days to pick a bride or the kingdom goes his cousin, or whatever. Of course, sometimes you can make a case for slight author intrusion by way of gentle nudging. Sometimes people don't think to say what they look like, so I have to tell them to find a way to describe themselves, even if it's just inserting little bits of stuff in throughout the narrative.Writing is so much fun. ^_^


  4. Let the details flow from the storyline, don't force them in. It doesn't matter that we don't know the eldest son inherits unless it becomes an issue in your story. You want readers to know the eldest son inherits? Maybe he doesn't want it. Maybe he and his brother squabble about it. Maybe the daughter doesn't want to get marred and she's the eldest and figures she should inherit . There are any number of ways these details can be woven into the story because the storyline requires it. Let the story dictate what details you use and which you leave out.


  5. Well. yeah. But my book starts in the West Indies in the late 1790s, so I suppose some of the details of that lifestyle are a little more obscure. Like manumission. I didn't mention that the cost to manumit a slave in Barbados was about fifty pounds, which was a lot of money in those days. I guess I forget that my readers might not know what I've learned researching?


  6. There's this scene in the first episode of Downton Abbey where the family attorney goes: \”As you know, Lord Grantham, your widow will have her portion after your death and your daughters will have their dowries. But everything else goes to your heir.\”Um, I think Lord Grantham knows that already!


  7. That's where having good readers is so important. I went through this whole thing of cutting first the prologue, then Chapter 1, so when my editor went through the novel, he got to Chapter 9 and went, \”Whoa. This family is friends with Thomas Jefferson? Why the heck don't we know that?\” And I was like, well, I cut the background chapter. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ Anyway, my point was, you need sharp readers like my editor to notice the holes.


  8. Yeah. When I finish the fourth draft come December, I'll need to find historical fiction readers to look the WIP over. My beta was fantastic but she doesn't write hist. fic, so reading over her in-doc questions and comments made me wonder if I was making things clear enough.


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