Writer Wednesday – Elyse Mady on Writing for the Times

Elyse Mady writes fairly * ahem * adventurous (otherwise known as menage) historical fiction, and her first title, The Debutante’s Dilemma, just came out this week. She wrote this terrific article on adapting your writing to the historical times in your novel, and I knew I just had to host her. Elyse blogs at www.elysemady.wordpress.com about writing, research and romance novels, both historical and contemporary.  You can reach her by email at elysemady@cogeco.ca or find her on Facebook for updates and upcoming titles .

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TheDebutantesDilemmaAbout “The Debutante’s Dilemma” by Elyse Mady

One woman in search of passion

Miss Cecilia Hastings has achieved what every young lady hopes for during her first London season…in duplicate! She’s caught the eye of not one but two of England’s most eligible bachelors.   Both Jeremy Battersley, Earl of Henley, and Richard Huxley, Duke of Wexford are handsome, wealthy and kind, the epitome of proper gentlemen. But Cecelia doesn’t want proper, she wants passion. So she issues a challenge to her suitors: a kiss, so that she may choose between them.

Two men in love with the same woman

Friends since childhood, and compatriots on the battlefields of Spain, falling for the same woman has set Jeremy and Richard at odds, and risks destroying their friendship forever.  But a surprising invitation to a late-night garden tryst soon sets them on a course that neither of them could have anticipated. And these gentlemen quickly discover that love can take many forms…

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Getting a Word in Edgewise

by Elyse Mady

Everyone knows that single guys who are making a good living want to get hitched.

Or to put it in more familiar terms, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

See the difference between the thought expressed in contemporary terms and the immediate impact the same idea has couched in the Regency terms that the author, Jane Austen, used?  With one sentence, thanks to subtle clues conveyed by word choice, syntax and grammar, in both versions we know when the story is taking place and if the sentence is really good, sometimes even by whom and why.  That’s a ton of information conveyed just through some carefully chosen words, so how can you replicate its impact in your own writing?

Authors are often exhorted to spend a lot of time world building when they’re writing their manuscripts, especially if their characters inhabit realities distanced from our own by time (historicals and futurist stories), alternative realities (magic and fantasy) or technology (sci-fi and steampunk) so that their worlds are coherent, deep and rich.  But I’m of the firm opinion that word building is just as important, if not more so.

So, what exactly is word building?  Well, let me give you an example from my most recent story, “The Debutante’s Dilemma”.  Here’s how I described the heroine in the opening paragraphs:

Miss Cecilia Hastings was the luckiest girl who had ever lived to draw breath.

This was the near-universal assessment of the five hundred guests who found themselves crushed into Lady Stanhope’s lavish ballroom like so many potted fish on this early June evening.

That the young lady was well-favoured, with a tall, even figure, a smooth throat and milk-white skin, striking grey eyes and dark chestnut hair, there was no doubt. Just eighteen, Miss Hastings was everywhere lauded for her calm manners and her unerring ability to navigate London’s treacherous social shoals while appearing neither missish nor imperious. She danced divinely. She both sang and played the pianoforte. She could read Italian and spoke French beautifully. She befriended those wealthy and modest, with equal disregard for their particular standings. Her sartorial sense was unmatched and her dresser had been offered no less than a half-dozen bribes if she would but reveal the secrets to her mistress’s beauty regime.

Without any other details, most readers would recognize this as a historical novel, set in London amongst a group of wealthy individuals who attend balls and other grand social events.  They learn this in two ways: firstly, through the factual details like description and setting but secondly, and more subtly, through how the story is written.  It isn’t enough then to simply convey facts about the world or the characters themselves: Cecilia Hastings is considered lucky, she’s pretty and dresses well and treats everyone fairly.  Instead, I’ve carefully replicated not only period terms like being ‘well-favoured’ and ‘her mistress’s beauty regime’ but mimicked its syntax and phrasings, too.   This creates (hopefully!) an immersive experience for the reader, that allows them to be transported seamlessly into the story’s setting.  This process occurs in every story but it’s more evident in stories where the characters inhabit a world that is distinct from that of the readers.

So, how do you do this convincingly?  After all, no author wants their book or their characters to sound like a bad actor, trying on an accent that wavers and disappears erratically (Are you listening Kevin Costner?  ‘Cause I’m talking to you!).  So go slowly and work on building your ‘ear’ and your ‘eye’ for period styles gradually, at a pace that’s comfortable for you.  Otherwise you run the very real risk of alienating your reader and drawing unwelcome attention to the cobbled-together and ‘borrowed’ nature of your storytelling.

Here are five easy tips for historical writers on how they can develop their word building skills in their manuscripts.  But have no fear – these tips are also great for sci-fi writers and steam-punk writers and well, frankly writers of all stripes!

1. Get Lost in a Good Book

It isn’t enough to read historical romances written by contemporary authors.  They may have lots of good research behind them but the only way to really get a sense of how people wrote and spoke is to read, read, and read some more from authors published during the era you’re replicating.  For Regency buffs, Jane Austen is a great and accessible starting place but don’t neglect other great authors from the period like Maria Edgeworth, Ann Radcliffe, Samuel Richardson and Frances Burney.   For Victorian eras, authors like George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain and the Brontë sisters are all wonderful while the Gilded age has some spectacular writers including Edith Wharton and Henry James to explore.  Almost all of these books are available in free online editions but if you’re intimidated by the thoughts of tackling a ‘classic’, look instead for a modern edition published by Oxford University Press or Cambridge University Press.  Their editions usually include footnotes to help decipher unfamiliar dates and events, plus a glossary for strange terminology.

2. Dear Diary

We forget in this age of instantaneous communication how ubiquitous letters, diaries and travelogues were prior to the days of easy communication but there are literally hundreds and hundreds of published letter and diary collections by historical figures large and small.   Unlike novels, these fragmentary documents don’t tell a story from beginning to end but their style is often unguarded and intimate and gives a real window into people’s every day concerns, plus includes the day-to-day undertakings that may be lost in ‘big’ history books.  My favourite diarist is Frances Burney, whose wonderfully evocative diaries span nearly the whole of her life in the 18th and early 19th century but a search through any library catalogue or an online database like the Internet Archive will reveal many, many more.

3. Read All About It

Newspapers and magazines are another fantastic resources to get a sense of the period’s concerns and writing style and how they convey information in short concise bursts.  They’re also a great inspiration for story ideas – I’ve discovered a whole host of inspiring true-life ideas just by perusing old articles.  Best of all, many newspaper archives like the London Times and the New York Times are online now, which makes searching them as simple matter.

4. All the World’s a Stage

Plays are a perhaps the best way to understand speech patterns from whatever period you’re exploring.  Whether you’re chuckling over Sheridan’s “School for Scandal” or laughing at George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde, remember that the texts are meant to be performed and spoken, so don’t hesitate to read them out loud – you’ll find yourself hearing aural jokes and understanding the pacing and word play of your period better than ever.  And if reading it out loud doesn’t appeal, never fear; many classic plays are available in audible versions that make taking them in as easy as popping in a CD or downloading them from sites like Audible.com

5. You Just Can’t Make this Stuff Up

Finally, I also love printed ephemera for inspiration and word building: sermons, pamphlets, reports, advertising, court documents and the like.  They’re windows onto the concerns of the era and they make understanding and recreating the ‘mental’ aspects of your historical characters much easier.  You can choose to agree or rebuff the historical talking points but understanding the environment in which your characters find themselves is essential to creating a holistic and believable setting.  My favourite sources for these kinds of documents are the Internet Archive, which includes everything from print to sound recordings, images and more and the Gale Digital Collections.  The former is free; the latter does require a subscription so be sure and check with your local library or college because many of them subscribe to the research collections and allow community members free access.

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Is this article not a wealth of information? Elyse will be popping in all day to answer comments, so don’t be shy about asking questions!

The usual guidelines apply. Please keep any excerpts to 300 words or less, and post critiques and excerpts in separate comments. This blog uses threaded conversations, so when you are replying to a particular comment, please use the reply link in that comment rather than the one at the end. When you use the one within the comment, your comment will be inserted into the conversation thread.

15 thoughts on “Writer Wednesday – Elyse Mady on Writing for the Times

  1. Hey, everyone! I’m going to have to post my excerpt tonight because as usual, I’m outta time. However, I will be popping in throughout the day via my cellphone.

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  2. Pingback: Blogging at Debuts & Reviews « Elyse Mady: Romance Author

  3. I think when it comes to research the hardest part (for me) is just figuring out where to start! Thanks for the suggestions, and the links.

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  4. Hi Chicory – I totally get overloaded myself from time to time. When I begin a new story, I try and figure out what are the most important historical details, the ones that the plot hinges around. It’s about prioritizing and then finding a note-taking method that works for you.

    For instance, I’m writing a new Regency that deals with Newgate Prison and the Old Bailey. That’s what my characters are dealing with/about more than 50% of the story. The experiences in prison and leading up to the trail are pivotal, so I’ve researched those elements extensively and made time to research as I laid out the story’s structure, so that I wouldn’t write myself into a corner, creating some climax or plot point that I couldn’t support historically.

    But there are other details in the story that I had to research too: names of East Indian trading ports, the typical layout of a tailor’s shop, the Bow Street Police station that came up in the writing process. Those minor details are important for accuracy, and I research them as needed, but I wouldn’t spend time and effort learning about the history of the East India Company because they’re details, not foregrounded items.

    Elyse

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    • Newgate and Old Bailey? Now you’ve got me interested. I write fantasy, so I often don’t know what detail I need until I smack my forehead against a knowledge glitch. I really like what you said about language being a part of the setting. I think that’s true across all genres. 🙂

      (BTW sorry I didn’t comment back earlier. I was in class most of today.)

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      • Definitely agree language plays a part in any style, fantasy included Would anyone mistake C.S. Lewis, J.R.R Tolkien or Tad Williams, for instance? No, because although they are all writing in the same genre, how they use language is very different ways. I always find it interesting, looking at a given author and decoding how they use words and grammar. It can be a really illuminating exercise.

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    • I’ve done similar research for my time travel historical. I had to research the way an old drugstore was laid out. Fortunately, my research is assisted by large numbers of photographs, complete with prices! I love to scrutinize the old photographs, looking for forgotten details.

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  5. Good post, Elyse, and good advice. I’m getting ready to attempt my first historical novel, although it will be set a lot closer to today than yours is. Your advice is pertinent and I’m printing it out for later reference! Congratulations on the launch of The Debutante’s Dilemma!

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  6. I’ve been working on a historical novel as well. It involves time travel, so I’m writing about multiple timeframes. It’s a lot of research, but so fun!

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  7. “other details in the story that I had to research…the typical layout of a tailor’s shop, the Bow Street Police station that came up in the writing process.”

    Elyse, could you provide an excerpt of the above, if you have one written already? I’d like an idea of how descriptive/relevant you believe these details should be. Thanks!

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    • Sure, Lyle. Bearing in mind of course that this is an early draft, here’s an example of the level of detail I’m applying in my current historical WIP. Everyone has different levels of tolerance and interest in these sort of things – some writers focus on the characters and only sketch in the backdrop in a few broad strokes. Others really burrow down and describe every nut and bolt. I fall somewhere in between.

      This book is different than “The Debutante’s Dilemma” because it is actually based on real events – think of it as a fusion btwn historical fiction and historical romance. So the level of accuracy is something I’m more aware of.

      Why don’t I show you some of the research I used to write about the Bow Street police, then I’ll give you the excerpt that it applies to? (It’s untitled, because I suck at titles, BTW :)).

      This 1808 engraving shows the interior of the space:

      This is a map showing the location of Bow Street in relation to Covent Garden and the theatre district:
      http://www.oldlondonmaps.com/horwoodpages/horwood11501.html

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    • The main character has arrived at the police station to make inquiries after her brother, who has been arrested by the Bow Street runners. This is new to her (and by extension the readers), so describing it is appropriate. She’s looking around; I wouldn’t use this level of detail for something familiar, like her bedroom

      The Bow-Street police station was not what [Hester] had expected. Inside crowds of people, prosperous and paupers, old and young, men and women, stood, awaiting their turn. The police wore no livery, and excepting their positions on the far side of the counters and desks, were indistinguishable from the criminals and petitioners who seemed to circulate in equal numbers throughout the large room. The tall beige walls were unadorned except for a plain clock and a rather grotesque bust of what Hester supposed to be Sir John Fielding, the blind founder of the notorious force, his homely likeness displayed with place of pride above the unlit stone fireplace.

      Wide green shades covered the high, deepset windows, no doubt in an attempt to keep out both the heat and the flies but it had the unfortunate side effect of casting all within in a peculiar greenish hue that hinted strongly at universal indisposition. Across the middle of the room ran a waist-high railing that divided the petitioners from the force and served to limit the size of the gathered crowds. A raised platform stood on the far right side of the room, overlooking a collection of desks and harried clerks while on the other side of the room, a high counter was nearly invisible such was the crush of men and women surrounding it.

      “Let us begin by making inquiries of the clerk,” Thomas suggested, and Hester was suddenly profoundly grateful both for the strength of his arm beneath her own and for the safety of his tall, strong form moving smoothly beside her. He led the way to the counter, threading them both through the thick groups of people, then waited patiently until the officer had finished dealing with the aggrieved complaint of a querulous old man, whose rambling account of his dealings with a pickpocket were not quickly dealt with.

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  8. Thanks, Elyse. I like the level of description you’ve provided for this scene based on the POV and the circumstances. I also like the research pieces you provided. Thanks again for sharing and good luck with this WIP.

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