Here’s a quirky little historical oddity…. While bus routes in modern cities seem commonplace today, the first urban public busses were in London in the nineteenth century. They were horse-drawn, with a driver sitting up out at the front and passengers in a long enclosed carriage behind. There were no formal bus-stops – indeed, at that point there wasn’t even a rule about what side of the road a vehicle should drive on – and amidst the din of the thronging metropolis the driver could not hear when the passengers if they called out for him to stop. So, a system was invented whereby two ropes were strung up in the carriage, one on each side, running up to the driver and attached to his arms. If a passenger wanted to stop on the right side of the street, he or she would pull the right hand rope and the driver would feel a tug on his right arm; if passengers wanted to stop on the left, they would pull on the left; if the passenger pulled hard enough it might yank the driver’s arm, causing the vehicle to swerve.
Any historical period is full of these wonderful, wacky little details, and the more one reads about how people used to live the more utterly alien the past appears. The quote that “the past is a foreign country – they do things differently there” is an understatement. Most historical settings may as well be distant planets.
For anyone writing stories or novels set in historical periods, this sounds like a wonderful opportunity – these marvelous settings are so rich with detail! But in reality, this is a major headache.
If we are telling stories that people can enjoy, then they have to be able to understand what’s going on. The story shouldn’t get bogged down in details – if a lady crossed the road, she crossed the road; nobody needs to have the story halted to learn the techniques a Victorian woman would use to avoid dragging her long skirts in the muck of London’s filthy streets. And there shouldn’t be anything happening that doesn’t make intuitive sense – in reality the centre of Victorian London was so noisy that people simply couldn’t hold a conversation as they walked down the street, but to use that in a story would require a lot of exposition, and would just strike modern readers as weird.
So, what to do?
On one hand, if we try to show the period in all its marvellous strangeness, we have to spend pages explaining details that slow down the story.
On the other, if we just ignore the reality of the setting, then the world becomes a bland, sanitized, dull Hollywood version of the past – where 21st-century people in fancy dress move through a 21st-century world with Victorian set-dressings.
How any writer approaches this is a matter of taste, and the genre they’re writing for.
A lot of people want “historical” settings to be superficial – remarkably similar to the present day but with pretty frocks. Others will happily pen or read insightful explorations of the complexities of past social realities.
For those of us in the middle ground – trying to be honest about the setting without getting too serious or bogged down – there is a balance to be struck. How do we use the setting, and be true to it, without it becoming a burden? How do we avoid lying about what the past was like, how do we keep the setting interesting, and still keep it accessible?
I’m actually very lucky in one regard – and that is the genre that I’m writing. I’m creating erotic mysteries with supernatural elements. And of those three aspects – erotica, mystery, the paranormal – two of them help signal that this is not the real world. Erotica is inherently fantastical (no, those characters do not have realistic sex-lives – they have spectacular sex-lives: there’s a pretty strong hint there that this is not realistic). And as soon as we have supernatural elements in play, that’s a hint that what you’re reading shouldn’t be taken as a history lesson.
But still, having chosen a historical setting, we want to get mileage out of it, don’t we? We want to use the rich material that history has provided, to use that to make the story better.
Here, the trick may be to acknowledge and to reference, but never to have to explain.
For example, I’ve just finished Sexual Sorcery, an erotic mystery set in Victorian London. In one chapter (the sample chapter of is here http://mysticerotica.com/sexual-sorcery/ – reader discretion advised, explicit sexual content) we have a character bemoaning the stultifying assumptions of middle-class Victorian life, a discussion of a man who has fallen into poverty and who might have to resort to the workshouse for support, and then at the end a conference between the two main female characters which takes place in a courtyard away from a main road, where they discuss the hypocracy of a gentleman whom one has just seduced. In other words, it uses and references the historical details of the setting, without over-explaining anything.
It isn’t necessary to describe what a workhouse is – it’s enough to know from the conversation that it must be a pretty dismal place for a Victorian pauper to end up. We don’t need to discuss Victorian morality – it can come out in the dialogue. We don’t need to specify that the women have had to duck away from the main street to find a place quiet enough to speak, we can just mention them finding a quiet courtyard and leave the reader to infer the rest.
As a result we can evoke the period, using it to make the story and setting more interesting, without having to explain anything. The key should be to weave the history into the story without anyone really noticing – so that we get a rich, interesting setting without ever slowing down the plot. In other words: how much history do we want in historical fiction? As much as can be woven seamlessly into the novel, but not so much that it ever has to be explained.
Details and excerpts of the books mentioned above can be found at Mystic Erotica: http://mysticerotica.com/erotic-stories/
Sexual Sorcery is available for Kindle: http://mybook.to/sexualsorcery
Make sure to follow the whole tour—the more posts you visit throughout, the more chances you’ll get to enter the giveaway. The tour dates are here: http://www.writermarketing.co.uk/prpromotion/blog-tours/currently-on-tour/c-m-fontana/