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Historical Fiction – deadly sin no 6 – the Aura of an Era

Frans_Hals_-_Portrait_d'Isabella_Coymans
Frans Hals Portrait of Isabella Coymans (wikipedia)

One of the things that attracts writers of historical fiction, is the lure of the past – its costumes, its pageantry, its beautiful buildings and architecture, many imbued with a craftsmanship mostly lost to us today. Often great love and attention is devoted to describing these scenes in detail. In fact it is essential, to let the reader know from the outset whether we are in 1530 or 1830.

The trouble is, it is not these things that make a reader feel as if he or she is immersed in the past. The aura of an era is not conjured through describing its artifacts, although this does add atmosphere. The thing that really makes us understand we are in a different place and time is the attitudes of the characters.

If a character thinks that slavery is a welcome thing, then that sets our character firmly in another era. Writers are squeamish about this, thinking that readers will think these values from the past are their views. But surprise, surprise – the reader is perfectly able to distinguish between your fictional world and you. Writers also fear that the character will be unlikable, and that these views will alienate the reader. Actually, if handled sensitively, they will fascinate the reader. It gives the reader a glimpse of where we have come from – how far we have come in our thinking in the last few hundred years.

The aura of an era is portrayed mainly through the mindset of its people. By reflecting their concerns (‘Will the Dutch invade?’ ‘Will Henry’s men pull down our monastery?’ ‘Is the plague in the next town?’) we give a unique insight into a different society. So the society where men were encouraged to beat their wives was also the society which was passionate about defending ‘the weaker sex’, and the society where every man had to, by law, practice shooting arrows into a possible enemy, was also the society which feared literal brimstone and fire as the reward for taking another’s life. These contradictions within society form the inner struggle of your characters.

Adhering closely to the customs of the time lends reality, but can also lead to some difficulties in fiction. In earlier centuries women were not supposed to speak first, and had to defer to their ‘betters’. This can lead to female characters appearing passive and dull, as the society did not allow them to take the initiative. The solution is to give the reader the sense of that restriction – ‘She knew she should not speak, and yet she could not restrain herself. Her words burst forth in an angry torrent.’

The same sort of difficulties apply to the servant classes, and to anyone of perceived low status. But the answer to the problem is nearly always to use the restriction to give resistance and then show the character’s strength by having them break through those societal and cultural norms. It does not have to be open resistance – a secret rebellion can be just as effective. ‘She placed the mistress’s shoes side by side, left shoe to the right, and right shoe to the left. This small act of sabotage amused her.’

There is also a great article and discussion by Dave King on Writer Unboxed on making sure you take account of class, the structure of society which formed the bedrock of English history.

Others in this series:

Deadly Sin 1 – Melodrama

Deadly Sin 2  – Purple Prose

Deadly Sin 3 – Stuck in the Past

Deadly Sin 4 – Lost or Glossary?

Deadly Sin 5 – The Length of Time

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