By Raelene Gorlinsky
Okay, you’ve researched the period in which you are setting your historical story. You are sure that your characters are wearing appropriate clothing, traveling in the right kind of carriage, even speaking appropriate slang. They don’t flick a lighter for their cigarette, use non-stick cookware in the kitchen, or have polyester clothing with zippers. So you’ve got it right? Wrong. What you may be producing is a “wallpaper historical”. The term refers to stories where the correct “things” and look are there, but the characters and possibly the plot action are not an accurate reflection of the times.
True historical accuracy includes reflecting the social mores, behavior, attitudes and dialogue of the people in the specific time period and geographical location. To be believable, your characters must think and feel and react the way people did back then – not like a modern person just dropped into that time.
We are all the result of the society in which we are raised. A medieval man was biologically identical to a 21st century one, but his mind was filled with completely different knowledge, what was important to him was not the same, the options that would even occur to him in any given situation would be different, as would the choices he made. And I’m sure teenagers have been burdened with excess hormones and overblown emotions since we became homo sapiens, but the way they reacted to that would not have been the same then as it is now.
Some eras, most notoriously Georgian/Regency/Victorian, had very structured and rigid rules that were part of the culture and governed society. The rules were based on a person’s social class, gender, age, and marital status. Acceptable behavior for an unmarried young woman versus married lady versus widow were different, for example. Any breaking of society’s rules would lead to social disgrace and other consequences. This was especially true for the upper classes.
It was the appearance, the public conformance to the rules, that was critical—what went on in private could be very different. Yes, characters in historicals can indeed do things that were "wrong" by society's rules. That's a standard feature in such stories. But two things must be present to keep the historical accuracy:
~ the character has to know that what s/he is doing is improper and could get them in trouble.
~ if "caught", the appropriate consequences must occur. Social disgrace or ostracism, loss of position or money, forced engagement, whatever.
Here’s a scene: Your 18-year-old heroine is out shopping, and sees a majorly luscious guy walking in her direction. She realizes he’s one of her older brother’s friends, and she’s dying to meet him. As he passes her, she says in a friendly but not pushy way, “Oh, hello. Aren’t you Devlin Devereux? I’m Thomas Tremaine’s sister; I’ve seen you with Tom.” Seems okay? It is if your character is shopping on Main Street USA today. But if she is on Bond Street, London, in 1820, she is asking to be given the cut direct, to become a laughingstock and be snubbed by the ton, possibly be banished to the country by her embarrassed family until society forgets about her improper behavior. Not only shouldn’t your young lady have been so forward as to approach a man to whom she has not been formally introduced by a family member or other proper person, she likely wouldn’t have even thought of doing such a thing – she was raised with the social rules and restrictions of her world, and her mind functions within that. What would have sprung to her mind on seeing this desirable guy would have been something like hinting to her mother that brother Thomas might introduce a few of his moneyed and marriagable friends at the next ball they attend.
Say it over and over: historical characters should not act like modern people.
Something to watch out for is individual or group behavior that is a reflection of modern custom. For example, after dinner, the members of a household in past did not all go off and do their own thing. Fires to heat a room and lamps to light it were expensive. Either the whole family gathered in one room, or the gentlemen in one room and the ladies in another. Young children were not usually present; they’d been sent upstairs to bed.
Also take into consideration what legal options the characters, especially women and minors, had available to them. Many an historical story has been ruined by women doing things that they just would not have been able to during that time period. Could your character really have gone to a bank and withdrawn money? Hired and fired household staff? Made decisions about managing her property? Remember that for most of history and in most parts of the world, women were nothing but property themselves. They were “owned” by their father or husband. They had no control over their money or property, they had few legal rights. The extent to which they could make decisions or run things was limited to what their “owner” allowed them.
Dialogue: Just because you’ve put some period terms in your characters’ mouths does not necessarily make them sound right. Now, don’t get carried away – a whole book filled with dialect drives a reader crazy. Do not write a dinnacanna-type story, for example. A little bit of slang or dialect to set the tone is fine, then cut back on it. But make the speech patterns and common language historically accurate. How do you do this? Read lots of text that is original to that period. Especially letters written then. They reflect the “voice” of the people of that time.
Oh, and by the way, while you were doing all that research you DID go to primary sources, right? Wikipedia does not count, nor does reading something in another novel. You have to find the original source of the information in order to be sure it is correct.
So, share your stories of books you've read where unfortunately the wallpaper had no walls to stick to. Or most especially the books you recommend because the author did get it right.