Historical fiction and historical romance bring their own set of problems for an author. As an author I’m the only and supreme authority on my science-fiction world so what I say goes. If I’m writing in the current day, then my knowledge of idioms and manners is as good as anyone’s. Except I might have to research a sub-culture, but I can usually find someone who is a member of it to check that I’ve got it right. I might, of course, have to be a little careful about approaching the local chapter of the Hell’s angels for my motorcycle gang book, but that’s a minor distraction.
The past, however, is a different story, especially if you want to avoid slip-ups. It’s as alien to us as a colony on omicron-persei 8. The techniques for cooking, cleaning, and the loo, I use when camping or backpacking are not far off of what normal everyday people did in Jane Austen’s England. Except I don’t have a gozunda (chamber pot) – though mountain climbers and arctic explorers use something similar. Darcy’s banquets in Pemberly were cooked on an open hearth, possibly with a wood or coal stove, but certainly with dutch ovens and similar gear.
Clothing can be tricky and women’s clothes especially so. Not just in issues of fashion or forgotten items. What exactly is a reticule? Men’s clothing, except for buttoned flaps instead of zips, and drawstrings instead of elastic, hasn’t changed that much in fundamentals from the early 19th century. It was a bit different earlier, but not incomprehensibly so. Togas and armor might require a little thought. Buttons on breeches meant that it took longer to get them off than today. This is part of why boys wore skirts until they were old enough to ‘be breeched.’
There’s a non-purulent reason, however, that my pinterest board is covered with examples of women’s clothes, and patterns. Prior to the invention of elastic and the bias cut, women’s clothing was surprisingly different from today. (Being married I know something about modern women’s clothing.) Stays, a stiffened wrap, were worn around the trunk from the Middle Ages onward, only to be replaced with corsets, which were even stiffer, before being eliminated. These garments meant that women were much less flexible than today. Hoops and other stiffening devices came and went with the fashions. Hoops must have made life difficult, although they were excellent locations for smuggling during the American Civil war. Since it could be extremely difficult to get undressed in a hurry, women, ah. Let’s just say there was a good reason they rode side-saddle.
Slang, historical language, is a whole world of difficulty. There are a ton of resources for regency slang. Most of it is out of date thieves’ cant. Some of it are words that authors introduced to catch plagiarists. And all of it is a matter of fervent belief by one party or another. In addition to simply searching for “regency slang,” a good etymology site such as the online etymology viewer or the Google ngram viewer are invaluable. The ngram viewer is one of the best ways to find if a phrase really was used in the period you’re writing in, at least if it’s after 1800. Using a Jane Austen example, Darcy is a rare name which only becomes popular after the 1940’s, while Fitzwilliam was much more popular in the Regency than it is now.
It’s critical to have your characters use the correct slang for their social status. In the Regency, a ‘gentry mort’ might know what that phrase meant, but would certainly never use it. Nor would she say ‘a bunch of fives’, ‘ready rhino’ or ‘blue ruin.’ The central difficulty is to include enough period language to capture the feel of the time, without using so much that it is incomprehensible to a modern reader. It’s also important to use modern sentence structure and pacing rather than mimicking the style of the times.
A similar difficulty occurs with anachronisms. A period author would not write about mundane and routine events. They would write about events that were unusual or added color to the characters or the story. Neither Jane Austen nor Ann Radcliffe write much about changing horses – The only time I remember more than a passing mention in Jane Austen’s work is when Lady De Bourge remarks about mentioning her name when changing at Bromly. The modern equivalent would be, “Use these 5p off vouchers when you fill your car up at the Tesco’s in Bromly.” Still getting details like this wrong can spoil the story. So research is critical. A modern author should add some of the mundane details to their work – the details that a period author wouldn’t – simply to help set the stage and make the story more believable to an audience that would not understand those details as a given.
About The Author.
International man of mystery, able to split infinitives with a single bound, faster than a speeding semicolon, and equally inept in several languages, including hieroglyphics, R. Harrison has taken a break from making the world safer for computers to write sweet romantic and historical fiction. A mild-mannered professor by day (hey, it’s a job), a dashing author by night, and an all around great guy, he writes his own biography. Some parts of which might be true. He’s written under several pen-names, but most recently his own and with booktrope.
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