Thursday, 26 June 2014

Meeting Places

One difficulty when writing fiction with a historical setting is coming up with ways for male and female characters to spend time together. 

With upper and middle class characters there are the well-used settings of balls, assemblies, dinner parties, country house parties.  Chaperonage was not as strict as some Regency novelists suggest; in Jane Austen's novels it was acceptable for a young woman to walk and talk with a man  in the town or country. Darcy twice entered a room where Elizabeth was alone and on each occasion stayed long enough to have a conversation with her. 

Among the working classes, men and women might have the same workplace - a factory, a farm, an inn. By the end of the nineteenth century, when more employment opportunities were opening up for women, men and women might be employed together in a school or an office or a department store. 

Young men and women from the middle classes and better off working classes  might belong to local or workplace based clubs and societies where they could meet and socialise.

Couples who were recognised as 'walking out' together might have more leeway in what they could do.

But what about men and women who were in none of those situations? What does a novelist do with a respectable young woman who lives in a rented room where it would be inappropriate to entertain a male acquaintance? When neither she nor the man in question has a family home, or none nearby, to which someone can be invited for Sunday tea? 

They have to do what many other people did in the past, and meet in public places.

Many people's homes in the past were small, overcrowded, poorly heated, poorly furnished. As a result, a lot of social interaction took place outside the home. The pub, of course, was the most popular meeting place for both men and women. In 1891 there was one licensed house for every 276 men, women and children in England and Wales.  These ranged from backstreet alehouses to opulent gin palaces. 

Coffee houses existed from the late seventeenth century. Some, such as Edward Lloyd's, catered for a business clientele and were less likely to be frequented by women. There was a wide range of other establishments, operating day and night, some more salubrious than others. 

In the Victorian period, public parks and open spaces were becoming available, but were really only practical in daylight. 

For many people in the past, life was lived on the street. Eating, drinking, talking, working, playing, singing, dancing, quarrelling, fighting, all took place in public, often because people did not have the space or the facilities to do these things indoors. 

Conflict arose in the Victorian era when middle class suburban development collided with working class neighbourhoods, or when holiday visitors arrived in traditional coastal communities. Sometimes, traditional entertainments were suppressed due to outrage at the rowdy and immoral nature of the proceedings.

For the middle classes, and the better off working classes, domestic life was the ideal, exemplified by the family life of the Queen and Prince Albert.

 This was something more people could aspire to, as standards of housing improved and people could afford to furnish their homes more comfortably. Entertainment at home or healthy, educational outdoor pursuits were seen as preferable to life lived in public. 

All of this can be used as a source of conflict in a novel. Meanwhile, the two characters in this particular piece of work will be spending a lot of time in coffee houses or just walking the streets together. 

Friday, 20 June 2014


When should writers of historical fiction disregard historical accuracy in favour of clarity for the reader? Or. to put it anther way, how hard should writers expect their readers to work in order to follow the narrative?

General advice is that writers should not underestimate their readers; that readers like to work things out for themselves and do not need to have everything explained in detail. On the other hand, some readers can't, or don't want to, do that. I don't want readers to think I have been inaccurate, or to be put off reading, because I have made things over complicated in the pursuit of strict historical accuracy.

In Inheritance of Secrets my heroine visits Tonbridge, a market town dating from the Middle Ages if not earlier, and Tunbridge Wells, a spa town four miles from Tonbridge which developed from the middle of the seventeenth century.

Those spellings only became fixed in the late nineteenth century. At the time the book is set, Tunbridge was the more common spelling for both places. The Kent historian Edward Hasted, who was writing at that time, used Tunbridge for both.

So should I have used Tunbridge to refer to the market town for the sake of historical accuracy? But readers who didn't know of the variation in spellings might think I had been inaccurate! In the end I decided on the modern spelling, in order not to distract readers from the narrative.

In the work I'm currently preparing for publication, my contemporary characters are reading some historical documents. At the time these documents were (supposedly) written, the year would have been expressed in Roman numerals. Will readers who aren't familiar with Roman numerals be put off by this, and by the spelling and punctuation (or lack of it) likely to be found in documents of that period?

I want to include the actual text of the documents, for a  variety of reasons. The characters will reiterate the main points of information in the discussions they have after they have read them. I hope readers who have no trouble following the archaic style of the documents don't consider this to be repetition and dumbing down.

Writers of purely contemporary fiction don't have this particular problem, but any novelist who uses specialist knowledge as part of the background or setting for the story must address the question of how much to explain. There will always be readers who think the writer has gone too far in one direction or the other. The most important thing is to be sure that readers can follow the development of the plot.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

How to write dialogue

Or how I write it, anyway. All writers have to find methods that work for them, by experiment and practice. 

If I have two or more characters in a scene, I generally like to have them talking to each other, unless there are good reasons why they should not be. If they are hiding from their enemies, for example, and need to be quiet. 

Or perhaps nothing important to the plot is happening at that point and including the whole conversation only slows down the action. If the characters are discussing where to go for a meal, it's probably enough to say 'They decided to go to the Italian restaurant in the High Street' and pick up the dialogue again when there is some important plot or character development. 

I have included dialogue in a novel that might have appeared to be unnecessary, but it was a mystery and there was a clue hidden in the characters' apparently aimless chatter! 

Scenes involving more than one character which include big revelations about plot or character should always (in my opinion) be written in the form of dialogue. 

I'm not a great planner, but if it's an important scene I usually sketch an outline first, to see how I'm going to get the characters to the point they need to be at the end of it. My outline might look something like this:

Jane - Uncle Matthew was worried about something.
Robert dismissive
Jane has read Aunt Maria's diary, so she knows it's true (shows Robert the diary).
Robert - Maria was a batty old lady - or words to that effect.
Jane - How dare you talk about her like that! Storms off. 

This scene moves things along in several ways. Robert now knows that Jane has the diary. The reader is left in doubt as to whether Aunt Maria is a reliable witness and Jane's concerns are justified. Jane and Robert  have parted on bad terms and Jane might be less inclined to confide in him in future. 

Once I'm satisfied that the outline takes the scene in the direction I want it to go, I'll write it out in full, establishing the setting, including any of the characters' thoughts or actions that are important, and writing  each character's speech in a way that suits his or her personality. If Jane is a confident person, she'll make definitive statements. If she's more hesitant, she might phrase her remarks in the form of questions or say 'I think' and 'perhaps'. 

A character who has had little education is likely to have poor grammar and a limited vocabulary. A pompous character might use a lot of long words and speak in convoluted sentences. 

The setting will also influence the way characters speak and act. Jane and Robert's conversation will be different depending on whether they are in  Aunt Maria's drawing room, on a country walk, in a noisy, crowded pub or at a formal dinner.

What is most important is that all characters should have their own distinctive voices or ways of speaking. Even if Jane Austen did not tell us who was speaking, the reader would never mistake Mrs Bennet's speech for that of Elizabeth or Lady Catherine de Bourgh.