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Getting Details Right For The Era In Your Historical Novel, by Paul Dowswell

Setting a story in the past convincingly is one of the greatest difficulties for writers of historical novels – aside from creating memorable characters and a rip-roaring read, of course.

The British TV hit Downton Abbey has recently been rightly criticised for including such modern day turns of phrase as ‘a steep learning curve’ in its dialogue. I don’t watch Downton Abbey but it does irk me that productions that put so much effort into making their sets and costumes look wonderful could be so careless with their language.

Whether I manage to get my eras to feel right is entirely up to the reader to judge, of course. Not calling your First World War soldiers Colin, Ken and Ray (20s and 30s names) or Wayne, Lee and Kevin (60s), or having them say ‘cool’ or ‘whatever’ is the easy bit. Mine, in my book Eleven Eleven, were called William, Axel and Eddie. What’s far more difficult is trying to think yourself into the mindset of each of your characters and imagining how other characters are going to react to them. You have to constantly bear in mind how different people were in the era you’re writing about.

My Powder Monkey books, set in Nelson’s Navy, were a constant challenge. We’d think food aboard those Navy ships was disgusting but the Tars were pleased to be fed a hearty meal three times a day. (The expression ‘three square meals a day’ comes from the Navy – the sailor’s plates were square-shaped.)

In Cold War East Germany, which I’ve recently written about in my book Sektion 20, changing the buttons on a jacket, in a bid for a little individuality, was considered a frowned-upon bourgeois indulgence and the Berlin Wall was the ‘Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier’. Escapers were ‘border violators’. It’s an ugly mind-set but trying to capture it was part of what made that book so interesting to write.

Of course, the further you go back, the more alien the mindset. Here’s just a few of the issues I had to bear in mind when I wrote my Powder Monkey trilogy, set between 1800 and 1805:

The idea that people’s positions in society were part of the natural order of things: “The rich man at his castle, and the poor man at his gate, God made them high or lowly, and ordered their estate.” – All Things Bright and Beautiful. Officers and ordinary seamen must have seemed like different species to one another, which is why Tom Paine’s Rights of Man – advocating modern ideas on democracy, equality and the abolition of hereditary government – was thought by most of the ruling class to be dangerous treason. Possession of such a book on a Royal Navy ship would be considered highly seditious and merit a flogging.

The position of women in society was very different. I‘ve tried to make my girls and women as realistic to their era as possible, and I have been criticised for having ‘wimpy’ female characters. Women in historical fiction are often feisty, independent-minded characters. Of course such women existed in 1800, but they were few and far between.

Race is also an absolute mine field for a writer who’s trying to stick to historically accurate speech. I can’t even mention the everyday words that were commonly used in 1800 to describe people of different races, because they cause so much offence. So I had to search for acceptable equivalents.

Just about everyone was religious in 1800. Even the worst of bad men sang lusty hymns and prayed fervently on their way to the gallows. On the subject of which, going to executions was a common day out for all the family back in 1800. I find this really disturbing but I suppose it was just part of the brutality of the era.

There’s a whole book in this topic, of course, but I think it’s really important to get these details right. When I write a historical novel I am trying to create a real world in my readers’ minds. Anachronisms, whether in speech, names or attitudes, will leap out at readers and spoil the setting I am trying to create.


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Powder Monkey: Adventures of a Young SailorSektion 20Eleven ElevenAuslander     QuestBeware, Princess ElizabethThe Tenth Gift

Writing Historical Novels

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. blythegifford1 #

    For a writer, the attitudes are a particular challenge. If we are strictly historically accurate, we will alienate our contemporary readers who are unlikely to be able to identify with a mindset that seems so alien. It’s a delicate balance to be accurate but still accessible. Yet another reason so many heroes, and heroines, are unusual for their time.

    April 21, 2013
  2. Simon Barnes #

    Thanks, Paul. I enjoyed this article. The devil, as they say, is in the detail. I was amazed (and amused) at the “steep learning curve” in Downton Abbey. Not being a fan of the series, I hadn’t heard that one before. How on earth did that anachronism slip past the script editior? (I wonder if they also spoke about “leveraging their global synergies” or being in a “win-win situation”?)

    April 21, 2013
  3. Thanks for your comments, Blythe and Simon.

    Blythe, I absolutely agree – you do run the risk of alienating your reader if your hero or heroine has historically accurate prejudices. (You might equally find yourself appealing to quite a different section of the market – judging by online comments on news stories in many newspapers!)

    Simon – I love going into schools but I’m constantly being reminded of how little 13-14 year olds understand about the world before they became aware of it. I’d be curious to know exactly when today’s 13/14s think the internet, texting and mobile phones were invented. (Babe, OMG, hav wun gr8 bttle @ Tflgr, but shot in shldr, ROFL, Nlsn.)

    April 22, 2013

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