Hello! Birthday! Fun! Fabulous Isobel Carr! Rest! Wonder!
World Building isn’t just for Fantasy novels …
One of my favorite aspects of writing historical fiction is also one of the most challenging: crafting a world that’s steeped in historical detail but still accessible to a modern reader. Creating a believable historical world is every bit as challenging in my opinion as creating a fantasy one, with the added concern that people can actually fact check your choices. So if I use the word “scrum” to describe an unruly crowd, I can be called out on the fact that I’m 100 years too early. But if you say your vampires can walk in the sun (or sparkle), people may not like your choice, but they can’t document that you’re W.R.O.N.G.
The first challenge in my opinion is becoming really well grounded in the “feel” of the period. For me, this includes reading a lot of history, both general and topic specific, reading novels from the era, reading period journals, newspapers, court transcripts, etc. Really getting to know the era backwards, forwards, and sideways.
Because if you want to craft a believable historical world, it’s not just the BIG details you have to get right (date of the battle of Waterloo, which Lady Jersey the Prince Regent had an affair with, the current countess or the dowager) it’s the minutia of their everyday lives (ale for breakfast, the subtle restraint imposed by a corset, how distance is very different when you’re traveling by carriage or by foot as opposed to train or car).
An additional concern is that some things that seem natural and normal to a modern (and often American) writer wouldn’t have been done when and where the book is set. Iced tea for example, while technically possible to create in the Georgian era, given that they had ice houses and tea, wasn’t drunk then, and really isn’t drunk in England today. It’s an error with no bearing on the plot, but it’s also a flashing neon sign declaring that the author doesn’t know their period as well as they should and possibly isn’t all that familiar with England in general.
On top of all the factual stuff you have to nail down, comes the trick of understanding the social mores of the time period, which can be quite hard to really grasp, and which, just like today, were not monolithic. The “rules” for how people had to behave varied by class, gender, and within those groups by the “set” you and your family belonged to. This is the area of world building which is the most fun, but also the most fraught with danger. What would the real world consequences have been for your plucky heroine offering up her virginity to a lusty rake? Or deciding she didn’t want to marry, but wanted to open a shop of some kind instead? Can you find any real world examples? Can you extrapolate from a documented mésalliance? From people’s opinions about a family whose bad luck led to them having to go into trade?
Many readers (and authors) seem to base their understanding of the Georgian/Regency world on things like the works of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. While both these authors are well worth reading and even studying, it’s worth noting that they have their problems as “guides”. Austen wrote about the gentry for the most part. Not a duke to be seen in her books. The closest we get is poor Sir Walter the baronet and Mr. Darcy, the earl’s grandson (who is VERY grand by Austen standards). And Heyer, whose books I adore, still has a sensibility that leans more toward the Victorian or Edwardian than the Georgian (read Making Victorian Values if you want to see what I mean). We all know pendulum tends to swing from staid to licentious and back again. Late Georgian was a licentious period, late Victorian very stuffy (but with the predictable underbelly of kink) and then the Roaring 20s came along and went right back to licentious … so whereas we often think of the Regency as a period in which one public kiss could ruin a girl, the fact was they had a party game called “Guess the Lover” that was nothing but kissing. Hard to imagine that under the steely eye of an elderly Queen Victoria, but very easy to see it at a party full of flappers.
So on my birthday, I’d like to raise a toast to all the fabulous authors out there who go the extra mile to give us historical fiction that we can lose ourselves in. Cheers!