Wednesday, June 24, 2009

'Now and then': making the past seem present

How to create a living past in a historical or contemporary romance is always a challenge for me. We all live both 'in the moment' and in the past of our memories and experiences, and in my writing I aim to transport my readers to another past, whether that past is recent or long ago.

This is what I do to aid the rebuilding of the past, and what I would suggest is useful.

1. Read the contemporary accounts of the period: sagas, chronicles, Books of Hours, histories, autobiographies, biographies, newspapers. magazines, letters, local histories, children's books. Absorb the style of the language used so that you can 'echo' it in your work - not always as a direct recreation, more a flavour. Note the popular expressions, the slang, the attitudes. Then you can have your characters speak some of the slang and reflect some of the attitudes.

If available, you can also look at films of the time, radio and TV broadcasts, postcards, photographs and the messages scribbled on the backs of photographs. Again note the rhythms and kind of speech, the attitudes and beliefs, the fashions and settings. Your local history library may have an oral sound archive or local history archives. You can go there to listen and to look. Street names can be treasure troves of history and evocative in themselves. Keep an eye out for them and use them if you can.

2. If writing about the recent past, talk to those who lived through it. Ask them specific questions. What was X like? What was it like, working and living then? How did people feel? What do they remember? Again, the local archives and newspapers may be a fund of information for you.

3. Use language in the straight narrative of your fiction that does not date - unless you are attempting an entire re-creation of a period by using the language of the period. In speech you can use the slang of the time, or what you feel could be the appropriate slang of the time. Georgette Heyer did this in her Regency historical romances: she devised what she felt could pass as expressions of the time, thereby adding intimacy and immediacy to her work.

4. If writing about more distant times, be careful of using a lot of olde-worlde expressions that may actually 'break the spell' of your now-past. You can suggest a present-past by putting in occasional expressions that imply a flavour of the time. Also your characters can reflect certain common attitudes of a period via their thoughts, actions and speech.

5. People have not changed so much yet in 35000 years. We still feel the same emotions: love, hate, fear, passion. The more you create living characters, the more you will transport your reader with them into the world of their sorrows, fears, hopes, dreams, wishes, aims and loves.

6. Put the reader into the past with you. Let them savour the flavours, music, passions, fashions, the main ideas and ideals of the time. Thread in these references. If some are difficult and offensive to present day audiences, then perhaps you can places such ideas in the minds and mouths of your secondary characters, or of your main characters if you can make your lead characters compelling and appealing in other ways. Have your characters humming a popular song, or drinking frothy coffee, or eating fondue or their first prawn cocktail. Seize upon those items, songs, fashions, flavours, that tend to 'sum up' a period for present-day readers. Make it personal, too - allow the reader to feel with the character how a mini-skirt feels, how constricting a corset is, how heavy and hot a suit of armour. Always show and give the reader the experience of being and living in your 'now' past.


LDee said...

Hi Lindsay,
I haven't written a historical but have one that's been in my head for a long time. I especially #5 People have not changed so much yet in 35000 years. We still feel the same emotions: love, hate, fear, passion. The more you create living characters, the more you will transport your reader with them into the world of their sorrows, fears, hopes, dreams, wishes, aims and loves.
on you list.

I read Flavia's Secret and loved it you do a great job of bringing the reader into the time period.


Lindsay Townsend said...

Thanks, Lavada! I'm so thrilled you enjoyed 'Flavia's Secret.' It is one of my own favourites: I loved doing the research for that book.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Lindsay, thanks for giving us these great tips for researching historicals!

lainey bancroft said...

Excellent tips, Lindsay! As I've mentioned before, I'm in awe of your ability to submerge yourself in the 'time' and get all the details and unique nuances right.

I love reading historicals but I don't know if I'd ever attempt to write one. I fear I'd get so sucked into the research that very little writing would occur.

Linda Banche said...

I like your comment #4--to use undated standard modern English in the narrative and then to use the period speech in the dialog. As you note, this works only if you don't go too far past. Nobody speaks even Middle English anymore, so you can't use it.

And there is more to language than the vocabulary. Cadence and sentence structure also vary from period to period, and you can give an idea of an era using these, too.

Lindsay Townsend said...

Hi Jacquie and Lainey and Linda - thank you for the lovely feedback and comments!I hope people do find it useful. I agree, Linda, about use of language and the 'feel' of language and length of sentences, etc, to evoke a sense of period.

Janice said...

Hi Lindsay,

Very good advice.


LK Hunsaker said...

Wonderful suggestions, Lindsay! I know how well you use them from reading A Knight's Vow. :-)

I especially like #5. How true is that?!

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