Ask-a-Wench: Why That Era?

Photo by Dariusz-Sankowski from Freerange Stock.

Susan here, with our Ask-a-Wench question for March: Why do we choose to write stories set in particular eras? Our books are set across time periods (including ancient Rome, Viking, Celtic Scotland, early and later Medieval, Tudor, Restoration, Regency, Victorian,  contemporary) and across genres (romance, mystery, historical fiction) and a range of locations too. We research deeply and know our eras and areas very well. We want our characters and situations to fit seamlessly into those time periods, and that takes work, dedication, and love for what we do!

Here are some thoughts on why we choose these times and places to set our stories:
What attracts you to the era(s) that you choose to write about?

Nicola says:  As with quite a few other authors, I started off writing Regency romance because I was totally in love with the period as it was conjured up by Georgette Heyer and others. The more I explored it the more I was fascinated by the era and its contrasts. There is a fairytale aspect to it as well as the appeal of a time when good manners and good behaviour were lauded, but of course like any period of history there was a dark side as well. I wrote one book set in the Edwardian era, which I was intrigued to find had strong parallels to the Regency.

I have a fondness for the Tudor period as well, probably ignited by the larger-than-life characters that dominate it such as King Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth. However, my favourite historical era is the seventeenth century. This is largely because of the influence of my work at Ashdown House which has totally drawn me in to the complicated and turbulent world of roundheads and cavaliers, and the terrible conflict of the English Civil War which tested people’s loyalties beyond their limits. That makes it a fascinating era to write about, full of courage and passion. Perhaps the fact that it is less popular or well known as the Regency or Tudor period also attracts me – so many more stories to uncover!

Pat here:  I started writing western historical romance because, at the time, I lived in the Midwest and knew the history. But what I read most was British literature  and Regency romance. I have no idea why I was so fascinated with the Brits, but I’d long been learning their history before I put pen to paper. And I’d lapped up every Walker Regency in our town library.

So when my editor asked if I could write a Regency, I did, and never looked back. I’m not sure why the era appeals. I don’t think it was any more peaceful or gracious than any other period, but the romances I read portrayed a wonderfully polite society guided by particular rules and language that suited my need for structure, apparently. The pretty gowns didn’t hurt. The idea of unpinning and unbuckling and untying all those garments in other eras. . . Ow. And then there’s the problem of sitting down in crinolines!

I’ve dabbled in other eras, not all. I could never write pre-Civil War because too much horror followed. I didn’t write the Victorian era for decades because I found their morals horribly perverse. Not until I worked with psychic heroines could I play around in that time period—because the Victorians really loved spiritualists. And now I’m back to Regencies again (Crossed in Love is one example) because again, the structure seems to work neatly with mysteries—and let’s face it, the law was wild and woolly, and I don’t have to write a police procedural. They didn’t even know the meaning of post mortem in 1815! Unless one was a physician, of course, and not many were.

Christina:  Well, you only have to say the word Viking and it instantly conjures up fierce, strong men – the perfect heroes, so what’s not to like? Movies like Thor and TV series like Vikings help as well (yes, Chris Hemsworth and Travis Fimmel have a lot to answer for!). Seriously, though, as I grew up in Sweden, Vikings and their history and sagas were in my blood. I learned all about them at an early age and they made a huge impression on me. At first, I had the stereotypical view of them as fearless and violent marauders, who plundered and took whatever they wanted without regard for the people whose treasures they looted. As I began to read more about them, however, I came to realise that they had been much maligned. The men who went raiding were in fact a very small minority, and most ordinary Scandinavians (or Norsemen – they didn’t call themselves Vikings) were either peaceful farmers or intrepid merchants. They travelled far and wide in pursuit of trading opportunities, their amazing ships second to none. They were skilled at navigation, superb craftsmen, and their laws were fair (as long as you weren’t a slave/thrall). And best of all, women had more rights in their society than anywhere else, their contributions valued.

So all that attracted me to this era, which was an exciting one in other ways too as there was a lot happening everywhere. I keep returning to it and I can’t see that coming to an end any time soon!

Mary Jo here. It’s an interesting question: Do I write Regency because I’d read so much Georgette Heyer and other Regency writers? Or did I love reading them because I loved the era?  The chicken or the egg? But I do find the Regency era endlessly fascinating.  It was a time of intense change as the Industrial Revolution altered how people worked and lived. It was also an age of political change with revolutions in America and France. There was also a Good War where Britain and many of the other nations of  Europe fought Napoleon, one of the greatest and most effective tyrants in history.  All of these things offer wonderful research rabbit holes and tremendous settings for stories. From comedies of manners to the fields of Waterloo and much, much more, there is no end to the possibilities.

I also have a fondness for the early Victorian period when the world opened up to travel and exploration and new technology.  That era is the setting for my Bride and Silk trilogies. I’m not so fond of the medieval period–much violence and no decent indoor plumbing–but I wrote one of my favorite books, Uncommon Vows, because the story wouldn’t work in a more civilized era. I guess that ultimately what I care about most is the story.  Then I find the place where it works best.

Andrea: Like many authors, I was first drawn to the Regency through reading Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. I found the balls, the country house parties, the fancy dresses, the elegant Mayfair mansions and drawing rooms such an alluring setting for endless comedy-of-manners plotting. But the more I read about the actual history of the era, the more I came to love it for the complexity and contradictions. Beneath the outward appearance of timless tradition, Regency Britain was actually in the midst of monmentous change. It was a world aswirl in silks, seduction and the intrigue of the Napoleonic Wars. Radical new ideas were clashing with the conventional thinking of the past. People were questioning the fundamentals of society, and as a result they were fomenting changes in every aspect of life. Politics, art, music, science, social rules—the world was turning upside down.

Romanticism was taking hold, bringing a new wave of individual expression. Beethoven was composing emotional symphonies, Byron was composing wildly romantic poetry about individual angst, Turner was dabbling in impressionistic watercolors and Mary Wollstonecraft was writing the first feminist manifestos. Technology was disrupting everyday life as the Industrial Revolution began cranking into high gear. Interest in science was exploding as people were suddenly wanting to understand the world around them and how it worked—geology; the workings of the heavens; the mysteries of the sea. People like Alexander von Humboldt, now considered the father of ecology, and Charles Darwin of evolution fame were starting to look around at flora and fauna and ask Why, Why, Why?

In so many ways, it was the birth of the modern world, and for me, its challenges, its characters and its conflicts have such relevance to our own times.  (Painting by Joseph Wright of Derby; courtesy of the Yale British Art Center)

Anne here. I’m pretty sure Georgette Heyer is the reason I write Regency-era novels. Having started reading her at the age of eleven, I feel almost as if I was brought up in her world, with its conventions and restrictions — and most of all, her humor. As well, the Regency era has so much going on with great contrasts — the war against the forces of Napoleon, glamorous balls and elegant fashions, poverty and all that it entails, and at the same time great riches and the kind of lifestyle where whole estates could change hands on the turn of a card.  As well we have the developing Industrial Revolution, a new wealthy class growing and wanting entrance to high society, and the snobbish reaction of aristocrats to this (which I really enjoy exploring.) As well, the British Empire was growing and travel was increasing, making it possible to set Regency-era stories, at least partially, in countries other than the UK, and I have, with stories set partially in Egypt, France, Italy and more.

All of these contrasts and conflicts are great fodder for novelists, and though I might get an occasional idea for a story that would only work in say, the medieval period or another, there are still so many Regency-era stories jostling in my brain that I don’t think I’ll be leaving the Regency any time soon. (The Heiress’s Daughter, Book 3 of The Brides of Bellaire Gardens)

Susan here: Just about every century draws me in for one reason or another, though I gravitate toward medieval and so far have written novels set between the 11th and 16th centuries (I should add up front that I’ve also written Tudor, Jacobite, Regency and Victorian, all set in Scotland!).  Medieval fiction can be a research challenge, but I resonate with that after years of graduate studies in medieval, and staging that research and those stories in romance fiction lets me treat the subject chivalrously–the concept of romance really started there. I can idealize the grittier aspects of medieval life by cleaning it up a bit and avoiding details like battles and bloodshed and who bathed or did not (the Scots were said to be unusually fond of bathing, which helps!). I once strategically used a latrine chute to provide an escape from a castle…. I love medieval castles and medieval style – lovely gowns for the heroines, and long-haired knights in long surcoats. I love medieval literature and art, forest outlaws and rebels – truly I want to write about heroes and heroines who break rules to take risks for the greater good. I like playing with themes of truth, justice, good vs evil, integrity – and I love the spirituality of mystics and the chance to play with superstition and paranormal aspects in an era when people were more inclined to believe such things were for good or ill. 

Writing medievals gives me a chance to help characters change and grow beyond the conditions of their lives – especially female characters!! – and I get to rewrite some bad circumstances (such as Scotswomen cruelly caged by the English king). Writing Lady Macbeth (btw, now on sale in ebook!) gave me a unique chance to revise and bring historical accuracy and authenticity to a medieval woman who has been maligned and misunderstood (granted Shakespeare wasn’t looking for historical accuracy!).

And I love writing stories set in other centuries too, so I’ll keep writing Scottish Regency and other settings. I confess I did not read Regency fiction early on, drawn instead to Ivanhoe and Arthurian and fairy tale literature (I came to love Austen later, but I confess I’ve only read one or two Heyers and didn’t go back); there are some stuffy aspects of the Regency era that don’t thrill me. Beyond eras, I set most of my stories in Scotland, which is a powerful draw for me in any era. The nature and attitude of Scots and Scotland will always have my heart!

How about you? What eras attract you in your reading or in areas you research or write about? 

16 thoughts on “Ask-a-Wench: Why That Era?”

  1. Like many if you i grew up reading Georgette Heyer, but also I loved her stories, language and humor. I also loced the sxrlet Pimpernel stories, swashbucklers by Sabatini and others. I was attracted first to the 18th c with its beautiful clothing, manners and almost fairy tale quality. I read a lot about it, both fiction and non fiction, anything i could get my hands on down to the littleless detail. Despite the darker side that i discovered, it js still an era that retains an aura of swahsbuckling romantic style. I discovered the Regency period soon after and was drawn in by the societal aspects, the balls, the courtships, the structure and manners of “polite society” the comedy of manners and situations that revolved around it. As i read more about the period, I became fascinated by how much was actually going on at the time, great discoveries and inventions, political upheavals , crises and changes, the on going wars with Napoleon. So iety was both static and ever changing. I am not sure why, but i became an ardent Anglophile and anything was grist for the mill(that us nit ti say i did not resd about the period in other parts of Europe, but not nearly as deeply) and i still enjoy reseraching and reading about various aspects of the period. I am still amazed at how much of our modern day world has its roots in the early 19thc.

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    • Jane, this is all so very true. A great research book I consult for my writing is called THE BIRTH OF THE MODERN by Paul Johnson, and he shows so many of these connections from then to now.

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  2. Georgette Heyer introduced me to the Regency period. And then Jo Beverly…and then…and then…but I read a lot and have lots of other favorites, like Sherlock Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey. Never stopped reading. At least 55 years of devouring these books, although before then, I read all the kid’s books in the library. My parents took my library books away as a punishment….and believe me, it was. I was forced to read the books on my parents’ bookshelves. For me, the child psychology book was the most helpful, because I knew when they were trying to use it….

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  3. Georgette Heyer certainly has a lot to answer for. And then there is that pesky Jane Austen.

    I like history. A lot. Not sure why but British history seems to appeal a great deal. Maybe it is ’cause they have so much of it. But, I also like American history and French history.

    Maybe I just like all the fashions . Whatever it is, I am simply grateful for each of you and the books you write.

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  4. Most of my romance reading was limited to the early gothics-until a friend handed me a book: The Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer. “See if you like it” she said. I didn’t like it-what a pallid word. I devoured it! I enveloped myself in the Regency Era, which was made morel to me than Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Eventually, I read several medieval, including books by Kathleen Woodiwiss, Roberta Gellis and of of course, Mary Jo’s Uncommon Vows. Then quite a few years later, I visited the Victori an era, thanks to Lisa Kleypas and Lorraine Heath. I love the way authors-at least the very good ones – make the eras they write in -and inite us into- both real and relevant.

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  5. I can’t remember the first Georgette Heyer book I read, but she took me to a world that lead me to a time that filled my soul as few other books have done. And since, I find myself comparing most that I read to Ms Heyer. While I appreciate many current authors when they divulge from a more accurate portrayal of the time period or add situations that are unlikely to have occurred, I find myself debating if I want to give the author the respect of their hard work in they writing to continue reading a book or them as an author. There are some time periods that I particularly enjoy: highlanders, Elizabethan, 1400-1815 or so. I’m not much interested, although I do read them, in the late 1800s or early 1900s. I’m not sure that I think authors know those time periods well enough to successfully use them as background. But bottom line give me a book that is interesting, fun, honest, I’ll read it.

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  6. There are eras/areas that I over-read years ago (Scotland, Vikings, and strangely, New Orleans), so only a particularly compelling story will have me return to them. For all the regency stories I’ve read (and I read over 100 Barbara Cartland novels along with Georgette Heyer in my teens), I am usually happy to read more. Futuristic stories interest me, too! If one of the Word Wenches writes a futuristic romance, I will be first in line.

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    • Kareni, I thought I was over Viking stories too — so many of them followed the same pattern — but then when wench Christina published her first Viking book, I read it because a) I’d read most of her previous books and enjoyed them, and b) I was supporting a new wench. But her Viking books were not at all like those others I’d read. The history and research was fascinating and it took me to Viking places I’d never known about before. So I bought and read them all. And I’m not saying this just to support Christina — when I recommend a book it’s always entirely honest.

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  7. For me it is the attraction of two individuals overcoming adversity that is particularly attractive in a novel. Historical context isn’t that important and I am happy with any period including the future, though I do have a particular fondness for Western romance, cultivated initially through the novels of Catherine Anderson and Rosanne Bittner. The mix of adventure with romance led me to some of Mary Jo’s work and from there I found that the high adventure could be dispensed with if replaced by a gentler conflict as in many Regencies. So to authors like Mary Ballogh. The wenches provide a nice mix with Vikings, peninsular wars, mysteries and social conflict …. as a Brit I also feel blessed that so many superb romances are located in areas that are familliar to me!

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