Susan here, and today the Wenches answer a question we asked ourselves. We're all historical fiction writers, with plenty of variation — Regency, Georgian, Victorian, Tudor, medieval, romance, mainstream, fantasy, paranormal, mystery — more than one of us has dabbled in writing contemporary settings too.
So we got to talking, as we do, and the question came up —
Why do we write historicals? Some of us write contemporary too. Why or why not, and what's the difference?
I write anything that strikes my interest. I started in historical romance because those were the books I knew and loved, and because history fascinates me. I’d spent years researching English history simply to better understand the English literature I was reading. And since I lived in an area with a wealth of history, writing about that area gave me permission to waste more time digging through old books and visiting historical sites. I adored—and still adore—being able to combine work and play.
But there are some stories that simply don’t fit easily into a historical perspective. I wanted to address current issues, current situations, and to do that, I started scribbling on my contemporary romantic mysteries. Again, I got to explore Santa Lucia and California and other wonderful areas to research my stories. Writing about mental health or the environment or computer hacking just doesn’t fit into historicals!
And then, of course, there are the paranormals… but I digress. It happens—a lot.
Cara Elliott/Andrea Pickens:
The great children’s author/illustrator Maurice Sendak was once asked why he wrote what he did. His answer (I am taking artistic license and paraphrasing) was, “I would love to write the Great American Novel, but when I sit down to tell the story in my head, it comes out as a pig talking to a dog who has just swallowed a mop.” I feel a little like Sendak—my stories just seem to take shape as historicals. I’ve always loved the history, and find it fascinating to explore a time period in the past and learn about all its nuances. I think one of the things I find appealing about historicals is that even when you have collected a lot of research facts, you have to use your imagination to piece them all together. (I tend to have a very vivid imagination.)
I haven’t yet written a contemporary. (Well, actually I have, a long time ago, but it’s one of those “Back-Of-The-Desk-Drawer” manuscripts that will remain buried under stray chewing gum warppers and paper clips.) Which doesn’t mean I won’t. In fact, I’m currently noodling on an idea that involves a contemporary setting. It’s early yet, and I’m still not sure whether the Muse and I are on the same page. But it’s fun to try something new, even if it ends up in the desk
Why do I write historicals? Because I read them, of course! I read a lot of other things as well, including non-fiction history, but I was addicted to Georgette Heyer and chomped through all the modern Regencies at the library when I discovered them. So when I bought my first computer and decided to see if I could write a book, what came out was a Regency.
The Muse has wandered into contemporary and fantasy over the years, but I always come back to historicals. I love the way stories can be over the top and characters larger than life, and history provides such nice conflicts. In other words, historicals are fun!
I write historicals largely because it's what I mostly read, and have all my life. The exceptions are fantasy and science fiction, which are mostly not "now", and mysteries, where I'm fine with contemporary for some reason. I do read contemporary romance, and I'm liking the New Adult style, but I'm not even slightly tempted to try to write like a today's twenty-something! Even as a child I was drawn to anything historical. My very first effort was a medieval romance, and when I settled to the matter more seriously fifteen or so years later, I happily followed Georgette Heyer into the Regency, though I was always determined to do my own research and come up with my own take. A degree in British history helped. As Regency has always been popular, that was a happy choice.
In the mid-eighties, as I set to learning the craft, I was in a romance writing group where everyone else was writing contemporary, so I tried my hand at that and quickly found that it wasn't my genre. One problem is that in contemporary I lean quickly to realism and social issues, which is fine, but not the entertaining fiction I like to write. Another is that I have a more historical voice. A third is that my "now" is rather complicated. I was born and raised in England, but after living in Canada I knew I was out of touch with contemporary Britain. However, I still couldn't claim to be really in tune with contemporary Canada, and the more popular setting was the US. I felt much more comfortable in England's past.
So basically I do what I like to do and which feels comfortable, and feel no urge to explore alien, and rather scary, territory.
Why do we write historicals? Some of us write contemporary too. Why or why not, and what's the difference?
When I started writing as a teenager I was drawn to romantic suspense. I suspect I was heavily under the influence of Mary Stewart and so my first attempts at writing my own stories were “women-in-jeopardy” in exotic places – I remember that Norway was one of the settings. It all seemed impossibly romantic and exciting.
As I grew older, though, my favourite reading matter increasingly became historical novels and historical romance. I simply could not get enough of history. I read historical fiction and non-fiction voraciously, I visited historic places, I watched costume dramas on the TV and I studied history at school and later at university. The world of the past fascinated me far more than the present so it felt natural that when I started writing in earnest I would choose to write historicals.
My first attempt at a book was set during the French Revolution but I also tried out a story set during the 15th century Wars the Roses, as my first historical hero was Richard III. I moved on to reading about the Tudors. My stories moved on to the 16th century. Then I discovered Georgette Heyer and was enchanted by the witty world of the Regency. That was where I stayed, with occasional forays into the 17th century and the Edwardian period. Writing historical fiction felt like the right place to be, the time and place that inspires me.
That said, my new dual and triple timeline novels do feature a contemporary thread alongside the historical ones. I’ve found this far more difficult to write and have to work very hard at it. The historical stories always draw me back. They feel a more comfortable place. The past is where I want to be.
When I first started trying to write romance I tried contemporary romances, but with the limited variety available in Australia, I hadn't come across any that were my cup-of-tea and those early attempts were pretty lame — you have to write the kind of books you love reading, after all. Then I saw some books with characters in Regency-era dress on the front and I thought — "Oho!" See, I've been reading and re-reading Georgette Heyer novels since I was eleven. You might say I was practically raised in the Regency era. So I started writing a Regency-era novel — and that became my first published book, Gallant Waif (now available as an e-book.)
A few historicals in and I came across some funny contemporary romances, and I thought "Oho!" And I wrote a contemporary romantic comedy. Had a ball doing it, and it was published, but shortly after that the line closed. I still wanted to write contemporary romantic comedy, and I had plans for a series, but I'm not a fast writer, and a friend in-the-know advised me to stick to one or the other. So historicals won. I still have a hankering to write contemporary rom-com, and maybe one day I will. I do read contemporaries — I'm on a new adult binge at the moment — but I also read a lot of historicals, fantasy, crime — you name it. But I love sinking into the richly textured world of a historical — somehow life seems bigger, brighter, bolder more interesting there, so historicals have my heart.
The major difference between historical writing and contemporary writing is the language.
I do not feel constrained by historical characters. There was just dazzling variation between town and country, rich and poor, French and English, young and old, liberal and conservative, in 1802. You got yer lass gathering kelp on the seashore in Wales, skirt kilted up above her knees, and yer Young Miss of the Ton who blushes if she shows her ankles. There were so many kinds of people. And I'm purposely writing about unusual historical people — spies and smugglers, assassins, eccentrics, scholars, idealists, business managers, and thieves. So I have lotsa leeway.
I have less leeway with language.
My words have to lie within that 80% of the useful vocabulary we share with 1800. I can cheat a little and certainly Mistakes Are Made, but, on the whole, I'm trying to stick to authentic spoken language.
Do you have any idea how many wonderful words are late Nineteenth Century? Really, I want to jump through a time portal and start strangling Victorians. Or Crime Vocabulary. It's all C20 and American.
So the long and short of it is, I feel happy writing historical people and places and problems but being careful about period language about drives me nuts.
I love history, always will, and its the people in those centuries that fascinate me the most – I'm so very curious about them. I know the contemporary world around me, I live in that, but I don't feel a need to write about it. What I want to know more about are eras that I don't live in. From the time I was a kid until now, I've wanted to know who these historical people were, what life was like for them, what motivated them to do the things that have come down into the history books (and especially the things that haven't, the things we figure out as historians and history fans). This love of anything historical stuck fast and grew. The first book I wrote (or attempted to) at age 12 or so was a medieval – or what I thought was a medieval – and as I went through graduate school studying medieval art and history, the fiction I was writing on the side was medieval too. Write what you know, so they say – or write what you love! I've ventured as late as Victorian, and as a writer I'm most comfortable in other centuries.
I've played with contemporary, but only to see what it felt like. Didn't stick with it – I got bored with the every day (and it's important to get those details exactly right in contemporary if it's something you're not familiar with, so it's not that easy!) — and anyway, I was far more interested in the considerable historical threads in that unfinished story; someday I may pull that out and plump it up as another historical. I do read contemporaries now and then, mysteries and some romance; sometimes a character wearing jeans and eating pizza is just a relief to read about… and Mary Stewart (by now her settings are historical) and a couple of other contemporary authors are comfort reads. But historicals are my comfort write!
Your turn! As a reader or as a writer – which do you prefer, historical or contemporary or something else entirely? They all have wonderful merit. We're all so individually and particularly tuned.