Saturday, 26 November 2011

Creating believable historical fiction characters

Thoughts on Creating Believable Historical Characters

So far, I have only written historical novels set in England, but regardless of when and where a novel is set the characters must be believable.

Before I start writing a historical novel I name my characters. I find The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names invaluable.

Even then, I can go wrong. For example, in my work in progress set in Edward II of England’s reign I named the hero’s father, Marmaduke. Someone who critiques my chapters pointed out that Marmaduke is the name of a popular cartoon character in the U.S.A. To be on the safe side I checked in the Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names and found out that Marmaduc was mentioned in the Assize Rolls in 1219 so I renamed my character.

It irritates me when, for example, a character is called Wendy prior to 1904 when J.M.Barry first used it in Peter Pan. It also causes me to lose faith it he author.

After I name my characters I create a detailed profile for each major character. Later, as I introduce other characters, I create a simple one for each minor character. This helps me to breathe life into each protagonist.

Amongst other things in the profiles, I describe the character’s physical appearance, background, and, if necessary, regional accent. In dialogue, I indicate the accent and try not overdo it. (I’ve noticed that some authors who set their novels in Scotland use words such as ‘aye’, ‘ye’ etc., so often that it is irritating and makes the dialogue difficult to read.)

Other considerations are financial circumstances, home life, education, and relatives who assist or obstruct my character.

Characters’ behaviour and attitudes need to be in accordance with the historical period that a novelist has chosen. In my opinion, and others may disagree, a novel in which the characters act like 21st century people transported back in time. Before I begin a novel I work my way through a pile of reference books in order to understand contemporary attitudes and beliefs.

I also need to understand the ramifications of class. For example, in my mediaeval novel an earl wants to dress his mistress in opulent clothes but obeys the law governing what different classes may wear. Status is another important consideration. The earl’s mistress (a villein) plans and plots ways to gain her freedom.

Another important consideration is the position of women in society. Other than widows, did they have any control over their property? Did they have any say in the way their children were brought up? What were the differences between women from different classes? Something a novelist needs to bear in mind is that throughout the ages, women have been controlled by men due to factors such as family ties, financial considerations and the law. If a woman chose to defy her father, legal guardian or husband, what would her situation be? Without masculine support, how would she survive? Another question that needs to be answered is how men regarded women.

A historical novelist needs to know how those in the chosen era regarded the world around them. What did they think of foreigners, other religions, education, war, etc? For example, depending on when the novel is set, and to name a few issues, what were the attitudes towards the Roman occupation, Wars of the Roses, the dissolution of the monasteries, the Roman Catholic Church, the British Empire and the 1st and 2nd world wars.

There are many other things to consider, including the clothes which were worn. I was very amused by a young woman in a novel who ran for a mile in spite of tightly laced stays stiffened with whalebone and full skirts and petticoats.

There are many traps for the unwary novelist but with careful research most of them can be overcome.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Madleine Grown Up by Mrs Robert Henrey

I have finished re-reading Madeleine Grown Up. the sequel to The Little Madeleine in which the authoress, Madeleine aka Mrs Robert Henrey, writes of her life as a child in Montmartre and elsewhere in France. Madeleine Grown Up covers the period from 1928 to 1929 when she worked as a manicurist in the Savoy Hotel. Her observations of life in Stacey Street, where she shared a room with her mother, who continued to work as a dressmaker, are fascinating and so are those of the Savoy, her clients and members of staff.

For example, she writes movingly about Davy the page, who would stand with his back to the door while Madeleine and the other manicurists sewed or darned their stockings while singing No,No, Nanette, Lady Be Good or Yes We have No Bananas.

“Davy never stopped. When the bar was open customers would send him off for cocktails; others wanted cigarettes or theatre tickets. The cashier sent him to the A.B.C with a tumbler for her afternoon tea. Hew used to race back across the busy Strand holding the steaming glass in a serviette, dodging in and out of the traffic, diving under the nose of our tall commissionaire, then balancing his precious cargo on the tips of his fingers, push through the swing doors. We all liked him. Fifth or sixth of a very large family, he had a passion for a baby sister to whom for Christmas he had given her a perambulator, costing twenty-two shillings for her doll. He would have liked to buy a bed for the doll and he was saving his sixpences and shillings, but the Strand was full of temptations when he and Georgie” another page “ would glue their faces against the windows of bicycle shops, the shops that sold photographic apparatus and the postage stamps and all the other things dear to boys so that the money Davey had set aside for his little sister’s doll’s bed was broken into sometimes, and a conflict raged between brother and growing man.

“Both boys were tiny. Their delicate limbs and faces whitened by the slums were their chief asset in life, their charm, their stock-in-trade They looked like plants brought up in hot-houses….”

Mrs Robert Henrey’s books are alive with memorable people who populated her world.

She also makes her most mundane experiences interesting.

“As there was no cloak-room attached to the shop, my colleagues and I had the right to use the very luxurious one reserved for the famous grill-room. The woman who guarded this fortress did not arrive till eleven, so that all the morning, or at least for the best part of it, this palace of marble or white porcelain and tall mirrors with its Niagara of hot water was almost my own….The tall mirrors caught me, handing me from one to the other. My little black dress was poor, but my magnificent shock of blonde hair shone like a ball of fire under the myriad electric lights. ….Now for the wash basins with the gallons and gallons of hot water….was it not reasonable to wash my stockings? Soon, being of a practical nature, I washed my lingerie.”

Madeleine’s blonde hair, energy, enthusiasm and French accent attracted many admirers at the Savoy. Amongst them was a Hollywood film magnate who sent photos of her to the studio and arranged for her to go to America. However, she met Robert, her future husband at the Savoy. On the following evening he took her out to dinner and kissed her in the taxi. Madeleine chose love instead of Hollywood and, after a long illness when she fought against death in the Pyrenees, she returned to England hoping her mother was wrong when she said that Robert would have forgotten her.

While travelling by car in France, Madeleine and her companions passed through “…small white villages scorched by the sun. …one did not see anybody except an occasional little old woman all in black sitting on a cane chair, her feet in black stockings and black shoes on a footstool, a cat asleep behind geraniums on the window-sill, and hens pecking around her. How happy she must be! I seldom saw such a wizened old woman without thinking this, and hoping one day to be contented and happy… Yes, she (the old woman) must be happy! May I end my days with the orange cat, the geraniums and the pecking hens!”

Cured, Madeleine returned to England where Robert met her at the railway station. Before long they married in St Georges, Hanover Square.

Mrs Robert Henrey’s biographies and autobiographies fascinate me. I plan to read as many as possible and share some of them on my blog.

Rosemary Morris
Historical Novelist

New releases from MuseItUp Publishing
Tangled Love set in England in Queen Anne's reign 1702-1714 27.01.2012
Sunday's Child set in the Regency era 06.2012

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Challenge of Writing Historical Fiction

All the good advice given in books on how to write fiction is applicable to writing historical fiction.

Writers must enjoy writing even when they encounter obstacles. This is particularly true of writing historical fiction. Historical novelists require a profound interest in all things historical.

The historical novels that I read more than once sweep me into the activities and ‘mind sets’ in a way which I enjoy.

When writing historical novels I enjoy recreating times past and presenting plots and themes unique to the country and era that I present to my readers.

Thomas Carlyle 1795-1881 wrote: “No great man lives in vain. The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” (Today, he might have written: Great men and women.) To add veracity to my fictional characters I either mention or allow historical characters to play a part. In my forthcoming release Tangled Love Queen Anne, the Duke of Marlborough and his wife, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough have their place. All too often, there is not as much information about less important people as a novelist would like. However, imagination is any novelist’s best friend, and a historical novelist can people novels with colourful but imaginary characters.

History, or Herstory, interests me and provides more ideas than I have time to develop; but what is history? One of the definitions in Collins English Dictionary is: “A record or account, often chronological in approach of past events, developments etc.” Thomas Carlyle wrote: “What is all knowledge too but recorded experience and a product of history; of which, therefore, reasoning and belief, no less than action and passion, are essential materials?” Yes, indeed, these are the heady ingredients which historical novelists can incorporate in novels.

For various reasons many people’s knowledge of history is scant. For example, Charles II, the merry monarch, is fairly well known but his niece Queen Anne is not. Yet most people are interested in the past even if history did not interest them at school and they chose to study – for example – computer studies, catering or modern languages. Programmes such as Dontown Abbey, the first two parts of which have been shown on television in the U.K., has attracted a vast audience. No doubt they will generate further interest in the era prior to and during the 1st World War. Undoubtedly, this interest will increase the sales of fiction and non fiction relevant to the period.

Last week, in my blog about Writing Historical Fiction, I referred to my dislike of novels in which history is ‘despoiled.’ Fiction must entertain, but it is also the author’s responsibility to reveal past times and interpret history as accurately as possible. There should be much more than dressing characters in costume and allowing them to act as though they are twenty-first century people. For example, when writing about countries in which Christianity predominated, religious conflict can provide a powerful theme but faith and attendance at church is often ignored.

Rosemary Morris
Historical Novelist

New Releases from MuseItUpPublishing
Tangled Love 27.01.2012
Sunday's Child 06.2012

Sunday, 6 November 2011

How I Write Historical Fiction

How I Write Historical Fiction

Although there are books on the subject of How To Write Historical Fiction, which are useful, I am sure that novelists develop their own techniques.

I read history books and sooner or later something triggers my imagination. For example, I read that most of the English nobility disliked James II, his politics and his religion. After James fled to France, first his older daughter, Mary, and her husband and then her younger daughter Anne succeeded to the throne. Some peers refused to swear oaths of allegiance to James’s successors during his lifetime. Their refusal provided the historical trigger for my novel Tangled Love, first published as Tangled Hearts, which will be released on the 27th January, 2012.

After I decide on the period for a novel, I compile a chronological timeline with a narrow column on the left with the heading Date and two wide columns on the right with the headings National and International events.

Two of my dislikes when reading historical fiction about real or imaginary characters are historical inaccuracy, and characters who do not act in accordance with their time. Recently, I began a reader’s report on a historical romance. The first two chapters were so full of flaws that I returned it to the author with the comment that, although the plot is interesting, she needs to concentrate on research before rewriting it. I really don’t enjoy novels by authors who despoil history.

While I am working on a novel, I begin my research for the next one. I read about the economics, politics, social history, religion, clothes and everyday objects as well as reading fiction and poetry pertinent to the era. By the time I have finished a novel I have completed the groundwork for the next one in which I will use only a fraction of the information I have garnered. The advantage of such thorough preparation is showing the reader life as it was through my characters in an interesting way.

The more I research the more I realise how different modern day attitudes are to those of the past. However, even if attitudes and surroundings are different, we share the same emotions, love, ambitions, hope, hatred, envy, grief, hopelessness and misery.

As well as a difference in attitudes, there is also a difference in language which is a trap for the unwary author who should avoid sprinkling a novel with ‘la’, ‘methinks’ and ‘gazooks’ etc. In my novel, Sunday’s child, set in the Regency era, my well-born characters speak formally without contractions. In Tangled Love I use a few words such as oddsbodikins that give the flavour of speech in Queen Anne’s reign, and I avoid anachronisms.

I enjoy researching historical fiction through reading and visiting places of historical interest, including gardens, and also enjoy bringing the past and its people to life in my novels.