Mindset and Language in Historical Romantic Fiction
19th Vs 21st Century in The Clearwater Mysteries
This week, I read a blog post titled ‘How do you read historical romance?‘ written by Joanna Chambers, author of MM Romance novels such as ‘Unnatural’ and the ‘Enlightenment’ series. I found the post of great interest and very well written, and a paragraph towards the end made me wonder about my own historical fiction.
Joanna’s post first discusses what makes a reader exercise willing suspension of disbelief (a phrase coined by Samuel Coleridge, a fact I never knew until reading the post). Later, she talks about the mindsets of characters, and we’re talking about historical fiction here, remember, not contemporary. The part of the blog post that made me stop and think was this:
“I will admit to not much liking characters who appear to have wholly 21st-century mindsets and who seem not to struggle at all with being at odds with the society they live in. I like to see the characters in historical romances having to wrestle with the norms of their time…”
I stopped and thought, ‘Do mine do that?’
I mean, do my Clearwater characters have 21st-century mindsets and do they struggle with the norms of their time? I asked this because I have read historical fiction, both MM romance and not, and have put books down after a couple of chapters because a) the language doesn’t fit the period, and b) the mindset doesn’t fit the period, and sometimes c) because there were too many clichés, but that’s another matter. Knowing that I’ve been critical of others’ work, I started to wonder if I was a pot calling out a kettle (to carefully ‘PC’ a phrase attributed to Don Quixote, and later, an anonymous poem published in a magazine in 1876), and I had a think about how I have written the Clearwater Mysteries.
Do my characters have a 21st-century mindset?
Well, yes and no. When writing the books, I am always aware of what surrounds the characters, and I mean not only the landscapes but the politics, the expected norms and the etiquette. They are the ‘shell’ that encloses all characters, particularly those who exist either side of the baize door. As Thomas (Payne, the butler) calls it, ‘The great divide.’
And there’s where my 21st mindset comes in. Archer (Lord Clearwater) and Thomas grew up together, they are a similar age, Thomas came into service at eight and Archer was allowed to befriend him when his authoritarian father was absent. The friendship they formed back then grew and came perilously close to a teenage love affair. By then, Thomas was a footman, and Archer was the Honourable Archer Riddington, so the gay thing aside, a friendship should have been out of the question.
Even when Archer takes the title of viscount, he is still held back by the ‘great divide’, although one wonders if Tom and Archer shouldn’t be the couple living together in love. That can never happen because of the expected norms of the time. A butler and viscount being so personally close was definitely not expected in the later 19th century.
But two men being friends (possibly more) is entirely within the mindset of MM Romance, or, as the Clearwater Mysteries are, romantic MM fiction.
Archer’s liberal views are progressive, and his perfect world would be one without this upstairs/downstairs divide. He treats his servants as friends, and if he had his way, there would be no baize door.
I think what I am trying to say is, if characters in the novels spoke and behaved exactly as expected in 1888/1889, there would be little or no room for what holds the Clearwater Mysteries together; the bonding and friendships between the characters, particularly the men.
Take the relationship between Silas Hawkins and James Wright, for example. Read book four, ‘Fallen Splendour’, and you would be forgiven for thinking that what these two young men have is a ‘bromance’, a word that only came into use in the past ten years, and one which does not even appear in my 2006 OED. So, it’s not a word I could use in the stories, and it wouldn’t have been a ‘mindset’ of the time. It’s my job as an author, to convey the emotion and state of ‘bromance’ so the reader can relate and engage, but without the characters actually calling their friendship a bromance.
Which brings me on to language
Joanna’s post also made me think about language. There are two languages in my novels, that of the narrator and that of the characters in dialogue.
My characters speak with today’s attitudes (so readers can relate), and yet in a language that is appropriate to the period. In book eight (due out later in September), Jasper Blackwood behaves like today’s typical teenager, except he spends his time playing a piano not an Xbox, but his language is period-appropriate. For example, when James is trying to understand Jasper’s teenage sulk, Jasper says, “As I see it, Mr Wright, an older gentleman has me trapped in my bedroom, and he is inappropriately dressed. Some would consider this improper.’ James doesn’t have him trapped, but he is wearing a dressing gown, and if this was a modern scene, Jasper would be far less polite!
Language is where we have to be careful. While rereading one of the earlier stories in the series, I was horrified to see a character use the word ‘Okay.’ I was sure I’d checked this usage, but further research proved that the word didn’t come into use until around 1926. Oops! I am continually checking words and phrases to make sure they were in use in the late 19th century, and sometimes have to change the dialogue to fit. Researching chemistry and medical matters for book eight (‘One Of A Pair’, due out at the end of September) proved interesting as I was dealing with a batrachotoxin which, after consulting with my brother, a chemist, I learned was a phrase only coined in the 1960s, so that was out. I invented a term of my own instead.
What I try to do with my Clearwater mindset and language is to engage the reader with a modern mindset while telling a story set in the past. Contemporary attitudes are present, so the reader doesn’t feel detached from the characters and places, but they are bound by time-appropriate situations and expectations. Hopefully, nothing grates as being to 21st century, while the language remains free of Victorian clutter, though believable, allowing the reader to suspend their disbelief and get on with enjoying a good, romantic adventure.
I know I have wandered from Joanna’s original points, and if you want to read the article that inspired this post, you can find it here: How do you read historical romance?
Author page UK https://www.amazon.co.uk/Joanna-Chambers/e/B00MB8JFDM/