Judi Lynn/Judith Post recently wrote a blog about ten steps to make your mystery better and started off with “kill somebody.” I can’t think of any opener to top that, so will just start off with the things I look for and try to incorporate in historical fiction to make it believable and immediate. Because that’s the point, isn’t it? To immerse the reader in a world that has been before.
How often do we see the same man or woman over and over in a story and nothing changes but their eye and hair color? In reality, people don’t look the same, even when they look sort of the same. People are unique. So should characters be. It’s best if they possess the kind of personality you’re drawn to, but perhaps you prefer the challenge of finding a way to make a somewhat off-putting man or woman sympathetic to the reader. But an initial connection must be made from the get-go and that’s kind of difficult if they have the charisma of yesterday’s pancake.
The Four Es of Character Building
Entice, entrigue, engage, and excite. This doesn’t mean making them attractive. It means making them accessible. They should have traits and personalities similar to the human conditions that haven’t changed over the ages. We all have baggage. Give them reasons for reacting the way they do when “showing” their responses, instead of just “telling” or explaining them on the page. Lets’ just get over it. We’re products of our environments until we do something about it. Give your protags some emotional warts so you can show how they’ve grown (removed) them by the end of the book.
Mary Balogh’s more recent regency works are peopled by the challenged. Her characters have been blind, lame, deaf, suffering from disabling war wounds, including PTSD. The ubiquitous fiesty heroines and sardonic men have become tedious, which is why Balogh is considered the comemporary queen of historical regency. Her people have the problems, joys, and triumphs we understand and seek, or find lacking in our own lives. They have some amazing emotional warts to overcome.
The Three Cs
Complication, conflict, conclusion. You better have all of these nailed. Throw in some juicy subplots while you’re at it to pick up the pacing and tension. If dried up of ideas on how to inflict misery on your beloved protags, there’s always a nasty or annoying family member. We’ve all got one.
An opening incident that involves one or both of your main characters must suck us into the storyline, establish the time period, or atmosphere, and most importantly, get the reader invested in the primary charatcers.
More and more we’re seeing historical stories striving to tweak genre themes to fit into a niche market or category. In doing so, the story can become secondary to the magic of creating a period piece or just a dang good story. The deliciousness of sinking into the past can get lost from its primary goal by forcing conformity to a parameter. It’s vitally important to keep the time period immediate, to bring the reader into that world, become saturated by the surroundings. In other words, don’t lose sight of the magic of the site, the joy of being there.
Know your history
OK, so I have a pet peeve about blatant incongruity, like women in corsets doing impossbile physical feats while wearing what should be more accurately called a torso vice made of whalebone or metal slats. It’s impossible to lounge, leap over small buildings, or mount a horse via stirrup without creating a puncture wound. Regency versions (stays) were not quite as viscious as the later, Victorian versions.
Incorporating the etiquette of the time period makes it real, the necessary realities. Calling cards were vital social accourtrement and came with a precise set of rules. A card corner turned down meant the card was delivered personally. It was the most convenient way for both parties to find out whether or not your company was welcomed, or more kindly told to get lost, when there is no reply to the card.
Men went up stairs before women for many reasons but most often to spare them the display of their ankles. Then there’s my always favorite, wait for it…clear vision in rooms where no candle or lamp is ever lit or extinguished.
Even though strict rules were ingrained, behaviors/actions considered not done often were during the regency where gossip had lethal results. A great deal was written about people like Lady Caroline Lamb (flagrant adultery), Brummell (viciously insulted his prince), Lord Byron (too raunchy to list), and Jane Austen (dared to write and evetually use her real name) to list a few. When the Victorian Age descended, the not done stuff still happened, it just got shoved underground.
So many rules, so little time.
If you would like to read Judi Lynn’s excellent advice, here is the link to her blog:
M.L Rigdon (aka Julia Donner)
Follow on Twitter @RigdonML