Whatever the genre or period or culture you write about, you’re absorbed in creating that world for the time it takes to write your novel and then again when publicising it.
Creating that world is a complex weaving of things that are blindingly obvious and things that are so subtle, you won’t be aware you’ve done it and your readers certainly won’t.
I’m currently writing historicals set in the early nineteenth century. They could be called Regencies, although the WIP is set in Edinburgh in 1826 by which time George was King in his own right. Creating that world has had many strands.
The Actual History – useful secondary sources
First up, there are the actual history books. When I began Uni in the late sixties, I had to read a book called The First Four Georges by JH Plumb. It remains on my shelf as a ready and easy source of dates. I’ve also got others, many others, and anyone writing in an earlier time will have their own favourites.
Creating the World, however, is so much more than knowing the facts The wonderful Mrs Hurst Dancing by Diana Sperling b1791 and text by Gordon Mingay, is a collection of drawings made in the period of that world I’m creating. It shows the activities of the leisured classes. What they were doing to enjoy themselves, who participated and what they wore are set out. My writing space is festooned with postcards I’ve bought when visiting various museums and preserved mansion houses. How does a neck cloth actually sit around the male neck? Well, there it is in the wonderful Family Scene, artist unknown, of 1815-20. Likewise the carriage: I’ve had nothing to do with horses, but there are pictures of carriages and curricles showing how the horses were harnessed – and how the heroines had to hang on for dear life.
Costume collections are also an inspiration. The wonderful national collection held by the Royal Museum of Scotland at Shambellie House in Dumfries and Galloway has taught me so much about the presentation of the female form. I enjoyed a hilarious visit with some writing friends when we established just how restricting a corset would be. Some of us couldn’t even get into one. I haven’t ever seeen a Dark Ages dress, but they look so much more restricting with the long sleeves and wimples. For the writer, the point is not in ooing and ahhing over the colour, quality and cut, but in absorbing what the wearer could and could not do. Why do so many Regencies have their heroines dressing in men’s clothes at moments of crisis after all?
Here’s a photo I took in Sicily of some Roman girls. Just to remind us that we need to
use context for understanding. It would be a mistake, I believe, to think all women wore bikinis in the early centuries.
Last week, the Scotsman newspaper ran an article by Stuart Kelly about the Scottish contemporaries of Jane Austen. He listed Susan Ferrier and Mary Brunton as examples and quoted form the writings of Sir Walter Scott who was a great admirer of Austen and also of Ferrier.
When I found Ferrier’s novel, Marriage, I started reading with no particular expectations, but it is a lovely book full of human foibles and humour. Bare-chested Scotsmen are absent and the castles are as dark and damp as one knows they must have been. She’s writing at the time I’m writing into and her work gives me insight. I haven’t read Mary Brunton, an Orkadian, but I look forward to sourcing it.
Jane Austen is a wonderful mine of information, but as a consumate writer, her information isn’t always on the surface. That brings me to a book I’ve recently read by John Mullan called What Matters in Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved.
Professor Mullan has spent many years teaching JA and his book might be said to cover the blindingly obvious. Certainly the information is in the novels and we could all read it for ourselves. However, I know I sometimes need the blindingly obvious pointed out as I’ve absorbed it with the words. Therefore I’ve never wondered how ‘I knew that’.
What Matters in Austen is full of teased out information needed by the romantic novelist hoping to work in the Austen period. The chapter on the right and the wrong way to propose is particularly illuminating, but the book is full of goodies.
A few of the ways I use to Create That World.