Today we have debut author, and fellow Tall Poppy Writer, Aimie K. Runyan, here to talk to us about writing historical fiction for today’s reader, how to make the values and sensibilities of the past resonate with present-day readers. It’s an interesting and insightful post that has given me a lot to think about as I dip into the past for parts of my WIP.
Please share your thoughts in the comments, and welcome Aimie K. Runyan to WFW!
by Aimie K. Runyan
Imagine you’re an attractive woman walking down the street in New York City. A man whistles low and makes a suggestive comment.
My personal reaction would be to extend my middle finger and tell him what to do with his inappropriate comment. I’d be furious at the man’s untoward behavior because I live in a time where such actions aren’t considered acceptable. Your mileage may vary.
Backtrack to the year 1956. How would a woman from that period react? More than likely, she would pretend she’d never heard the comment in an attempt to avoid confrontation. She was raised to believe ‘boys will be boys’ and that a woman ought to stay away from conflict if there is any option to do so. Her reaction would primarily be fear, not the anger many modern women would feel.
It may seem self evident, but people even fifty or sixty years ago had a different worldview than people today. If you’re writing a piece set in the 1950s, and character berates the cat-caller for his comments, that ‘s a unique choice that you would have to justify somehow or risk being called anachronistic. Perhaps she was raised by progressive parents? Maybe she’s had a negative experience with this sort of man in the past? If you want to escalate the argument, you need to provide some backstory or rationale for the woman to act in a way that contradicts the expectations for a woman in that time.
Now let’s kick it up a notch. Imagine that you’re writing about a woman born 350 years ago. A person so far removed from the modern time isn’t just a quaint, archaic version of ourselves. Their perspective is so different, they would be almost alien to us in their way of thinking. A woman from this time would not (necessarily) balk at her husband ordering her about. She would likely be minimally educated and probably illiterate. She would live with the understanding that her infant child had a one in three chance of dying before adolescence. Not only is it a challenge for a writer to remove her 21st century lens to encapsulate on the page the emotional realities of living in this era, but even harder still to make this character relatable to a 21st century reader who might prefer to leave those comfy lenses on.
One way writers make the characters more relatable to the modern reader is choosing characters from the upper classes. We see many more books about Queen Elizabeth I than we do about the villagers from her reign trying to ward off the plague. The nobility and wealthy merchant class had access to education and privileges that give them much more in common with today’s reader. But not every book needs to be (or should be) about the elite classes. A common girl with a convent education or a young lad who is sent to travel can be an excellent tool for showing the working classes from a more point of view that 21st century readers can still appreciate.
Childbearing and rearing is a particularly interesting topic to tackle. If your character gives birth in the 17th century, you must decide if she will force herself to have a detachment from the child because she knows that the chances of the baby’s survival is slim, or perhaps have the mother lavish the child with all the love she has to give, precisely for the same reason. Location, social class, and the character’s past will all play into your decision as well. For example, in New France, the pressure for women to have large families was immense. I have a character in Promised who has fertility issues, and clearly has no access to have them treated. Every miscarriage and loss she suffers is felt keenly because she knows that the society in which she lives judges her worth by the size of her family. This enabled me to let her feel the loss in such a way that makes the reader sympathetic with her plight. The woman who has a stillbirth and goes back to the field the same day, apparently unmoved by her loss because she has eight other children plowing by her side is a character that is much harder to relate to.
As with most things, the key is balance. If I make my characters too relatable, too modern, there isn’t much of a point in writing a historical novel. My characters had a different relationship with the world than my readers and I do, and it’s necessary to respect those differences. By making some strategic choices, the writer can create a character that reflects their time and appeals to modern sensibilities. In the end, the human experience is universal one, and despite the marked differences people had from us, 350 or even fifty years ago, there is still a common thread upon which the author can build a relationship between the character and reader that transcends the mores of the eras they inhabit.
Author Website: www.aimiekrunyan.com