Monday, January 28, 2008

Can you be accurate and entertaining?

I think you can. Stay true to the period, but provide a strong, entertaining story.
This post was inspired by someone complaining to a yahoo group that yet again, a young respectable woman in a novel turns to prostitution as a "last resort." In the real Regency, that is so unlikely as to be off the scale. Prostitution led to an early death by violence or disease, and the pay was appalling. Very few prostitutes made it off the streets and into the courtesan line, but even if our respectable young lady wanted to become a courtesan, she'd have little chance. it was a "closed shop." How on earth would she introduce herself to the people she needed to know, for a start?

Today, when the nuclear family is the norm, we tend to think that once the immediate family has gone, that is that.

It was a question of honour for a man of any standing at all to make sure his relatives were looked after. Even if he had to employ them himself, marry them off or, (shudder), lock them away in an asylum, they weren't left alone. The scandal, when it became known that his second cousin was walking the streets as a doxy would have been too much for him to bear. Even in relatively recent years, 2 relatives of the Queen Mother were found in an asylum, locked away, not because they were mad or mentally ill, but to keep them tucked away somewhere. Any
respectable female would be taken up and sent to do something, she just wouldn't be allowed to wander the streets.

We do have some weird and wonderful professions in the world of the Regency romance that really have nothing to do with the 'real' Georgian and Regency, and everything to do with the made-up one, the imposing of current assumptions and values on ages past. To take a few:

The Regency spy. Since James Bond, everyone assumes that a spy's life, at least fictionally, was glamorous and aspirational, but in past eras it was the complete opposite. A spy was considered not a gentleman, since he had to do very ungentlemanly things to be effective.

The pirate who happens to be a peer of the realm. A ducal pirate stood to lose, not only his own life and fortune, but everyone else's in his family, since piracy was legally treason.

The Honourable Suicide. A suicide stood to lose his property, leaving his relatives destitute (they were usually seen as "accidents" for that reason) since a suicide's property and estate was forfeit to the Crown

The peer who murders people and gets away with it - because he is a peer. A peer
accused of murder was front page news pretty much forever, and a peer convicted of it made his name virtually immortal (Lord Ferrers).

The daughter of a peer who works in a noble household to spy on the owner, or disguises herself. Firstly, someone is going to notice she is missing. Yes they are, society then was extremely close-knit. Secondly, a lady working as a servant is just not done. Servants had their families an heirarchies too, and they wouldn't easily accept a stranger. And she just isn't going to be able to do the level of work needed. It was destructive to health, if you weren't used to it. No faked ID's are going to get you very far if you want to work in a trusted position in a noble household.

Mind you, I do like to twist a cliche every so often, and make it work. I did it in "A Chance To Dream" where my heroine is - yes - the daughter of a courtesan and the hero is - wait for it - an impoverished earl whose father drank and gambled his fortune away. The hero rebuilt
his fortune slowly, and his initial capital was from when he demolished his big London mansion and went into partnership with a builder to create a small housing estate on the land. The heroine was the daughter of a famous courtesan, but her mother, fleeing from an abusive husband in Italy, always insisted that her daughter went masked in public. (Not spoilers, all that is in the first 3 chapters, that's the set-up).

In "Last Chance, My Love," the heroine needs desperately NOT to get pregnant, even though she's married. Another child could kill her, and I don't cheat. It's true. In an age when contraception was uncertain, this means her husband and herself, still in love, have a big problem.

In the upcoming "Met By Chance" the heroine runs away to do something (which would be a spoiler if I told you) and manages time on her own, but there are consequences. And her hero is a painted fop who isn't all he seems (the Scarlet Pimpernel had a lot of inflence on me, but I
promise, no spies!)

So it can be fun to make a cliche and make it work. But in all those books, I took real instances from the era to make the thing work. I found several peers who increased their fortunes by speculating in the building boom of the mid 18th century (that's where all the mansions
and palaces went!) and I found some extravagant behaviour by courtesans that makes my La Perla seem calm in comparison. In the third one, I made sure there were consequences, this was no hoyden running off on an adventure and she was worried sick most of the time.

If a would-be Regency writer spends even an hour at the Bow Street site online, reading a few cases, she'll have fodder for no end of books! I've culled a few from there, or at least got some ideas. So there's really no excuse for the hackneyed, inaccurate book any more.

None at all.


Anonymous said...

What a facinating post Lynne. Thank you. Very interesting what you say, but I think not all readers consider 100% accuracy necessary to a historical. Certainly I don't as long as it's not too off the track.

I've read quite a lot of Julia Quinn's books, (just using her as an example) and she uses a lot of poetic licence regarding historical accuracy, and I can forgive her any inaccuracies because I loved the stories...

I've read Chance to Dream and found it a brilliant read. Looking forward to the one out soon.

Anonymous said...

This was a great post! Very helpful!

Anonymous said...

Jane said...

I really enjoyed your post, Lynne. It's sometimes difficult for those of us who research carefully and set our stories in historically accurate backgrounds, to see books sold as Regencies that are actually just fantasy. But as anonymous said, she accepted that because she loved the stories. There's room for us all, and this wide range allows readers to choose the type of story - and author - they prefer.

Jane Jackson

lynneconnolly said...

There is certainly room for all kinds, but I do wish the fantasy ones wouldn't be labelled "historical." I'd prefer a new genre, "imagined historical" or "historical fantasy" because the whole accuracy issue has made me very wary of picking up new authors.