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hiddenhibernian

Setting a story in the past - any tips?

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hiddenhibernian

I swore I never would do this again...

I'm currently writing an A/U set in the mid-18th century. Due to spending a lot of time reading Austen and Regency romances I have a working knowledge of the early 19th century, but setting the story a hundred years earlier complicates things massively. I feel I need to keep the vocabulary appropriate for the period, but it's very difficult.

Don't get me wrong, I can do stilted five-syllable words with the best of them, but how do you handle swearing for example? Keep it close to what someone actually would have said if they dropped a candlestick on their foot in 1742, or stick something the audience can read easily but that sounds too modern...

What is your reading preference? Is it best to keep it readable with inevitable anachronisms, or will that kill any immersion?

During my previous attempt I was pulling my hair out most of the time, kind of hoping to avoid that this time. Possibly.

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Shadowkat678

Personally, I try and look up a few details on google (there should be something for swearing out there. It's a surprisingly popular topic for history nerds. Probably because it's funny.), but for the most part I encourage not worrying too much about historical accuracy unless something becomes relevant. For example, using too many words that we don't today can confuse people, and also make things muddled. It's better to keep it close enough to understand, while just dropping bits and pieces of historical hints here and there to ground someone in the period, instead of making it oversaturated. 

Also you run the risk of falling down the research rabbit hole and never, you know, actually writing. 

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Aphoride

i've written a fair few stories set in the past (comes from hanging round in the ole miscellaneous section :P ), and i think the biggest thing is not to get too bogged down in the little details of things. like, sure, if you're writing a scene set at a dinner, then research potential food options - but it doesn't need to be too much, because you're not gonna want to list all twenty-two food items available, yk? and the same with things like clothes and stuff: general is definitely easier :P plus, that way, the details you do pick out which are historically accurate are picked up by the reader better than if they were swamped with information ^_^ 

for me reading-wise, i think it depends how obvious the anachronism is? language is a tricky one because there are a fair few words which are older than you might think (especially swear words :P ), but things which sound modern can throw a reader out even if they are accurate? so sometimes it can be better to go with the feel of the thing, rather than the pure historical accuracy, if that makes sense? and things which aren't obvious - like, for example, whether potatoes would have been eaten by x type of person in y year, or what z would have earned in a year for their job - you can sort of skate past because people won't check or won't notice ;) 

tl;dr: i think gut feel is sometimes more helpful than dogged accuracy? especially with language, which can disrupt the reader even if it is accurate ^_^ 

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RonsGirlFriday
5 hours ago, Aphoride said:

for me reading-wise, i think it depends how obvious the anachronism is? language is a tricky one because there are a fair few words which are older than you might think (especially swear words :P ), but things which sound modern can throw a reader out even if they are accurate? so sometimes it can be better to go with the feel of the thing, rather than the pure historical accuracy, if that makes sense? and things which aren't obvious - like, for example, whether potatoes would have been eaten by x type of person in y year, or what z would have earned in a year for their job - you can sort of skate past because people won't check or won't notice ;) 

tl;dr: i think gut feel is sometimes more helpful than dogged accuracy? especially with language, which can disrupt the reader even if it is accurate ^_^

Such good points, Laura, and I also wanted to say it's sometimes really surprising what expressions have been around for way longer than we'd think!

I recently realized that "ain't" used to be a perfectly acceptable word, and also "don't" for the third-person singular (e.g. "he don't"). When I think about it, I'm fairly certain a few of these popped up in, for example, Austen novels, but not enough that I recalled it. I've recently been tearing through Georgette Heyer's books, and I understand she was really attentive to detail and accuracy, and those words come up in her dialogue all the time.

I definitely think there's a point where accuracy may start to have a negative effect on... accessibility of the fic, for readers? Like getting too bogged down in details and dialect.

But also, I imagine that writing any kind of period piece is going to open the door to readers opining that something isn't accurate even if it is. Either because it sounds too modern, even if it isn't, or because they think something is inaccurate when viewing it through a modern lens when in fact it is historically accurate (random example, the fact that there used to be a commissioned officer rank of ensign in the British Army, even though in modern day we think of ensign as a naval rank, at least in the US).

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tinyporcelainehorses
On 12/28/2018 at 5:24 PM, hiddenhibernian said:

I swore I never would do this again...

 

Isn't that how these things always start? 😂

I'm in a similar boat, with writing a founders era fic.  I've told myself before that I shouldn't set my heart on writing historical fiction because it's extra work - somehow I've just not learned!  That's far enough back that I have different challenges with language: I'm obviously not going to learn Old English and write the entire fic in that, particularly because no one would read it, so I'm having to go with something that feels broadly authentic even if almost all my word use is centuries out of date at best.

On 9/6/2020 at 10:10 PM, RonsGirlFriday said:

I definitely think there's a point where accuracy may start to have a negative effect on... accessibility of the fic, for readers? Like getting too bogged down in details and dialect.

I think this is pretty important, and something I struggle to remind myself of.  Chances are, you're going to be putting  much more thought into the accuracy of your fic than 99% of your readers: something can be technically correct and still incredibly alienating if it doesn't fit the traditional 'understanding' of the period, or would require really slowing the fic down to explain something.  Does this mean you should lie or include intentional inaccuracies?  Probably not, but sometimes it means making particular choices for something that's 'accurate enough' and that feels right - ie go with the accessible choice that's still accurate if you can.  I think readable with as few anachronisms as possible is probably your best bet, but you should also try to remember that your readers won't notice most anachronisms unless they're particularly glaring.  Also, even if they do notice, I for one can't see myself doing much more than shrugging and continuing with a fic I really enjoy.

Of course, you could go full Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and write it with period accurate spelling and all!  I'd certainly read it, but it took her 10 years to write that book so I'm not sure how your upload schedule would suffer!

 

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