Building Historical Worlds

World building is a familiar concept to writers and many readers of science fiction and fantasy. Writers from C.J. Cherryh to Marion Zimmer Bradley have written about the importance of pulling your readers into the world of a book, and the works of Tolkien are a primer for building an alternate world.

Historical romance is not in the business of building completely new worlds (that would be for the Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal members of the Romance Writers of America), but historical romance writers still have to draw our readers in, so that they can feel themselves inside the story, wearing crinolines or a hoop skirt or a toga, traveling the high seas in a pirate ship or taking the air in Hyde Park on horseback.

World building, whether for sci fi, fantasy or historical writing, works best when the writer has done his or her homework. When building a world from scratch, that includes notebooks covering geography, history, languages, customs, religious or spiritual beliefs, the presence or absence of magic, and on and on. Lots of work!

Historical romance writers have it easier in that we can research times past to find out about the world our characters are going to inhabit. We also have giant binders full of information, of course. We just have to research existing knowledge, using the best research material we can find.

Even simple things were harder 150 years ago. Travel was a much bigger deal when Victoria ascended the throne. In an era when it’s possible to cross hundreds of miles in a single day by car, it’s nearly impossible to grasp the speed of carriage travel. Drive your car down your street at 14 miles an hour and try to imagine that as the absolute top speed you can achieve in a vehicle. The sensory description will be entirely different in the 19th century world. Hoofbeats, not the sound of tires, characterized traffic, for example.

To our modern sensibilities, the past is an alien place, not just physically, but in mental attitudes. Victorian England was a place of overt class consciousness, where people who moved from level of society to another (up or down) were viewed with suspicion, if not outright scorn. There was a strong impetus to keep to one’s place, and not only in the upper classes. This attitude loosened up as the 19th century wore on, but even servants preferred to work for a suitably aristocratic family to one with ‘new money’. America also had its unofficial aristocracy, with Ward McAllister’s decree that truly fashionable New York society was made up of only 400 people. (He was trying to keep out those dreadful Westerners, Midwesterners and Vanderbilts at the time.)

If a writer chooses not to have her characters reflect the social mores of an era, her characters need solid motivation to explain why they think differently.

What are your favorite details about historical romance? The clothing? The food? The customs? Let us know!

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Really Useful Super Powers

I haven’t seen ‘The Avengers‘ yet, although I hope to remedy that in the near future. While not at the level of comic book geekdom (her phrase) that my youngest is, I have thoroughly enjoyed the other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Still, I have to ask: why can’t the writers come up with superheroes that have really useful skills?

In ‘The Avengers’ we have a guy who swells up and turns green when he gets mad, a Norse guy with a magic hammer, an American guy with a boomerang shield, a really good archer, an assassin chick ,  and a rich genius who likes to tinker in his upscale garage. They are led by a guy on anti-aging serum who at least has good organizational skills. I say this with love in my heart…but…really? These are supposed to be cool powers?

The best of the lot seem to be leader Nick Fury (never sneer at the ability to prioritize), Black Widow (but then every female should know how to kill people) and Captain America, with his potential Dice-o-Matic shield. Tony Stark could have used his resources to figure out how to make Cap’s shield small enough for kitchen use, or invented a self-vacuuming house or something. But noooo, he puts his mini-reactor into a flying suit armed with lasers that create huge, billowing clouds of dust and messy rubble. Pah.

The villain of ‘The Avengers’ at least has potential. In ‘Thor‘ we see that Loki has the ability to instantly clone himself!! But we know he is a Bad Guy Who Will Lose, because all he uses his power for is to taunt his adoptive brother. Slacker. If I could create instant multiples of myself, my house would be spotless 24/7, my freezer would always be full of home-cooked meals, and with one of myselves at the computer night and day, I’d pump out a new book (or at least a rough draft) every three months.

So (drumroll please) here are some super hero suggestions that Marvel might find useful:

Laundry Man: Never mind creepy stalker X-ray vision. This guy would have the ability to sort, clean and fold a pile of dirty laundry with one look. Toy — Super Stain Remover Ray Gun that works on all stains, on all materials. Seriously, this guy would have more chicks following him around than Tony Stark and the three Hemsworth brothers combined.

The Navigator: A human GPS, male or female, who can maneuver around any traffic snarl, red light or backup. Toy — the EMS Vehicle, whose horn sends out a small electro-magnetic pulse that stalls all cars in the immediate vicinity and allows the hero to get passengers to their destinations on time. Am undecided whether the EMSV is a green compact car or something more along the lines of a Sherman tank, however.

The Rash: The result of a freak accident with radioactive pollen while an infant suffering from diaper rash, this superhero has the ability to swell up and turn red on command. In this state, his or her touch on bare skin causes an allergic reaction, including uncontrollable itching and sneezing. With this particular skill set, the Rash could be an irritable loner with great potential to go rogue, upping the dramatic stakes in his or her stories. Toy — Super Antihistamine Spray to protect allies.

Bull Detector Woman: This would be quite a useful super power indeed, if more on cerebral side. BDW would appear to use feminine intuition (actually scientifically enhanced powers of observation combined with serum-enhanced neuron transmitters) to detect falsehood. Invaluable in singles bars, all forms of negotiations, watching infomercials and major election years. Toy — with super powers like this, you wouldn’t need toys.

If you could have any super power you wanted, what would it be?

To the Bedroom!

I do love a comfy bed. There are so many delightful things to do in between the sheets, some of which are sleeping, reading, writing, thinking, doodling; and some of which are…um, not. Ahem. Beds were not always the comfortable refuges they are today, but for opulence and beauty as well as comfort, the 19th century might have us beat.

While the middle and lower classes, and servants in large houses, had to make do with hardwood floors, unadorned furniture and hand me down rugs, the master or mistress of a great house slept in beds of rare woods furnished with feather mattresses and fine linens.  The newly rich would purchase matching bedroom furniture like this rosewood suite from the 1860s.  The armoire, washstand and commode on the left side were necessities in the days before built in closets, clothes hangers and bathrooms!

In a large house, the latter two items might have been placed in an adjoining dressing room.  Still, a number of grand houses had commodes and washstands in the bedroom itself, due to the age of the house itself or to family custom.  Retrofitting pipes into house built in the 18th century or earlier often resulted in the toilet or bath being tucked into a former linen closet or under a staircase – not something people wanted to wander down the hall to in the middle of the night!

The dressing table had some kind of cloth protecting its surface from dust.  Girls and women often received matching sets of brushes, combs, hand mirror, and bottles or jars, all resting on their own tray.  The materials for these ranged from horn or carved wood to elaborate silver.  Ivory, plain or carved, was also popular in the days when people considered wildlife a commodity.

Victorians out of necessity used their bedrooms for a lot more than we do.  A hundred and fifty years ago, most people were born at home and died at home.  Medicine cabinets could be mounted on the wall for people suffering from chronic diseases.

The custom of separate bedrooms for wealthy couples continued throughout the 19th century in both Britain and America, giving the woman a refuge from household duties.  If she was lucky enough to live in a really large house, she also had a boudoir, or small sitting room, as part of her apartment.  Otherwise, wealthy women and their middle class sisters often had a writing table, chairs, and a chaise longue or sofa in their rooms.

One thing you would not find, even at the highest levels of society, is a bed table.  Instead, a lady set her candle on a chair placed beside the head of the bed.  Reading in bed was frowned upon, for what if one fell asleep before blowing out the candle?  A good draft could send the flame into those lovely curtains, endangering the sleeper’s life.   Gas jets came in before the end of the era, but their light was often dim and unsteady.  It wasn’t possible to curl up in bed and read after sundown until electricity became common in the 20th century.

Just to end up, here is a link to a fascinating article on box beds, which I made use of in Her Scottish Groom.

What kind of bedroom appeals to you?  Small and cozy or large and sumptuous?